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Cindy Hook FCA: Driving Deloitte’s Asia-Pacific move

Deloitte’s CEO Asia Pacific is bringing together six practices, 2900 partners and 48,000 staff, with India to come.

It’s a good thing Cindy Hook FCA has a big vision, as there are big expectations of her. Having stepped into a newly created and hotly debated role as Deloitte’s inaugural CEO Asia Pacific in September 2018, almost a year later she faces the challenge of building a cohesive strategy spanning 19 vastly different countries.

Hook now oversees about 2900 partners and 48,000 staff, with a lot more to be added into the mix if, as expected, India joins the fold in 2020.

The big challenge of overseeing Deloitte’s Asia-Pacific operations is not finding opportunity, but choosing which of the myriad opportunities to pursue, Hook says. Consulting opportunities abound as businesses across the economically dynamic region undergo technological transformation.

But this CEO is not only concerned with big picture thinking. She is a passionate advocate for work-life balance and insists that, just like athletes, professionals perform at their best when they are physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally strong.

Hook herself is an avid hiker (she recently climbed Japan’s Mount Fuji) and a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen (she’s seen him perform 78 times). She says she loves her career, but “it’s not my whole life”.

“Businesses should care about their people,” she says. “It’s not just about making [charitable] donations. It’s asking: ‘Am I making the world a better place?’

“In the Asia-Pacific I’m managing almost 50,000 people and the decisions I’m making are making them feel better or worse,” she says. “People know when you care about them, and it brings a sense of commitment and loyalty. To me it makes so much business sense.”

Deloitte combines six practices in the Asia-Pacific

Hook grew up in California and earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration at Miami University. She joined Deloitte San Francisco in 1986 as a certified public accountant and auditor, becoming partner in 1998. She worked at that practice for 20 years.

She moved to Sydney in 2009 after being appointed the managing partner for Deloitte Australia’s Assurance & Advisory Practice. In 2015, she was chosen as CEO of Deloitte Australia, becoming the first woman to lead a Big Four professional services firm in Australia.

In September 2018, following a partner vote to bring the region together, she relocated to Singapore to take up the newly created role of CEO Deloitte Asia Pacific. The new structure combines the firm’s practices in Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South-East Asia and Taiwan – underpinning the lofty goal of providing a seamless customer experience across this highly diverse region.

“The driving force was we felt Deloitte needed to be a much more global organisation to break down the silos we have within geographies,” Hook says.

Clients were becoming more global, operating across numerous borders and jurisdictions, and expected Deloitte to bring the same consistent quality wherever they were operating around the world. 

The firm already has as precedents the groupings in Europe and the Americas, but there were some in the firm who felt combining six practices across Asia and Oceania was too big a task.

Not Hook. “A lot of people said you will never bring the Asia-Pacific together, it’s too diverse,” she says. “But every time I get told that the diversity of our region is a limitation, I turn around and say it should be an enabler. But I don’t mean to minimise it; there is a lot of work to do to ensure we are more inclusive, fair and respectful to everybody.”

How Cindy Hook is breaking down silos

Now nearly a year into the role, Hook says language barriers turned out to be less of an issue than she expected, despite her not speaking a second language. She makes use of language ‘cheat sheets’ when she visits offices in different countries.

Almost half of Deloitte’s workforce are university-educated millennials who usually speak English – the common language for workplace communication right across South-East Asia. There are some challenges with offices in Japan and China, Hook says, so her communications are translated into Japanese and Mandarin, and all written communication in these offices is bilingual.

Since moving to Singapore, Hook has found she is challenged to adapt the way she works to suit different cultural expectations. Her outgoing, straight-talking approach can come as a shock to the confrontation-avoiding approach that is sometimes found in Asian work cultures. However, people are getting used to her style, just as she is getting used to other people’s.

“Asia is so diverse, and you start to admire different things about different countries and different teams,” Hook says. “You go to Japan and they’ve got this proud heritage and deep relationships. Then you go to China and they’ve got this competent determination. And in South-East Asia you have young upstarts and there’s this momentum building.”

