The Institute’s Mentorship Programme is approaching its fourth year and will be open for applications next month. Julian Hwang talks to Institute members who took part in the 2016-17 programme to find out what it takes to have a good mentor-mentee relationship, and its potential to advance more than one career
Photography by Anthony Tung
Being mentored is more than just about getting career development advice by someone older than you. This was clear to Jason Chu and William Lu only after their experience as mentees in the Hong Kong Institute of CPA’s 2016-17 Mentorship Programme. “I’d say the programme went way beyond my expectations,” says Chu, Director at ValQuest Advisory Group. “I initially thought it would just be a programme to get advice on my career and managing people, but I ended up receiving much more, including life advice on subjects like my upcoming marriage and the steps afterwards.”
Lu, Manager of the Investment Department at Tai United Holdings Limited, agrees. “On top of having benefitted my personal development, I also received guidance when approaching a major career decision like changing industries from audit to commercial.”
Their mentor was Michael Chan, General Manager of Business Development at Zung Fu Company Limited (a member of the Jardine Matheson Group), who has been a mentor with the programme since its launch in 2014. “I was very lucky and grateful that I have encountered leaders who have helped and guided me through difficult times during my career, and much of what I have learnt are still highly relevant today,” recalls Chan. Equipped with ample insights and experiences, Chan sought to contribute back to the profession and signed up right away upon finding out that the Institute was commencing the Mentorship Programme.
Through the programme, mentees can receive important second opinions, which according to Chan, are based on
issues that he had encountered in the past. “We often go to our parents for advice, but when it comes to work-related specifics, they often can’t provide the help that we would like. That’s why having a mentor with experience on the subject can be both enlightening and a relief.”
Chu and Lu applied for the 2016 programme because they were at a crossroads in life. “I had just qualified as an accountant at a Big Four firm, and I wasn’t sure whether to stay where I am or to move on, so I was hoping to meet a mentor with a background in general management for advice,” says Lu.
Chu, on the other hand, had just left a Big Four firm to start his current company. “I had encountered a few issues at work, and wanted advice on how to handle them,” he explains. “I was also looking to learn more on both hard and soft skills and expand my [professional] network.”
While the Mentorship Programme in the past generally assigned just one mentee per mentor, Chan was excited to be delegated two, knowing well how much he, as a mentor, benefits from the relationship. “The programme is a very fruitful undertaking, and contrary to the common misconception of ‘just passing along some words of advice,’ the exchanges between mentor and mentee help both of us to develop and transform,” says Chan. “Mentors also receive the added benefit of staying in touch with the latest trends among younger accountants.”
When meeting for the first time it’s important to establish an atmosphere that is relaxed and to build a rapport that encourages sharing. Before every first meeting, Chan would study and memorize the backgrounds of each mentee to create a list of icebreaker topics. Lu recounts his first meeting with his new mentor. “When I first saw Michael, I thought he was a powerful business person, but [I realized] he was very friendly and fun after talking to him.”
“There’s a stereotype that mentors are usually highly successful and equipped with medals of accomplishments and experience, so it was probably was a bit of a surprise when they met me,” replies Chan jokingly.
As a mentor, Chan believes it is essential to establish three key elements. First is what he calls “where we are,” a critical step that helps him understand the circumstances, concerns and issues revolving around the mentees. Chan then establishes “where we want to be” together with the mentees by aligning their aspirations, including personal, life and career goals. Lastly, he works with the mentee to determine “how do we get there,” by sharing views and potential routes to reach the mentee’s ambitions. Throughout the process, Chan would also ask himself, “what would some of my leaders, who I aspired to be like, do?” to ensure that his advice are rational and plausible.
“Managing the mentee’s expectations at the beginning is also important, as some mentees may misunderstand the programme’s intentions and ask the mentor to make decisions on their behalf or in some circumstances, for potential job opportunities,” explains Chan.
It is the mentees’ responsibility to maintain contact regularly. “Take initiative to talk to your mentor,” recommends Chu. “Think of them as a peer and you’ll be more open to ask questions.” Lu points out that preparing a list of questions to ask the mentor before each meeting is a good idea. “One of the things I picked up from Michael is that whatever kind of meeting you are in, it’s a good idea to prepare for it as a sign of respect,” he adds.
