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Leadership Lessons
More to profession than numbers
Jan Chan
update on Saturday, April 24, 2010
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With more than 20 years’ experience in the accounting profession, Agnes Chan is Ernst & Young’s first woman regional managing partner for Hong Kong and Macau. During her career, she has worked with clients in a wide range of industries, including garment and product manufacturing, trading and high technology. This has involved her in everything from regional tax planning and cross-border financing issues to corporate restructuring and tax-efficient supply chain management. Qualified as a chartered accountant in Australia, Chan also holds a number of roles with government and industry bodies. Among these are positions as acting chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce taxation committee and as an appointed member of the Inland Revenue Department Users’ Committee. She talks to Jan Chan.

What does your present role involve?  

I need to oversee all four of the firm's service lines - audit, tax, transactions and advisory - for the Hong Kong and Macau markets. Internally, that means making sure our colleagues work well together and have the right focus. Externally, it involves making people aware of our risk management policies and that we need to do a lot of checking before we accept a new account.  

Up to now, what have you found to be the most difficult aspects of the job?  

Within the firm, the most challenging thing is people management. It is not always easy to identify individual strengths and maximise everyone's potential. I want to give colleagues the chance to build a successful career. But of course it takes time to find out what will work best in each case and how to improve weaknesses. It is not easy to strike a balance between day-to-day priorities and development tasks. In a fast-moving business such as ours, you have to find the right opportunities for people to stretch themselves and develop new strengths.  

What qualities make a good leader?  

It is important to have the passion to hold a leadership role, to be patient when dealing with people and to show a certain persistence when setting priorities and direction. Besides that, leaders should be ready to share their experience with colleagues and mentor the next generation. There will be difficult decisions to make and constraints to deal with, so you also need a positive mindset plus the ability to weigh up pros and cons and see both sides of the coin. Another aspect is having the courage to accept the consequences of your decisions and to accept that you won't always be right.  

How can a multinational firm encourage independent thinking and creativity?  

Firstly, we need to let everyone know their roles and responsibilities. This is a key step to empowering them and giving freedom and flexibility with less micromanagement. We cannot spoon-feed employees. Instead, our duty is to give guidelines, ask them to think things through and come up with their own solutions. We encourage everybody to share their viewpoints so that the firm can draw on a wide variety of perspectives.  

What do you hope to achieve in the next five years?  

I would like to build Ernst & Young into the most preferred firm for both employees and clients. We want to lead the IPO (initial public offering) market, since the number of new listings is going to increase as the economy recovers.  

What should young people focus on if they want to succeed in accounting?  

They need to understand that accounting is not just about numbers and sets of rules but about what is happening in the world around them. Of course, they must have a good understanding of the technicalities, but a big part of the job is working with clients and knowing how their businesses operate. It is important to have the right values in life. Young people should see that the meaning of success is not about money and job titles. A successful person is someone who shows integrity, fairness and the correct values in a challenging world.


Speak up

  • Agnes Chan says that women in senior management positions must have the confidence to speak up in a male-dominated environment
  • She hopes that colleagues find her approachable
  • Was consulted by the Financial Secretary on aspects of Hong Kong's budget for the 2010 fiscal year 

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