She describes the culture she is trying to create as “united, but unique”. Staff are united by common goals including integrity, quality and purpose. But they are also unique – and uniqueness is a strength.

The best way to bring down barriers is not so much about “putting everybody in a room and saying let’s all get along”, but rather getting people across this giant footprint working together on projects, drawing on common strengths to fill knowledge gaps and tackle challenges, she says.

What is Deloitte’s focus for growth?

Concurrent with Deloitte’s creation of its Asia-Pacific grouping, the firm announced an additional investment of US$321 million in the region over the next three years.

Choosing which opportunities to invest in over such a dynamic region is no easy task. Deloitte’s advisory practices beyond the traditional areas of audit, accounting and tax are growing, and the firm has a focus on driving business transformation in the areas of digital technology, artificial intelligence, robotics and big data.

“Our technology practice in Australia and New Zealand is very strong but we are under-scaled in that practice in the rest of Asia,” Hook says. “A very big focus for us is to scale up our capability in that regard.”

She also names as a priority helping global multinationals build business in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in China.Another area of focus is private wealth. One-third of the world’s billionaires live in Asia, with a new billionaire created every two days, and Hook sees enormous opportunity to target wealthy individuals and private multi-country businesses with Deloitte’s services.

“There’s $22 trillion of private wealth here in Asia,” Hook says. “It’s growing rapidly and these family-owned private enterprises are investing strongly in Asia and the rest of the world. They are acquisitive, they need multi-jurisdictional tax advice, family office support, help with succession planning, all things Deloitte is great at.”

Cindy Hook’s drive for gender diversity

As the first woman to lead a Big Four firm in Australia, Hook’s gender was often commented on. By the end of her tenure in Sydney, Hook was known as a passionate advocate for promoting diversity.

When pulling together an executive team for Asia, she ensured more women were shortlisted. She conducted interviews despite comments like “she’s not ready” or “she doesn’t have the right experience”, and ended up picking “three amazing women” who, she says, are doing a great job in their roles.

Hook is actively involved with the All-In initiative, an internal program at Deloitte aimed at accelerating the pace of change around gender equality. Less than 6% of the firm’s partners were women when Hook became a partner herself in 1998. While things have improved since then, there is still a long way to go to achieve gender balance.

“Today, 20% of our senior leaders globally are women and half of the graduates we are hiring are women. Something’s not right,” she says. “Gender equality is not just the right thing to do, it’s a business imperative for Deloitte. And like any other business imperative, you need to set goals, manage them and hold people accountable.”

Hook believes stigma towards men choosing to be caregivers also hampers the move towards gender parity, and believes strongly in equal parenthood leave for mums and dads. In 2017, Hook told The Australian Financial Review the fact she has: “two awesome children and a great career” is attributable, in some part, to having a truly supportive partner. It is a scenario she wants more women to enjoy.

The essentials for success

Hook says a growth mindset – a desire to continually upskill, retool and challenge yourself – is crucial for accountants seeking to advance their careers.

But she also admits it was a surprise when someone in Australia mentioned to her she could be CEO. She says in her career path she “didn’t focus on the titles”. Rather, she focused on the experiences she had in her various roles and made sure she was learning and being challenged.

“If you get to a point in your career where you feel like you are doing the same thing again and again and stagnating, that should be a sign that it’s time to explore other experiences,” Hook says.

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is also core. With leadership today requiring such a broad range of skills, building teams and surrounding yourself with the right people is more important than ever.

Hook believes in bold decision-making and calculated risk taking. Those who don’t take risks and always make the obvious choices aren’t going to get ahead.

And she calls on accountants and auditors to be open-minded to different points of view, to show loyalty to an organisation where possible and, above all, to be true to their values and purpose-driven. This is something she is on the watch for in job interviews.

“Understanding what you value, being true to that, being authentic would be right at the core of it,” she says. “And in that is following your passion. If you do that, it will be authentic.”

This article was originally published in the August 2019 issue of Acuity.