Joe Kong CPA is no stranger to the need for soft skills in the contemporary world of finance and accounting. He had been working as an accountant for several years when his boss took him aside one day and said: “Joe, your technical skills are wonderful, but you need to put more effort into your soft skills.”
Unsure of how to proceed, he joined Toastmasters International, a club where participants practice public speaking, and after two to three years, found his communication skills had improved dramatically. It was an investment that paid off some years later in his recent roles as the head of financial planning and analysis at an insurance company. He then served as an executive director of finance and administration at a healthcare company.
(From left to right) Ada Chan CPA, facilitator of Module 11 Financial Reporting; Edith Chan FCPA (practising), facilitator of Module 14 Taxation; Joe Kong CPA, facilitator of Module 12 Business Finance; and Icy Lai CPA, facilitator of Module 13 Business Assurance.
Kong’s experience is not uncommon in today’s business environment, where communication skills are just as important as technical knowledge. CPAs like Kong increasingly serve in an advisory role in many companies, a position that requires analytical and critical thinking skills alongside a thorough understanding of financial regulations.
It’s this kind of practical experience that Kong brings to the table as a facilitator of Module 12 Business Finance of the Professional Level at the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs’ Qualification Programme (QP). The new programme trains a range of students – from traditional accounting graduates, to students with different education backgrounds, to career-transitioning professionals – to become internationally recognized CPAs through a three level programme. Beyond technical knowledge, Kong and other facilitators have been able to also share their practical experience with students.
Under the new QP, students now have more time to work on their three core enabling competencies (CEC) – presentation, critical analysis and problem-solving skills – in addition to acquiring technical knowledge.
Kong says such a change was important because it reflects the changing role of CPAs. “The shift in the QP is very critical due to the trend of emerging technologies such as big data and artificial intelligence (AI). It will help to develop competent accountants to cope with the changes. For example, forecasting is one of the key tasks of an analyst, but it’s been moving from predictive modelling to prescriptive modelling. Advanced technology like big data makes instant data and analysis available for management to do more in deep analysis to understand each customer preference and create customized products or services,” he says.
“This will help companies to maximize profit by satisfying unique customer needs. It will be an opportunity for future accountants to use the three CECs and become business partners with management for a lot of value-added analysis,” he adds.
For this reason, Kong also likes to draw his case studies from everyday life, including the latest financial news about companies like Alibaba, Tencent and Facebook. He says students are often more engaged because they know the companies, but the problems they encounter also reflect the kinds of issues they may see down the road in their careers.
Kong says it’s important to make sure classes are both insightful and engaging. “One of the things I’ve learned is the importance of teaching students in a lively manner, as it helps them enjoy each lesson,” says Kong. “My favourite activity is the ice-breaking session because this gives me an opportunity to create a relaxing and also joyful learning experience for the students.” He provides students with feedback on how they can improve on their next presentation. “I find there is always significant improvement after these sessions.”
“The shift in the QP is very critical due to the trend of emerging technologies such as big data and artificial intelligence.”
Icy Lai CPA, who facilitates Module 13 Business Assurance of the Professional Level, has seen how the module – and the area of business assurance itself – has evolved from when she began working at PwC until her current position as an internal audit director.
From only being able to audit a small sample of client data, changing technology means it is now possible to conduct “100 percent testing with just one click,” she says. However, even if AI is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, it is still up to CPAs to figure out what kinds of questions need to be asked to provide the level of assurance to meet their clients’ needs.
“Normally, when we talk about ‘business assurance,’ many people will assume it is just an audit, so that includes a lot of testing, vouching, taking large amounts information from the client and checking everything one by one,” she says. Instead, she reminds her students to always look at the details of a company to learn more about it and better understand their clients’ needs.
Remembering to “think deeper” is one of the key lessons Lai imparts on her students as a facilitator. She does so by asking open-ended questions during her workshops and guiding them as they learn a new way to approach complex problems that they may encounter in the workplace. Lai says that while this is a new style of teaching in the QP, which can be demanding for facilitators as well as her students, it has been beneficial. “We give them a chance to develop; they can try working on a case study put into a technical context, but without the fear of getting a wrong answer. What we are looking for is a change in mindset. No one is going to punish them for a wrong answer. You are not at work.”
A key change to the programme is its use of the “PRR” approach: practice, reflect, and refine. This model is used to help students learn how to improve their work through feedback. For example, after one group presentation (practice), they will receive comments from the rest of the students (reflect), and then incorporate them before they present a second time (refine).
“I remember there was a student who commented on someone’s presentation that lacked support from the relevant auditing standards in the ‘reflect’ session, and his team members actually reminded him that they didn’t include the same in their preparation as well. They were able to follow this new approach of reflect, remind and refine and make an impressive presentation!” she recalls.
“I remind myself that I’m a facilitator instead of a lecturer, so I do not ‘teach’ or ‘tell’ them answers directly. It’s more critical to have them apply their critical analysis and problem-solving skills, and other guidelines introduced in the workshop to a technical context so that they can practice and resolve issues themselves,” she adds.
Lai says that these skills will enable students to adapt to their work environment and new expectations as they evolve throughout their career. “Students need to understand that change is a constant,” she says. “We all feel uncomfortable when we encounter change, but because it is a constant, you have to learn to do things differently and not stay in your comfort zone.”
