LESSONS FROM CHILDREN’S BOOKS
In the age of the Internet where many interesting and motivational speeches are easily available on YouTube, it is refreshing to hear an original commencement speech that is unique and captivating, centring on life lessons gleaned from children’s stories. Some might wonder, “Why bother with children’s stories?” when there are so many ideas floating around. But to ISCA Council member Darren Tan, FCA (Singapore), Chief Financial Officer (CFO), OCBC Bank, who accepted the honour to address the graduands of the Bachelor of Accountancy degree, it was more a case of “Why not?” – a question that would become an integral part of his speech.
On 25 July 2018, Mr Tan spoke at the Convocation Ceremony of Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University. He began by saying how much he enjoys reading, and as he pored over the books he had bought for his children, he soon came to realise that there were important lessons and advice from these children’s books. His speech revolved around the essential traits of an accountant, drawn from stories such as the “holy cat” and the “golden eagle”, and The Wizard of Oz.
THE HOLY CAT: ASK “WHY?”
As accounting professionals, it is crucial to not take things at face value. Instead, always probe deeper by asking, “Why?” Mr Tan illustrated this with the story of the holy cat.
In an ashram in ancient India, each evening when the guru sat down to worship with his disciples, a cat would come and distract them by mewing loudly. Hence, the guru ordered his disciples to tie the cat up during their prayer sessions. After the guru died, the cat continued to be tied up during worship. And when the cat died, another cat was brought into the ashram to ensure that the guru’s instruction was faithfully followed. As the years went by, the habit hardened into a religious ritual without anyone asking why the cat was tied up in the first place.
Although people who heard the story would inevitably laugh at the silliness of it all or they would dismiss it as a foible of ancient times, Mr Tan said that numerous “holy cats” are tied up today as many people are still not asking the question, “Why?”
Sharing an anecdote from his own past, Mr Tan said that his team at OCBC Bank used to spend two weeks of every month to produce a market share report for the bank. They never received any questions after the report was emailed to the bank’s management team. There were two possible reasons for that – either the report was perfect – hence, there were no questions – or it was unread – and hence, no questions. To get to the root of the issue, he encouraged his team to analyse the relevance of the report, rather than continue with the routine of producing it. In other words, he wanted them to ask, “Why?”
The team soon realised that some data in the report were no longer relevant nor necessary. Furthermore, the report was too complicated and provided no meaningful insights. When they realised the shortcomings, they worked to simplify the report by eliminating unnecessary information and synthesising key insights from the data. “We moved away from the task of merely reporting the numbers to telling the stories behind the numbers,” he related. When the revamped report was circulated, they started getting questions. They also received positive feedback on the usefulness of the report. These arose from just asking, “Why?” “My team felt appreciated and became more motivated to release more ‘holy cats’,” he shared.
To the graduands, he had this piece of advice. “As you embark on your career, I encourage you to be passionately curious, take a step back every time, and ask, ‘Why?’ You will be amazed at what you can achieve with this very simple question.”
THE GOLDEN EAGLE: ASK “WHY NOT?”
Just as the story of the holy cat is a story of “Why?”, the story of the golden eagle shows the importance of asking, “Why not?”
The story goes like this: There was an eagle which was raised in a chicken farm. It mimicked the actions of the other chickens and grew up thinking it was a chicken. Years passed. One day, the eagle, now older, saw a magnificent bird soaring gracefully high up in the sky. Spellbound, it asked, “What’s that?”
“That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” said its neighbour, a chicken. “We will never be like the eagle,” lamented the chicken. And so the eagle lived and died, thinking it was a chicken.
Sharing his own career trajectory, Mr Tan admitted that he is quite the “accidental CFO” – a role he “never dreamt” he would assume when he started his career as a Portfolio Manager at the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation. Mr Tan had joined OCBC Bank in 2007 to manage the bank’s balance sheet. The global financial crisis hit two years later in 2009, and “it was a difficult period as I was caught at the centre of the liquidity and credit crisis”. By his own reckoning, it was probably because he had managed the bank’s balance sheet “reasonably well” that David Conner, then-CEO of OCBC Bank, offered him the position of CFO in 2011.
Mr Tan recognised it as a “great opportunity” but also “daunting”, as he did not have any prior working experience in accounting. Wouldn’t that be the minimum prerequisite for the CFO of a major bank like OCBC Bank? He would also have to step out of his comfort zone as Portfolio Manager and into the “uncharted waters” of a CFO. But he asked himself, “Why not?” and said yes to Mr Conner “on the spot”. The CEO had shown confidence in him, and there was no reason for him to “deny” himself. “Why should I be a chicken when I can be an eagle? It was an offer I could not refuse,” he explained.
