This article was first published in the July/August 2017 Singapore edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Nguyen Ngoc Bao Chau’s recent move to Singapore marks the start of the latest chapter in a career that is taking her across South-East Asia. And Schneider Electric’s country CFO for Singapore has hit the ground running, making it a priority to meet clients in the city-state.

‘My priority is to foster strong engagement with my customers, my peers and other management team members, in addition to understanding their challenges and perspectives,’ she says. ‘I put my feet on the street to visit customers and understand the market permutation. I spend my time in building up a strong team because the team is going to help achieve the business target – not me, not a single individual.’ 

‘Being a CFO is all about having qualities that you can apply in multiple areas. One needs to not only have a very sharp mind and be an analytical thinker, but also have the ability to communicate about insight,’ she says.

Originally from Vietnam, Chau believes strongly that a team cannot provide insight if it does not understand the business and the challenges that the company is facing. 

‘It’s all about being a business partner beyond the traditional finance controller,’ she says. ‘Being a business partner provides opportunities for you to bring ideas and insights to a business, and contribute to its success. If you have this mind-set, you can be successful anywhere.’

Chau took up her role in February. Prior to that she was cluster CFO for Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar; she joined the global specialist in energy management and automation as business performance and analysis manager, Vietnam, in 2013. Having worked in those fast-developing economies, Chau embraces work culture differences and challenges. She places communication and people engagement as key to having a strong finance unit anywhere.

The challenges for finance professionals today are many and multi-faceted. Chau believes that it is vital to meet these challenges head on and turn them into opportunities instead.

‘I think it’s about being bold to make decisions, daring to make a choice,’ she says. ‘Opportunities arise when there are challenges. If you see a challenge understanding the needs of customers, step out, visit them, and put yourself in their shoes. If you find yourself being timid, push yourself to talk. If you find yourself constrained by technology in the industry, learn!’

Absorbing feedback

As a CFO operating in South-East Asian countries with accelerated economic growth, Chau keeps her knowledge up to date, knowing that this is crucial to bringing the team an example of staying relevant.

‘In Schneider Electric, we have an online platform that has an immense library of content for people to learn,’ she explains. ‘We have to equip ourselves with knowledge and stay updated on, for example, new international accounting standards,’ Chau says.

One important lesson that has helped her move forward is learning to handle feedback. ‘That is one of my most important milestones,’ she explains. ‘When I was promoted from finance manager to CFO, I became a manager of my peers. It was not easy. I had to simultaneously overcome the mentality of peers, absorb their feedback and adjust myself. 

‘The experience reinforced my belief that being kind and honest could help you a lot in your life and work. If people see your sincerity and kindness, they will be open to you and give valuable, timely feedback.’

Chau notes that each country that she has worked in has its own unique culture. 

‘As a CFO, it’s about being a professional when at work to unify the team,’ she says. ‘You need to be very clear about the objectives and the goals of the company to direct the team. Sometimes you don’t need to front everything, but just be present and available when the team needs your support.’

Chau’s move to Singapore has also brought a change of focus. ‘In the emerging markets of Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, we needed to build up the processes and dynamics to keep things moving without hiccups. It was about staying on our toes and thinking out of the box,’ she says. ‘Now that I’m here, the challenge is to stay updated and find ways to leverage on the strength of our teams. In Schneider Electric we want to think big, be innovative, move fast, but always stay customer-centric and be winning as a team.’

After university, Chau worked briefly in sales – an experience that has fed into her financial career. ‘That’s why I can relate to the challenges of being a salesperson, and why I always try to find a solution together when we have a discussion,’ she says. ‘The sales job allowed me an awareness of my knowledge gaps and what I could leverage.’ 

Her decision to study for the ACCA Qualification in her mid-thirties came, she says, from a desire to gain solid business knowledge. ‘ACCA is very practical; it gives one a really comprehensive range of knowledge from accounting to investment banking,’ she says. ‘I personally find it very valuable because of its breadth and applicability to many fields.’ 

Beyond finance

Central to Schneider Electric’s philosophy is enabling employees to acquire the skills to move within the company. This environment of openness has appealed to Chau since her days as a business performance and analysis manager in Schneider Electric Vietnam. ‘I find it important to understand my staff and their ambitions, so the management team can help them map their vision of the future and provide advice on what to learn or what roles to take on,’ she says. ‘Sometimes it is necessary to go beyond finance to get more exposure, too. You will need to choose, and along the way you will learn that a key quality of a successful finance professional lies in being able to prioritise because we cannot do everything at once.’ 

This is supported by initiatives such as a five-day cross-functional retreat in North Vietnam, which Chau led. ‘We focused on bonding together,’ she recalls. ‘This kind of bond out of the office environment can last a very long time because the process creates a deeper connection when we discover different sides of each other. The gathering helped us back at work, balancing out the routine, heavy work days. We could also talk more about things beyond work, shaping our own team identity together.’

Such activities, she says, also foster collaboration. ‘Collaboration is important so we can share resources and knowledge. No one knows everything. If we can combine our pieces of the cake with each other, we can have the whole cake and enjoy it together.’

‘Scaling down from the macro to the micro environment, if you come across a challenge with a mind-set of engagement and collaboration, you can also intrinsically understand your own journey: what you need, what you are lacking, and how to fill in the gaps. Don’t limit yourself to a comfort zone,’ she says.

To support fellow colleagues in their personal learning journeys, Chau is keen to develop a cross-functional team that learns together and then cascades the learning across functions. ‘If one is in Singapore, one needs to have vast experience in different areas, she says. We are not all that different; we all have to learn about the rapid evolution of the finance industry. This may be a good way to build momentum in that.’ 

Chau is also a strong proponent of maintaining a healthy work-life balance. ‘I’m a real person at home, too; I cannot just exist there. I have to be present, and spend time with my loved ones,’ she says. ‘You cannot prioritise work without taking care of life. It is about being well. 

‘I get asked how I still have time to travel and indulge in my photography hobby. When I run out of energy, I need to step out and take photos; it is a kind of meditation for me. This process relaxes me, and I can go back to work or family, calmer and at peace. To me, it’s about making a choice.’ 

Chau adds that yoga is also helpful. ‘I’ve been practising it for 10 years,’ she says. ‘It has shaped me in the kind of balance I have today.’ 

Joen Goh, journalist