“What we are looking for is a change in mindset. No one is going to punish them for a wrong answer. You are not at work.”
Learning to communicate
Teaching has always been a passion for Edith Chan FCPA (practising), also a facilitator at the Institute’s QP. Since she was a student, Chan knew she wanted to accomplish two things – run an accounting firm of her own name and teach the next generation of Hong Kong accountants.
So for more than 20 years, Chan has spent her weekends teaching Module 14 Taxation of the Professional Level to QP students and a similar course at the HKU School of Professional and Continuing Education. For some friends and colleagues, it’s a tall order, but for Chan, it’s a way of life.
“People always ask me, ‘Don’t you feel tired? You have your own CPA firm. You also have lectures in the evening and now over the weekends, you conduct workshops for a few weeks, and you’re an exam marker and a training instructor,’” says Chan. “The answer is I enjoy it. I don’t treat it as a job, so I’m happy. I never feel tired.”
For Chan, one of the greatest lessons she tries to impart on her students is the need for strong communication skills, which she does so by encouraging them to practice in her workshop through interactive question and answer sessions and collaborative case studies. “A successful CPA should be able to provide constructive advice and communicate well with clients. You are required to ensure the information obtained is sufficient and relevant for the analysis. You also need to provide alternative solutions where applicable, and consider impacts with updated information. In addition, as a tax advisor, you need to communicate with the Inland Revenue Department and answer tax queries on behalf of your clients. These demonstrate strong CECs such as skills in communication, presentation, critical analysis and problem-solving,” she says.
“Many students are weak in applying CECs. They would draw quick conclusions without much analysis. Therefore, it is essential for students to enhance their skills to ensure that information is successfully communicate.”
Chan says the new QP can help students with some of their shortfalls. As one of the original QP facilitators, she has seen the programme develop since it first launched in 1999 and was very happy with the new changes that emphasize critical thinking and communication.
“I always try to emphasize interaction. I ask students to provide an answer and then tell me why – not just say yes or no. You need to be able to supply an explanation on whether you agree on something or not. My favourite activity is the interaction that takes place between students during the case studies, when I let students try out new concepts they have learned in activities. Afterwards, I will go over it using questioning techniques,” she says, which helps her to understand whether students have fully grasped course concepts and details. “This activity is very useful, because people in tax usually need to analyse the situation and provide options to the client.”
“I always try to emphasize interaction. I ask students to provide an answer and then tell me why.”
Finding the path forward
Like other QP facilitators, Ada Chan CPA, who leads Module 11 Financial Reporting of the Professional Level, often finds herself in a room full of recent graduates or junior accountants who are still finding their footing in their careers. Keeping students’ concerns in mind, Chan, who used to work at KPMG and is now a Senior Manager in financial reporting at a tech company, works hard to create an open environment where they learn about their module and ask as many questions as they need. They are also not limited to discussing the course material, but can also ask for practical and professional advice from their facilitator.
Such advice is particularly important in fields like financial reporting, Chan says, where there is not always a “right or wrong answer.” Instead, she says the answer is often based on how well a CPA argues his or her case, particularly in emerging areas such as cryptocurrency and online game virtual items where there may be some leeway.
Chan says these kinds of concerns are addressed in the new QP, including asking students to work through case studies that simulate realistic workplace scenarios. “It focuses less on the depth of technical knowledge and puts more value on communication skills, leadership skills and how to deliver the message in a precise yet easy to understand way,” she says. “This is essential in a real-life working environment where they need to deliver the key message to a working partner or senior management.
“I think accountants in Hong Kong tend to use numbers to explain themselves. But in reality, the management would like to know the rationale behind the numbers,” she says. “Under the new QP, we focus on helping students to structure their message to be communicated through different case simulations.”
“We simulate real-life cases. Students can learn from each other’s mistakes in a safe environment.”
In one case study, students are asked to draft an email to members of management about whether they want to renew a lease based on financial information provided in the exercise. Chan says that in the beginning, students would draft an email including relevant data but without explaining its full meaning, when in fact they should include some analysis of whether benefits outweigh the cost. By the end of the exercise, they learn how to lay out a pros and cons list in the email accompanied by relevant data to assist in the decision-making process.
Many may find the prospect of financial reporting intimidating, as the module is considered one of the most difficult ones in QP, but Chan says it’s simply a matter of perception and quickly dispels this notion. “If you look at financial reporting like a stack of rule-based requirements you have to memorize, then it’s very hard, but what I will do is try to discuss all the accounting standards, and why the regulatory body sets standards that way, why they are required and then explore the story behind them.”
“In the QP workshops, we simulate real-life cases. Students can learn from each other’s mistakes in a safe environment. So even if they miss something, that might lead them to correct themselves,” Chan explains, adding that they can learn from their mistakes in the workshop so they do not repeat them in the workplace. “I think students will experience a very good learning culture with this programme, especially in the workshops.”
The new Qualification Programme offers alternative pathways and greater flexibility for students with different educational backgrounds, including sub-degree holders and non-accounting majors, to become CPAs. More details on the programme can be found on the Institute’s website.