That was in 2011, when he was just 41 – a comparatively young age to be appointed a CFO. Since then, he has helped the bank acquire Wing Hang Bank in Hong Kong, and set up a new Corporate Treasury function that steers the bank’s balance sheet. Today, he leads a group of almost 500 finance professionals globally.
Mr Tan advised the accounting graduands to be open and adaptable, and to step out of their comfort zones or risk missing out on good opportunities. “When others, or even yourself, tell you that you cannot be an eagle, remember to ask yourself, ‘Why not?’.” Embrace challenges, and rise to the occasion, he urged.
THE WIZARD OF OZ: COURAGE, BRAIN AND HEART
The Wizard of Oz is a timeless tale about courage, brain and heart. Its main characters all have different goals. Dorothy wants to go home, the Lion wants courage, the Scarecrow wants a brain while the Tin Man wants a heart. According to Mr Tan, “We are all Dorothy one way or another… looking for our home, our destiny.” To find out where we belong, we need courage, to use our brain and have our heart in the right place.
Courage is having the conviction to stay on a course of action and follow it to an end, even when it means having to put up a fight, according to Mr Tan. Peer pressure will continue to rear its head at the workplace and “you will likely face tougher situations and be asked to make difficult decisions”. It would require courage to say “yes” or “no”, depending on the circumstances.
The recent collapse of Carillion, a major outsourcer of government work in the UK, brought back memories of the Enron scandal, and the subsequent collapse of Arthur Anderson. Several public reports are again calling for increased scrutiny of auditors, citing the lack of independence and the declining standards of audit.
As some of the graduands would become accountants or auditors, they might be caught in situations that will put them at the “crossroads”. Due to time constraints or blurring client relationships, the accounting professionals might be “pressured to compromise”, perhaps beginning with instances of less thorough compliance testing. But over time, these may escalate into something more severe and difficult to manage. When confronted by these challenges, it is important to “do the right thing, and stand firm”.
“Doing the right thing and not the easy thing requires courage. Can you be a Lion without courage?” he asked, rhetorically.
In light of the rapid changes in the industry, Mr Tan emphasised the need to be future-ready as he advised the graduands to “be smart” and “use your brain”. Whether an accounting professional thrives or falls by the wayside “solely depends on you”. Quoting Professor Neo Boon Siong and Professor Geraldine Chen from their book Dynamic Governance, he said, “Think ahead, think again and think across.”
“Think again whether you are doing the right thing, and doing things right. And think across to have a broader understanding, and be open to new experiences,” said the CFO. “Don’t settle. Don’t stagnate. Only then can you become better, and remain relevant. If you apply your brain to think ahead, again and across, you will not be a Scarecrow.”
To do things “really, really well”, a heart is necessary – to show passion and compassion, said Mr Tan.
In his words, “success is often attained by following your passion”. Although it takes time and commitment to develop one’s passion, it is important to “fully immerse … in every opportunity and be wholehearted in all that you do”, in order to discover what fits.
Many people fail to find their passion not because of a lack of desire, but because of a lack of commitment. There are many stories of people who changed the world, but what is often not said is the commitment that made them who they are today. “So make a promise today to commit to your passion and never give up,” he advised.
Compassion has a place in the business world, in Mr Tan’s opinion. “I have personally benefited from the guidance of many mentors in my career,” he said. He has been paying it forward, and feels “deep satisfaction” in helping his colleagues to grow and succeed.
Quoting Nelson Mandela who once said, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” Mr Tan then paid tribute to the tutors, lecturers and professors of Nanyang Business School, and encouraged the graduands to repay their dedication and guidance by being “committed”, and “as you pursue your passion, layer it with compassion”. Reminding them of their “privileged position to share and to contribute”, he encouraged them to embrace every opportunity to do so. “Ultimately, what differentiates us as homo sapiens from a robot or Tin Man is our heart.”
In closing, Mr Tan pointed out that “each of us has our own timeline” to do things. Jack Ma started Alibaba when he was 35 and renowned fashion designer, Vera Wang, did not design her first dress until she was 40. “Be patient, and run your own race.”
He then urged the graduands “to create meaningful and fulfilling lives for yourselves and use that to make an impact on others. Have courage to take a chance, broaden your thinking. Be passionate about whatever you do. Be compassionate and help those around you grow.”
“Don’t just aspire to make a living; aspire to make a difference.”
“… create meaningful and fulfilling lives for yourselves and use that to make an impact on others. Have courage to take a chance, broaden your thinking. Be passionate about whatever you do. Be compassionate and help those around you grow.”
Based on a speech delivered by ISCA Council member Darren Tan, FCA (Singapore), CFO, OCBC Bank, at the Convocation Ceremony for Bachelor of Accountancy, Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University.