Esther An

This article was first published in the February 2015 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

When Sean Yang joined AXA Insurance Singapore in August 2014 as finance director, the insurer was just starting its annual strategic planning exercise. The exercise was the perfect opportunity for the 35-year-old to get a better understanding of his new company’s long-term goals and strategies, offering a strong base to help him play his role in business partnering. 

‘Moving from a traditional accountant role to a much greater business partnering role is one of the big challenges of our profession right now. But this is of the utmost importance because in today’s increasingly competitive environment, having an edge is paramount and you can’t achieve that if you are working in silos. It’s about making business decisions in a more holistic manner,’ Yang says. 

‘Traditionally, accountants have focused on financial reporting. In a progressive finance function, accountants will validate what the business needs, but in a true business partnering sense, accountants need to transform themselves by being drivers and key stakeholders in the business agenda,’ he adds. ‘They need to come to the table, not just trying to understand how the plan will impact financials, but they also need to be ready to discuss and suggest different ways to achieve better outcomes and ultimately the company’s goals. It should be more of an interactive process between finance and the other departments.’ 

While the profession has started to move in this direction, he argues, the move should be even faster. ‘It’s something that everyone should do, considering the competitive advantage it provides,’ he says. 

Yang’s desire to promote greater involvement in decision-making at every level reflects a general professional development trend already reported at the top levels. A recent global survey by Accenture showed that 73 per cent of respondents believe the CFO’s influence in supporting strategic decision-making has increased in the past two years with 61 per cent reporting that the CFO’s influence in business partnering has grown, and 60 per cent saying the CFO’s influence in providing insightful analytics has risen.  

Change of mindset

Yang argues that ‘every position’ in finance needs to play a greater business partnering role. Accountants need to be ‘more well versed’ in the longer-term financial implications of business decisions in order to be able to offer holistic solutions that meet the needs of the wider organisation. Moving away from simply reporting and processing will require a change of mindset, but ‘once accountants understand more about the business it becomes a very progressive cycle’, he says.  

Yang believes that young graduates are now being gently coaxed into embracing this new vision, with more elements of business partnering embedded in university course modules. ‘I think that there could be general courses setting the grounding and basics into what creates effective business partnering,’ he says. 

Yang started his professional career with KPMG Singapore which offered him a graduate role based on his ACCA Qualification. He was at the same time pursuing a Bachelor of Science in applied accounting. ‘It was a typical graduate role in audit, performing audits of insurance companies, and since then it’s been insurance all the way,’ Yang recalls. After two years at KPMG Singapore, he moved to KPMG London to gain overseas exposure. ‘My ACCA Qualification was a big plus for my international mobility because it was immediately recognised,’ he notes, modestly omitting that he had qualified in 2002 with a first world placing (highest mark worldwide) on his
ACCA 3.6 Advanced Corporate Reporting. 

After two years at KMPG in London, Yang moved to EY. ‘They came with a strong proposition to significantly grow their business in London and I wanted to be part of that ambitious plan,’ he explains. But for family reasons, Yang had to return to Singapore and decided to go back to KPMG, even though EY also offered to transfer him back. ‘I had had a very good mentor in my early years at KPMG and he asked me to join him in his new department,’ Yang says.  

Having the right mentor is essential to having a successful career, Yang says, because your personal development will be ‘significantly influenced
by whom you closely interact with.’

For Yang, a good mentor is ‘someone who will not be shy in giving constructive criticism. Someone who has the time and patience to advise you, share with you what needs to be done, but also explains the process and why it should be done.’ 

Today, Yang tries to play a similar mentorship role with his 25-member team. ‘How I enable them to succeed is one of the things I’m working on now because, to me, only when they succeed can I succeed. It doesn’t go the other way around,’ he notes. 

Yang believes his experiences with two of the Big Four accountancy firms have prepared him well for his current role, ‘The Big Four give you a lot of exposure to a lot of different clients. You get to see the same thing being done differently and it can give you a lot of ideas on best practices. In my case it really wasn’t a planned career path, but it has certainly helped me. That said, I don’t think there is a right career path; much of it depends on one’s personal drive.’ 

Audit’s focus on financial reporting and the controls leading up to such numbers led Yang’s interest in moving to the commercial side at Prudential Singapore, where he would be better able to drive business in a compliant and transparent manner. Yang recalls his five years at Prudential as ‘very enriching. 

‘Performing financial analytics and getting involved in many business decisions, offering contributions both from a finance as well as strategic perspective, helped develop and strengthen my skillsets,’ he says. Such areas included retention and encouragement of sustainable distribution growth, and also working closely with various key stakeholders on insurance performance, he says. 

‘Be a driver’

‘You should always be a driver and never take the back seat. Whether you’re a leader or a team member, you have something to contribute,’ he adds. 

Beyond partnering business, Yang believes that another big challenge for the profession right now is making sense of real-time information and convincing boards that they need to invest sufficiently in infrastructure to back up this important plank of the finance function. 

‘You need to make sure you are getting the right information on time, before it is outdated for your business decisions, and that the information is granular enough to give you a certain deep dive into the details. But at the same time, there is such a thing as too much detail if not aggregated at the proper level,’ he notes. 

‘With the right level of information and with speed,you are then able to spend more time to drill down to understand the underlying business drivers and also provide better analytics,’ he says.  

Yang notes that AXA Insurance Singapore has been investing in its accounting infrastructure, recently upgrading its core accounting system. ‘And there are various areas we will continue to invest in to remain relevant and competitive,’ he adds.