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Two degrees and an MBA make the complete chartered accountant

Not many people would say that their childhood dream was to work in a bank, but Aaron Cheung, a chartered accountant with an MBA, feels differently. In an interview that forms part of our upcoming Leaders of Tomorrow series, he shares his experiences and talks about his career as a leader.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 October, 2013, 6:13pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2014, 12:21pm

Not many people would say that their childhood dream was to work in a bank, but that is exactly what Aaron Cheung always wanted. Coming from Hong Kong, the decision to go into finance just seemed the natural thing for him to do.

After finishing his undergraduate studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, where his family had settled when he was about ten, Cheung first landed a job as an external auditor. Setting high goals for himself, his initial aim was to get the CFA qualification and become a CPA. “I had one degree in accounting and another in finance, so I upgraded to the professional designation for both,” he says. “I take ownership and responsibility seriously. I don’t commit to something that I know I can’t achieve.”

The art of managing people

Work as a compliance officer proved beneficial, allowing Cheung to gain a thorough understanding of how banks operate. Excelling at more detailed analytical tasks, he soon moved on to become a manager, overseeing a team of compliance analysts and doing investment compliance reports. Subsequently, Cheung continued to move around within his organisation, gaining experience in industry practice and the key elements of management. “At work, I’m more demanding and can be very decisive, but outside, I’m quite easy-going and more open to the wider group dynamic,” he says. When it comes to managing people, he’s thoughtful too. “Simple praise such as ‘good job’ can mean a lot to colleagues. It builds trust in relationships.”

It is also important to know how to react to those around and to be supportive. Cheung first started managing subordinates six years after graduation and is increasingly comfortable with the role. “I am not fond of an extremely hierarchical work culture, so I treat everyone equally, being more directive when appropriate,” he says.

Cheung aims to adjust his management style as necessary, when dealing with different situations and challenges. “Individuals are unique, so there’s no single management style, but I do enjoy the process,” he says. With less experienced staff, his approach is to coach and guide, in order to build confidence. With junior managers, he is more inclined just to delegate because he trusts their competence.

Another of Cheung’s jobs is to ensure team members are working towards the same goal. “Non-performing staff are a liability to the team. It is never an easy decision to let go – or continue trying,” he says. “Managing virtual teams is even more difficult. If communication isn’t face-to-face, that can create barriers.”

Cheung says: “Individuals are unique, so there’s no single management style, but I do enjoy the process."

Choosing an MBA

When selecting his MBA course, he was looking for a programme with plenty of classroom sessions and chose the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at the University of New South Wales. “I wanted to meet people and learn by discussion and sharing,” he says. “Students on the part-time programme in Hong Kong are from a mix of industry backgrounds. They’re more mature with more work experience, so can bring value-added insights.”

Cheung knew that the MBA would provide him with skills for managing people and his approach in the workplace has now changed in certain ways. For instance, he learned about handling non-performers and the problems they might have. He also came to understand individual “career anchors” and finding the appropriate way to motivate each person. Insights from the course also changed the way he supports his staff in terms of their personal ambitions and career direction.

“In the past, I set expectations for my staff and advised them what to do if they wanted to progress further. After completing my MBA, I realised that they should manage their own plans, but that I should listen and coach them. This way, they take ownership and responsibility for managing their own careers.” The principle is that, sometimes, less is more.

Making right decisions

As head of implementations for State Street Asia, Cheung finds that decision-making is a vital part of his job, and he advises people not to make judgment calls. “I aim to gather all the relevant stakeholders and discuss the possible options to get a group consensus – I can’t work solo,” he says. “Before making any decision, I usually conduct detailed cost/ benefit and risk analyses. I used to base ideas on past successes and not over-think things. If a solution had worked before, I felt it should be OK again. But you can sometimes look back and see when something wasn’t the best solution, so I look for new approaches and check all the facts because my instincts could be wrong.”

At other times, he asks someone to play devil’s advocate to challenge constructively and stimulate thinking.

Cheung knows that followers make a leader. “I have to understand the bigger picture, the strategic direction the company is taking, and lead my team towards it. Global goals are translated into local and divisional goals and I have to make those clear and relevant to my team.”

There is another level of consideration too. “I have to adapt to the constantly changing environment. If you can’t do that, people lose faith in you as a leader. If you make a mistake, admit it, but just don’t repeat it.”