When asked whether or not they plan to become mentors in the future, Chu and Lu expressed a potential interest in doing so after getting more experience. “Michael had set a really high standard,” explains Lu, “but I hope to be able to do the same for other young accountants later.”
Even though the 2016-17 session has ended, Chan still keeps in close contact with his mentees regularly. They meet once every two to three months. “We usually meet over dinner,” says Chu. “The atmosphere feels more relaxed because it’s after work.”
Chan also welcomes calls for either casual chats or urgent discussions. “A while ago, I wanted to ask Michael for advice about finding a job,” says Lu, “but he was on the way to the airport for a trip. Even then, he still took time to talk with me over the phone.”
Chan believes that if mentors see their mentees as a younger sibling or a close friend, finding time to talk, regardless of how busy they are, should never be a problem.
Leading by examples
For Pinky Tang, the Institute’s Mentorship Programme offered an abundance of learning opportunities for over two years. “The 2016 session was my second year joining the programme, and I find it inspiring to learn stories from accountants in different industries,” explains Tang, who is the Assistant Manager of Finance at Samsung Electronics Hong Kong Co. Limited.
Eugene Liu, the Managing Partner at RSM Hong Kong, and a mentor with the programme since its launch, was assigned to Tang and has been really proud of her progress. “It’s been a very positive year with her,” says Liu. “She has taken up a lot more initiative and will actively seek contact with me.”
Before the programme, Tang would be described as quiet. “Eugene taught me the importance of being open and contributing to discussions,” she says. As she got more comfortable around Liu, she started bringing up more problems, and began sharing more personal information. She noticed that she has also become more vocal and outgoing during meetings at work.
Liu’s usual approach is to get mentees to feel comfortable by first discussing common interests. “I saw that Pinky had a picture of a parrot for her WhatsApp display picture, so I talked to her about that and included my experiences of owning one when I was young,” recalls Liu. That development of trust between mentors and mentees would lead to mentees becoming more willing to share their thoughts on a wide range of topics, including their career goals, personal life and studies, without worry of embarrassment.
Liu, a CPA for more than 25 years, chose to become a mentor because he enjoys sharing his accounting experiences and insights with younger members. He also says that the relationship helps him learn more about the younger generation. “Sometimes at work, you may be put in a team that spans multiple generations,” describes Liu. “If you are able to empathize with your team members’ thoughts and then share the same values, your team will be able to work towards a goal much more effectively.”
Despite having more experience, Liu believes it is crucial for mentors to avoid giving hasty suggestions to mentees. “As a mentor, listen to what the mentee has to say and then be objective in your answers,” explains Liu. For example, Tang once described an overseas work opportunity that her previous company in container shipping and logistics services had presented her. “I was asked if I wanted to work at a post in Utah for a while, so I contacted Eugene for his opinion,” recalls Tang.
Liu’s first instinct was to say yes. “While working abroad is indeed a rare experience, we had to discuss whether it was really right for her,” explains Liu. After thorough discussion, the pair decided it was best to decline the offer because the job location wasn’t ideal, nor was the work very fulfilling.
Tang and Liu are in contact with each other once every two months to share updates. “We’ve talked over lunch, dinner, drinks, coffee and calls through WhatsApp, so we meet all over the place,” says Tang. Liu finds the meet-ups refreshing. “These gatherings aren’t time consuming at all, and sometimes it’s good to go off routine and do something special with a peer you care about,” says Liu.
Tang is considering joining the programme as a mentee again in the coming year. “I learned a lot about how to progress in my career, and it’s exciting to think about what more I can learn from the programme,” she says. “In the future, I hope to be like Eugene and be able to share my experiences with younger members as well.”
For aspiring mentors, Liu advises them to maintain a diligent and positive attitude. “In the past, I’ve had a mentee who wasn’t very active,” recalls Liu. If a mentee seems disconnected and is not very responsive, it is the mentor’s responsibility to ensure that the mentee is making progress, he notes. “It’s okay to initiate contact sometimes and check up on them – it shows that you care.”
The 2018-19 Mentorship Programme will be open for application in early November. Watch for details at www.hkicpa.org.hk/mentorship. ◆