Shirley Xie has gone from audit partner to PwC China and Hong Kong’s first female Consulting Leader. She tells Kate Whitehead how her skills as a CPA allow her to help businesses navigate disruption
Photography by Calvin Sit
Shirley Xie relocated from Hong Kong to Shanghai to work in China’s newly emerging private equity business in 2005. Buoyed by first-comer advantages, many of those early clients soon became the most influential people in the sector.
“One of my clients was the first investor in JD.com and I watched that whole thing happen and I helped it played a part in their e-commerce growth story. You feel like you are part of China’s economic transformation, and you helped in making that happen. It’s a wonderful experience,” says Shirley Xie, PwC China and Hong Kong Consulting Leader, and a Hong Kong Institute of CPAs member.
The Mainland is a very complex environment, she says, and you have to be immersed in it to fully understand how it works and make valuable connections. Her experience there took place over a decade ago, but the Mainland is still rich in valuable lessons and opportunities for a career boost. “I think China will continue to invest in technological innovation to fuel economic growth for the next 30 years. I recommend that people spend a certain amount of their career in China,” says Xie. “To this day, the contacts and relationships I had developed during the earlier stages of China’s opening-up policy, remains key to my business and successes.”
Speed of change
PwC Consulting practice offers technology-enabled solutions to help clients find new ways of solving business problems around disruption. An integral part of it is the PwC Experience Centre, which this year launched Emerging Technology Lab. The lab introduces clients to the application of emerging technologies, and aims to encourage businesses to experiment with innovative ideas, develop prototypes and proof of concepts in order to bring products to market faster than their competitors. Artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality, blockchain, robotics and 3D printing, are among the essential emerging technologies, according to the firm.
Circling between her index and middle finger is a large, white plastic ring in the shape of a flower. “Five years ago, I wouldn’t have heard of 3D printing, and now it’s part of everyday life. It’s not just impacting business – it’s impacting personal lives,” she says, showing off her 3D-printed floral accessory.
Xie leads business transformation projects for clients in Mainland China and Hong Kong, providing consulting services to help companies build on their competitive strengths. While technology is setting the pace of change, Xie says it is important to be mindful that it is based on a solid economic foundation. “It’s not just about being technologically advanced, but asking yourself questions – how emerging technologies can be applied to upskill the workforce and foster creativity. I believe empowering people to learn, grow and adapt to change is more critical than hiring by skill set. For accountants, it is important to measure the return of investments to determine the business value of emerging technologies.”
In the Mainland, she sees money invested in buying market share but she would rather see more of that money being spent on the research and development (R&D) of new technology and software. China’s tech scene is dominated by business-to-consumer (B2C) platforms such as Tmall, JD and Suning, but compared with the United States, its business-to-business (B2B) market in the technology space is limited.
“[China] can’t just focus on B2C, which is great for earning profit margins and more short-term. We need to think more longer-term developments in the B2B arena and probably more R&D needs to go into that. That’s where our business comes in. We try and help shape some of these strategies and focus on a longer-term path to provide something more sustainable,” she says. “We can’t just rely on consumption, but more on strengthening the backbone of China’s business and economy infrastructure.”
“It’s not just about being technologically advanced, but asking yourself questions – how emerging technologies can be applied to upskill the workforce and foster creativity.”
Xie is aware that the accelerating rate of technological change sparks concerns that robots and AI might replace the traditional workforce. Her response is simple: embrace disruption because technology is not going away. “Intelligent automation will make life so much more efficient, and that will spur economic growth, new service offerings needed by the market, new skills and a new labour force,” she says. “Robotics and workflow automation may reduce the labour force but will also create new jobs.”
“As the world moves towards more tailor-made solutions, we need better analytics and better data. Humans have a lot to do with analytical skills that I don’t believe can easily be replaced by robots,” she adds.
Xie believes that some of the most important and successful people in the future will be “super-connectors,” people who are able to connect and communicate different elements, such as technology, business strategies, human resources and finance. “It’s about an ability to have a comprehension of what that technology does and how it ties into the business strategy. You need analytical and communication skills,” she says.
She points out that when she started out in her career, she didn’t realize how valuable these skills would be. Her strength in mathematics and natural feel for numbers had drawn her to study accounting. “But when I got into accounting, it was less about numbers but about analytical skills – it was more about deciphering issues and resolving problems. That is more than the stereotype,” she says.
