Having a mentor can make a huge difference. With applications now open for the Institute’s Mentorship Programme, Jenni Marsh speaks to Institute members about mentor-mentee relationships, and why life lessons don’t just come from the more-experienced half
Photography by Calvin Sit
Gilbert Leung (centre) joined the Institute’s Mentorship Programme in 2018 and mentored two mentees Rico Fung (left) and Sara Yam (right).
“Young people are smart. Even as a mentor, you can learn a lot from the younger generation,” says Gilbert Leung. For nearly a decade, Leung, Group Financial Controller at Gammon Construction, has been doubling as the company’s Authorized Supervisor, working closely with accountants in the firm as they work towards qualifying as a CPA. He says he tries to give his students the confidence to take the daunting accounting exams “as fast as possible,” so their knowledge stays relevant. It is a role he has found very rewarding. But last year, with all his students qualified, Leung had a severe case of empty nest syndrome. This led him to sign up for the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs’ respected Mentorship Programme.
The Institute’s Mentorship Programme is designed to connect aspiring accountants with experienced members of the profession, who share their knowledge through meetings, electronic messages, dinners and even hikes, depending on the mentor’s personal style. Institute members with seven years’ post-qualification experience can apply to be mentors, while members with post-qualification experience of less than seven years can apply to be mentees. The Institute also tries to match mentors with young people in similar professions. The idea is to create cross-profession relationships that are non-judgemental and provide a space for an honest conversation and feedback.
From mentee to mentor
“Most of the time, the programme will only assign a mentor one mentee per year,” Leung says. “But, to my surprise, they assigned me two.” Last year, Leung mentored Rico Fung, Executive Director, Chief Financial Officer and Company Secretary of Anchorstone Holdings Limited, and Sara Yam, Senior Accountant at HKJY. All three work in the construction industry.
“We had some formal dinners, but we also communicated through WhatsApp,” says Leung. He says that he frequently experiences “reverse mentoring” where he learns about new processes and systems through his interactions with his mentees.
Yam says the three of them often share information on how their companies have shortened time-consuming procedures of generating accounting reports. “These useful techniques have helped me to think and plan better,” she says. Leung, for example, has introduced robotic process automation in his workplace, after learning about it from his mentees. “His positive attitude to learning something new and applying it work was also encouraging,” Yam says.
Fung has seen the mentoring scheme from both sides, as he became a mentor himself this year. He sees that step as a natural progression. “I learned from the good mentors I had in the past, and then passed that culture on to my mentees when I became a mentor this year,” he says. As a mentee, he says he was often seeking advice, but as a mentor, he needs to consider the needs of his mentees. He also encourages mentees to be proactive in suggesting meetings with their mentors.
Lolita Edralin (left) joined the Mentorship Programme in 2015 and has mentored a total of five mentees. She is pictured here with Sharonne Law (right), who she has mentored since 2018.
For Lolita Edralin, Professor of Practice (Accounting) at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the element of self-sufficiency is crucial in a mentee. “With mentorship, you give guidance from your own experience based on their ambitions. But a lot of times, it depends on their own motivation,” Edralin says.
The Institute’s Mentorship Programme gives mentees the opportunity to draw on the experience of professionals with established careers like Edralin, who previously worked at one of the Big Four fims before going in-house at British American Tobacco. She then took the leap into academia in 2018. Edralin’s range of career experience helps her guide her mentees, but only up to a point. “There’s no single answer to how to progress in your career, and mentors are not there to make decisions for mentees,” she says. “Ultimately, it is their career. Mentees need to make their own decisions.”
Sharonne Law, Management Accountant of financial services company TP ICAP, is one of Edralin’s mentees. She says that being connected with a professional outside of her workplace has given her access to unbiased and informed advice. “You have a safe space for conversation, and that helps you to make better decisions.” Law says. For example, Law was previously based in Australia, and after coming to Hong Kong, Edralin was able to advise her on pay grades, the Hong Kong job market, and guide her through the application process. Law says having a mentor to help her understand the qualification and experience expectations and salary bands of a new job market in a foreign country was invaluable.
“Every time she applied for a job, she would send me the job profile, and I would advise her on whether or not she was qualified for the role, and if she should go for it. She would always update me after the interview and seek my advice if she received an offer. I think we met once a month, and it became quite a personal relationship,” says Edralin.
“There’s no single answer to how to progress in your career, and mentors are not there to make decisions for mentees.”
She cites another example of another mentee of hers, who was in his 30s and about to start a family. He felt his career was stalling in his role, but did not want to take the risk of changing jobs because he was about to start a family. After asking for a raise, he was only given a one percent salary increase because the company wasn’t doing too well. Edralin recalls advising the mentee to, instead, request for a title upgrade. “Titles do not cost the company anything but would help him tremendously in his future career.” Eventually, the mentee received a title change from finance officer to finance manager. Giving that mentee the confidence to get the promotion was a stand out moment for her.
