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Views from the outside

By Jemelyn Yadao

In a bid to diversify, many accounting firms are looking outside the profession for their leadership talent. Jemelyn Yadao talks to partners and managers who aren’t equipped with accountancy skills, but have unique know-how that adds value to the organization.

Up until last year, Jye Smith worked mostly with marketers, addressing issues around public relations at one of the world’s top communication agencies. Nowadays, he finds himself sitting across the table from business executives and decisionmakers, and saying things he never thought he would say.

“If you asked me the day before I came if I would be excited about mergers and acquisitions, it would’ve been a flat-out no. But now that’s become a really exciting field for me,” says Smith, Consulting Director of Brand and Marketing at PwC Hong Kong’s Experience Centre, which provides business and digital solutions ranging from strategy right through to execution for its clients. “There’s an understanding among global brands entering the China market that this part of the business world is starting to appreciate brand.”

At the experience centre, launched earlier this year, tools such as virtual reality headsets and three-dimensional printers are used for rapid prototyping to test out such solutions, while creative-led thinkers, like Smith, regularly collaborate with business analysts.

This trend of professional services firms, including the accounting firms, moving into the creative and digital communications space has been happening in parallel with firms diversifying their management, with some directors and partners having no formal training in accounting and audit. While the experience of a qualified CPA still are imperative, external expertise at the leadership level is proving to give firms the multidisciplinary skills and competitive advantage needed in today’s changing and technology-driven business landscape.

The storyteller

For Smith, the former senior vice president for digital and social media at Weber Shandwick Shandwick Asia-Pacific, working at a Big Four gives him the chance to do work outside the usual scope of most creative agencies. “Understanding the impact that brand strategies have on these companies is incredible, whether it’s a brand entering China, or a Chinese leaving China and going global. It is something that is very rare from an agency standpoint. But because of the way PwC operates, you get the chance to consult businesses on what branding will mean to them in a new marketplace,” says Smith, who had been at Weber Shandwick for six years, starting in Sydney before moving to Hong Kong. “How the Chinese customer perceives a client’s brand influences whether or not they purchase their products, and will ultimately define whether that merger and acquisition was successful,” he adds.

His background in PR and “storytelling” is critical to the firm, especially as companies in Asia Pacific, as he points out, are keen to engage with consumers through interesting content, both physical and digital. “Creating customer experiences as they transition between online to offline – this holy grail of omnichannel – is where brands are falling down at the moment I think.”

As well as serving as head of digital at Weber Shandwick, Smith worked for the company’s crisis communication and issues management division for Asia Pacific, helping clients prepare for and manage negative events on social media, as well as other communication channels, to protect their reputation. “I was understanding the speed in which crises and issues exist online, and the demands audiences have of how you communicate around issues and crises. That part of work allowed me to understand things much more strategically,” he says.

This, along with his experience in launching the agency’s content-creation and distribution unit, and expanding it to six markets across the region, were experiences and skills that were easily transferrable to PwC. “It was like a smaller ‘experience centre,’ but at Weber Shandwick,” he says. But this was not the main reason he joined the firm. Most of the blame goes to his curiosity. “One of the reasons why I wanted to do it at the Big Four was because they have a true foundation of customer insights and understanding audience and I think those things are really important. They have an understanding that this is about guiding future direction, far more than it is about spending time on campaigns,” he says. “That’s not to say campaigns are not important, but for someone like me, you’re constantly curious, you want to be challenged, and the idea that you can apply your skills to a completely new set of challenges is one of the most enticing things.”

The engineer

Steve Lo at EY is always on the lookout for diverse, bright new recruits, whether or not they have accounting backgrounds. “Because of the digital economy, our clients are facing new challenges, so there’s a significantly high demand for advisory services to not miss out on the opportunities out there,” says the Managing Partner of Technology, Media and Telecommunications at EY. “We need talents with problem solving, analytical skills, excellent interpersonal communication skills and, more importantly, curiosity about the industry and passion about the work we do.”

Lo himself graduated with bachelor and master degrees in electrical engineering, which helped him land a job at an international management consulting firm. “We are helping clients with performance improvement initiatives. In fact, this fits well with my background as people tend to say engineering is about creating solutions to real world problems, which is pretty much what the management consulting industry is all about,” he says.

While Lo rarely uses what he learned at university in his current role, he believes his educational background in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has been key in helping him constantly keep abreast of innovation and new technologies, and deal with business transformation for clients. “My education in STEM and my work experiences outside of accounting firms trained me very well in disciplines like critical and analytical thinking and complex problem solving. These are essential to helping organizations tackle increasingly complex problems that they are facing in the market right now, and helping entrepreneurs in all aspects, from starting a business to product development.”

Attracting more students from non-accounting majors to join the profession won’t be too difficult, notes Lo. “Digital is the buzzword now and a lot of the graduates are keen to get their foot in the door, and advisory is one good avenue for them to participate in this new business environment. Of course, I think most people in the engineering field may prefer being entrepreneurs. But when it comes to this industry of providing professional services, I think this is also one huge attraction to them.”

The tech expert

With advances in technology changing the way companies do business, many firms are now looking for leaders with the right skills to help their teams, as well as clients, navigate through the changes. Eva Kwok is one such leader.

With a degree in computer science, and more than 16 years of experience in information systems, Kwok calls herself a typical programming and IT person. Yet she had an unusual drive to leave the software industry and join the consultancy world. “There were three motives: One is the exposure to different organizations and industries. Secondly, the consulting skills that I wanted to build up. Thirdly, the clear career path that I was aiming for in terms of career progression and potential future partnership,” she says. That vision became reality for Kwok, who is now Partner of Risk Advisory and a Cyber Risk Leader at Deloitte China, focusing on cyber security and privacy assessment, consultancy and implementation services for enterprises in industries including financial services, hospitality and gaming.

Kwok worked at a software company after graduating from the University of Waterloo in Canada, developing web applications and interactive voice response technology, which allows customers to interact with a company’s host system via a telephone keypad or by speech recognition to enquire about services. “I did that type of development work for banks and government, in order for people to, for example, process online banking transactions or driving license applications by phone or web,” she explains. “Afterwards, I moved to one of the major banks in Toronto, doing IT and security projects. At that point I luckily partnered up with Deloitte, which was the service provider at the time.”

There have been several cases where Kwok has found her in-depth expertise in programming and cyber security risk management to be a valuable asset, including when an organization lacks the understanding of the importance of security solutions or is having trouble implementing such solutions. “Typically, the challenge may reside in stakeholder communication, alignment and requirements compilation, for instance, one stakeholder wants to implement a security solution but the other business stakeholders may not have the same level of understanding, priority or capability to express security requirements. The real value-added piece is helping enterprises align those stakeholders, gather the right requirements, provide advice, and help them shape up a successful deployment,” she says.

Her expertise also helps clients identify hidden dangers. “There’s a sense of achievement when I find a security breach. Sometimes when we go in and have a look at their application or network, for example, we can bypass their security login layer, and extract customers’ information. When we show this kind of finding to a company, they have tremendous appreciation because we are helping them mitigate the problem in advance, instead of dealing with a real hacker later.”

She also utilizes her skills to conduct technical training for boardroom members and security practitioners. For her, the benefit she brings to the firm as “a regular IT type” comes about because she approaches from another perspective other than accounting. “It is these experiences that help practices grow, and to see things through different lenses,” she says.

This article was originally published in the December 2016 edition of A Plus. You can also read the digital edition.