Xie is PwC’s first female Consulting Leader in the Greater China region. She believes her role requires patience, attention to detail, strong analytical skills, as well as the ability to build good rapport with clients and understand their needs. “You can’t just look at a set of data, analyse, and expect a resolution. No one really volunteers their problems. It takes a lot of communication and digging before you find out what the problem really is,” she says. “Empathy, attentiveness and the ability to observe behaviour all help.”
She stresses the importance of having a diverse range of skills in her team. The firm, she notes, strives to hire a “portfolio of personalities” to match the portfolio of clients who all have different needs. “Hiring people with different backgrounds is a step towards diverse skills and solutions. In the business I run, there are people who have engineering, accounting, science and arts majors – it’s a pretty diversified pool,” says Xie.
Within her 25-year career with PwC, Xie has experienced a wide range of roles and industries. After graduating with a degree in Business and Commerce from the University of Toronto in 1993, she joined the firm and gained her CPA qualification. She accepted an offer to move with PwC to Hong Kong in 1996, thinking that it would be a two-year stint in Asia. That was 22 years ago, and she hasn’t looked back.
Starting off at the audit department, she made audit partner in at the age of 34. At that point, despite reaching partner level, she felt that her career was just getting started. She did a three-year stint in Shanghai in the private equity business, returned to Hong Kong in 2008 and focused on financial services until 2016, when she took on her current role.
“I enjoyed my auditing experience and remember so much from it,” says Xie. “When you are auditing, you are asking a lot of questions on a day-to-day basis. You have to ask questions skillfully to get the answer that you want. This really enhanced my communication skills, and this is absolutely critical – the ability to articulate – in my current job.”
Lessons for life
Xie credits her success in large part to her qualification. “Being an accountant and serving clients from retail to financial services, gave me a really wide set of skills that has put me where I am today.”
She advises young people starting out to go with their strengths of “core competencies,” skills they are fundamentally good at and passionate about. It’s the same advice that she gives to organizations – focusing on your strengths and building outwards from that.
She offers a fresh perspective on viewing one’s career. “Your career is an ecosystem – it’s your boss, your peers and the teammates you have. To have a successful career, you have to ensure the whole ecosystem works well,” says Xie. That means, she adds, not just managing upwards, but developing a team and having a broad relationship with your peers. “My personal ecosystem has shaped and sharpened my vision as a leader, and my ability to see challenges or situations from different people’s perspectives. A personal ecosystem of people who have diverse backgrounds and experiences, which brings diverse thinking and options to weigh in.”
Early in her career, she learned some hard lessons about dealing with people and conflict, and trust issues. “I have had some experiences whereby my trust in others was questioned. But, this has not encouraged me to be less authentic in the way I deal with people and approach problems,” she explains. “Through this experience, I have learned to compromise, give space and time to others and demonstrate the right behaviour in order to lead by example. When I make decisions, I do not compromise issues of integrity to accommodate others. One of the most effective ways I had found to build trust and earn respect from others is through sincere, authentic actions.”
“I have had some experiences whereby my trust in others was questioned. But, this has not encouraged me to be less authentic in the way I deal with people.”
She is grateful for the two mentors who guided her at the beginning of her career in audit. “The first was a CEO of a financial institution. The mentor encouraged me to make decisions that stood by my value system. The advice given still holds true to my role today – people depend on me to make independent decisions, decisions I am held accountable for. This means no shortcuts and no catering to others’ interests that would impede my values nor ability to judge a situation objectively,” she explains. “The second mentor is among PwC’s leadership. The person taught me the virtues of patience, to avoid jumping to conclusions and think of the long-term implications of my actions. During moments where I may normally have reacted, I have learned to remain calm and focused.”
One of the most valuable lessons she learned was the ability to process negativity. “I have learned to stay focused and ignore negative noises around me. I’m not always right – and that’s okay. People worry about making a mistake, but we should not be discouraged as we learn from our mistakes. We should not shame mistakes and risk losing focus on what’s right to get the right outcome,” she says.
At the firm, Xie has managed to find personal and professional fulfilment – the satisfaction of feeling that she is making an impact not just regionally, but globally. “I feel we are changing China’s companies. I target mid-to-large companies, the ones that are doing well and have great potential but not yet reached the top of the game. It is immensely gratifying to help them get closer to the top,” says Xie. “I feel we are changing the face of China through digital transformation of enterprises and the economy. Today, we live in a data-rich world where technology-driven decisions will profoundly change how we work, live and interact with each other.”
This year, PwC Experience Centre launched Emerging Technology Lab, which introduces clients to the application of emerging technologies that are expected to have the biggest impact on businesses over the next five years: artificial intelligence; augmented reality; blockchain; drones; Internet of Things; robotics; virtual reality; 3D printing; and robotic process automation