The desire to have an impact on people’s lives is crucial to mentorships, says Edralin. “I’m mentoring because I really want to help people,” she says. “That’s the mindset you need to do it.” Edralin adds how some people might need career guidance if they decide not to work at one of the Big Four firms. “Or if they already work for the Big Four, they might not know whether to have a quick exit in three or five years or think about trying to make partner,” she says. “I give them a sounding board to think about different ideas.”
One of her biggest pieces of advice to mentees is to not overlook the importance of people skills. While passing the CPA exams is crucial, she wants her mentees to also understand the importance of maintaining a positive energy around others in the workplace. “The people element of the workplace can’t be underestimated,” she says.
Aves Chan, Chief Financial Officer of the CLINIC, says he spends up to two days a week mentoring young accountants through the Institute’s Mentorship Programme. “I want to nourish future accountants,” he says.
Chan has a wealth of experience that his mentees draw from. A former finance executive at PwC, Chan made his first pot of gold investing in the Hong Kong property market in the 1990s, before becoming an entrepreneur and seasoned angel investor. “I’m also an investor in different businesses. Because my background is not purely accounting, I feel I have a broader picture of the business world. This helps me to provide a larger range of advice,” he says.
For one mentee, Warren Liu, Assistant Internal Audit Manager of HKC (Holdings) Limited, Chan’s background was inspiring. He joined the Institute’s Mentorship Programme after qualifying as a CPA to explore how to take his career to the next level, and also to broaden his professional network.
“He started calling me, telling me that he wanted to set up his own business,” Chan remembers, adding how he then advised Liu on the reality of starting a company. “The idea was quite thorough, but I reminded him: ‘you’re going to need a team, recruit people, and you will need funding.” Chan’s insight helped Liu to carefully think through the idea, to which he eventually decided against. “But I think it was still an interesting journey for him,” says Chan.
Despite Liu not taking the plunge in entrepreneurship, Chan says his main message to mentees is to get out of their comfort zones. “When some mentees say they need advice from their mentor, most of the time, they’ve already got the answer. They just need somebody to push them a bit,” he says.
A mentor’s job is often to give them the mental confidence to make the decision. For another one of his mentees, who had just passed her CPA exams, entrepreneurship proved to be the right path. “I recommended the girl to set up her own company,” he says. “She now has a company in Hong Kong Science Park, which is doing very well, and she is a successful businesswoman.”
“He started calling me, telling me that he wanted to set up his own business.”
When it comes to structuring their relationships, all three mentors take a similar approach. After being randomly matched with their mentees, they meet in person and discuss three areas they would like to improve on. They avoid setting specific goals that need to be achieved within a limited timeframe.
Instead, they let the relationships develop organically through face-to-face meetings, and keep themselves available to their mentees over WhatsApp and email. They also advise their mentees to be proactive in contacting them in order to get the most from the Mentorship Programme. “I would advise [mentees applying for the scheme] to communicate with their mentor whenever they can to learn as much as possible. This is because most are very busy with their career and family,” says Chan. He also takes the extra step of introducing his mentees to one another to broaden their network and give them a wider pool of people from within the profession to speak with. “When they’re talking to other peers, especially at a similar grade, they will talk freely and can brainstorm ideas,” he says.
He speaks from experience. Chan himself has had several mentors throughout his career and says that he had learned something different from them all. But his biggest takeaway was that if you don’t get out of your comfort zone, you’ll never break through in life. “I had this in my mind for many years,” he says, “and understanding this really helped me a lot.”
Law says the Mentorship Programme is part of her self development. “Hearing stories from Lolita and speaking with her is inspiring and helps me to reflect and understand my strengths and shortcomings more,” she says. “It prepares me to play to my strengths and improve my weaknesses in any upcoming future challenges.” Liu agrees that the Mentorship Programme has enabled him to learn from a more experienced member of the profession. For those hoping to join the scheme, he advises applicants to be “humble,” organize more activities with their mentors beyond formal catch-ups and have a clear goal of what they want to achieve established at the beginning of the programme.
For Leung, the mentor-mentee relationship doesn’t end after the year-long scheme wraps up. Instead it’s about establishing long-lasting relationships and an intergenerational dialogue within the profession. “The industry is changing so fast. With new technologies being introduced, it pays for mentors to learn from their mentees what is being implemented across the board,” he says.
“The communication between the younger generation and older generation means we are sharing our experiences with each other and helping each other to understand different mindsets.”
Members interested in becoming mentors or mentees at the Institute’s Mentorship Programme can apply at www.hkicpa.org.hk/mentorship by 15 January.