Since launching in April 2016, 45 students have graduated from the Institute’s Financial Controllership Programme. The course’s communal approach and focused class modules have been lauded by many Institute members, who feel they have gained valuable hands-on experience and knowledge on what it takes to be a financial controller today. Jeremy Chan speaks to recent graduates on how they have changed for the better.
It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning and the streets are quiet. For many, it’s a chance to sleep in after a long week – but not for a few coffee-wielding CPAs. They are on their way to attend a one-of-a-kind class, determined to boost their careers.
Launched in 2016, the Financial Controllership Programme is a unique 16-day course to train CPAs transitioning from practice to business, or those who are new to the role of financial controllers. The third session will take place this year from June to December, and covers five distinct modules: (i) management competency development, (ii) accounting for performance and decision making, (iii) strategic finance, (iv) risk management and corporate governance, and (v) business ethics. Interactive group classes, engaging question and answer sessions, and insightful guest speakers make up the majority of the programme, enabling attendees to learn through engaging workshops and active discussions with fellow members.
Ann Wong graduated from the programme last year. She is Executive Director and Head of Finance and Human Resources for Kum Shing Group, her family’s power construction business founded by her grandfather. She had been an auditor at EY and an internal auditor for Cathay Pacific, but felt the need to do more. “Besides the technical knowledge, I was wondering how to equip myself to become a capable financial controller, or a chief financial officer,” she says. “In the beginning, I knew I was going to take over the family business, so I wanted to be more all-rounded.”
She speaks highly of how the programme kicked off. A fourday module, the management competency development module covers leadership skills, negotiation, performance management and conflict management with the aim of improving a CPA’s ability to lead and influence. “As CPAs, we all know the technical skills, but when you get promoted, you need to know how to manage people and teams, giving you a broader view on everything – so the management part is key,” she says. “It helped me to understand and lead people better.”
Through group discussions and interactions, she found that there were CPAs who were facing or had faced similar problems, despite working in different industries. “They shared their experiences, the sorts of difficulties they encountered, and were able to give advice and provide a new angle to see things differently. It was like speaking a common language,” she says. Wong says professionals from different positions are equally able to gain benefits from the course’s modules. “Even people in executive roles can benefit from this programme, as you get to communicate with different leaders, and learn from their experiences too.”
She stresses the importance of active communication during seminars. “If you just quietly sit there and don’t contribute, it’s not going to help,” Wong says. Attending the classes demands a level of commitment, and can be a challenge for some. “You have to be committed to making it to class and even more so to group discussions, as they are for your own benefit.” Ever since the course ended, Wong has gained more insight into the role of being a young executive. “It changed how I manage my company.”
For Joyce Fok, CFO of Campfire, a co-working space in Hong Kong, the Financial Controllership Programme changed her on more personal level. “I wanted to find out how to add more value to my company,” she mentions. “Before, I was more focused on the technical and hard skills but after this course, my focus has shifted to soft skills, such as how to become a people-person and how to manage a team or company.”
As a graduate of the 2017 programme, she attests that the course addressed her weaknesses in managing time, and pushed her towards becoming a more confident speaker. “I had trouble prioritizing what I needed to do first, and how to manage people. But after the programme, I learnt methods to deal with different customers.”
She also agrees that opening up during discussions, though difficult, is one of the best ways to gain insight. “Sharing practical experience with fellow classmates is important, and may be challenging for some,” Fok explains. Another important aspect of the course is the knowledge imparted by the programme’s guest speakers. “We had guest speakers come in 80 percent of the time, which really differentiated this course from others.”
For example, both Wong and Fok particularly enjoyed a talk given by William Lo, Executive Director, Finance of the Airport Authority. “He shared how he became a CFO and how he managed to grow with the company,” she recounts. “I think these are the kinds of experiences junior financial controllers or CFOs are really looking for.” The opportunity to interact with an experienced professional like Lo and discuss scenarios to tackle problems was one of Fok’s highlights of the whole programme. “We asked a lot of questions, such as how he would deal with certain situations we are encountering right now.” Beyond addressing issues to do with financial control, Lo provided life advice,” she says. “He taught us how to relieve stress, so it wasn’t always just about work. He taught us how to manage our own well-being, too.”
She believes the course isn’t restricted to just CPAs, but could be taken by professionals across all fields. “The programme focuses on numbers as well as the development of you as a person. It’s something all of us should take in order to get to the next level,” Fok says. “I learnt more about my strengths after taking this course.”
Another CPA who commends the programme’s group discussions is Jacky Li, Finance Manager, Operations and Finance at Debenhams Hong Kong, part of the British multinational retailer. He enrolled himself in the 2016 programme having read about it on the Institute’s website, shortly after finishing his Master’s degree.
When asked about the most memorable part of the course, Li says it was the closeness felt among the classmates and the flexibility of meeting professionals from different areas during sessions. “You are putting 20-30 people in a room who are all looking to advance in their careers, so everyone in the class is active and ambitious,” he says. “Since there aren’t fixed seats, people are constantly switching tables because they want to meet different people and be with different teams. The connections you make are really valuable.” Li says the course covers almost all areas that a financial controller needs to deal with.
Li also speaks well of the guest speakers. “The guest speakers make the course unique, as they come from different areas of finance,” he says. “We have had guest speakers from banks, a prosecutor from the Department of Justice, IPO consultants, as well as advisors. You learn a lot from just listening to what they have to share.”
He notes that his experience and participation in the programme has proven to be rather advantageous in job interviews. “When I tell people that I am a graduate of the Financial Controllership Programme, they always ask me for more details, such as what I studied,” Li explains. “It has provided a lot of things to talk about during interviews, especially because it is organized by the Institute.”
With a background in financial reporting and management reporting, he knew the course would help expand horizons in his career. “The strategic finance course was very helpful, since I had no experience dealing with treasury and law.”
Li praises the course directors, who he says dedicate a large amount of effort into designing the syllabus, and openly welcome critique from students. “They constantly ask us for feedback to try to improve the programme, which I really appreciate. I would say it is the most practical course I have ever taken in my life. Just take it!” he laughs.
Li’s classmate Patrick Wan, was pleasantly surprised by how specific the course modules were, as there were no similar ones offered on the market. “Universities offer master degrees in accounting, but none of them really focus on financial control,” says Wan, Head of Management Accounting, Food and Beverage Grocery at Nestlé Hong Kong. He is also a business unit co-pilot at the company, managing comparatively larger business units with a focus on ice-cream and chilled, ready-to-drink products.
“One great module was risk management. There aren’t many courses on this topic, even though it is so important,” he says. “In finance today, there are a lot of risks, like credit risks and currency risks – risks that we need to learn how to manage in advance before they happen.”
His newfound knowledge in treasury has made him more confident at work, he adds. “Learning about treasury also helped a lot, as it is a special function in finance. If you’ve never done it before, you wouldn’t know what was going on – but after this programme, I learnt what a treasurer really does.” In terms of how the course changed him, Wan explains that it led him to seek answers in his own time. “Yes, the course answered most of my questions but at the same time, it opened new doors.”
Wan notes how he was also able to gain accreditation from the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA). Members who successfully complete the programme are exempt from an additional examination paper at CIMA.
He assures those that the course will enrich more than challenge. “It wasn’t as difficult as I expected because the workload wasn’t too heavy. There was a lot of experience-sharing and some classwork.”
He highly recommends the programme to those eager to take the next big step in their career. “You need to have the right mindset and be fully involved. You also need to be able to attend every lesson and make friends with peers and guests,” he says.
“If you are experiencing challenges at work, this programme is like a key to a library of new topics to explore.”
For more information on the Financial Controllership Programme, visit: www.hkicpa.org.hk/fcp.
This article was originally published in the May 2018. You can also read the digital edition.