Interview: Hah Leong Kean
Hah Leong Kean
"Finance is a strong partnership role. There is a strong and constant need to work closely with all departments; sales, marketing, operations, IT, compliance and HR."
From consulting to finance
When Hah started his career at a Big 4 firm, he did not intend to become a CFO. Having been trained in technical areas and internal controls, Hah thought he would thrive in practice and enjoy consulting. However, through the years, many opportunities pulled him towards commerce. This journey began through first implementing technical standards, and then by delivering changes and partnering with CEOs and senior leaders to build their businesses. It took Hah more than ten years to train as a CPA and CA, and it took several more years to learn how to utilise those skills.
The Big 4 working experience, however, exposed Hah to a broad spectrum of companies. He often had to learn about companies of all different sizes, structures and stages of growth. It was also a great opportunity for Hah to meet people and get to know how they run their businesses. “I often joke that my clients pay me to understand their business and I, being less experienced, get to comment if they have done well or not.”
“After 15 years in external audit, a mentor advised Hah that it would be best to join internal audit before jumping into finance, which was exactly what he did. Hah transferred over to the internal audit department of a global investment bank insurance group. Later, he joined a top-tier insurance group moving through the full job cycle in finance. Hah began as a Financial Controller, and then moved to Financial Planning & Analysis.
An international perspective
As part of Finance Operations, he helped set up the company’s Financial Shared Services unit in Malaysia. In 2007, Hah took on the CFO position in the Philippines with the same insurance group. After ten years with the group, he seized an opportunity and took on a front office product role in wholesale banking. The job was with a multinational bank in Singapore, which gave him further exposure to different markets and business perspective. Recently, Hah returned to Hong Kong and is now the CFO of Cigna Worldwide Life Insurance & General Insurance, where he leads the Actuarial and Finance departments.
Hah’s experience in various countries, with various groups, and in various positions has helped shape his ability to empathise. In particular, he is able to understand different points of view. It is a skill that he has found invaluable in his current position as a CFO.
A winning formula
Over the years, Hah has found that three business fundamentals are useful in running a business as well as being a CFO. First of all, the right people win. Secondly, you must have a learning mindset. Finally, you must enjoy the journey.
Accountants are not trained to only understand and interpret complex rules. There are always people to work with, new things to learn, and challenges to manage. Soft skills, like communication, presentation and the ability to influence others are equally as important.
Management is, at the end of the day, about people. “Be situational and look after the interests of the people. I met a lot of people who are always optimistic about their business and environment, but there is a handful of leaders that I admired that are optimistic about people; a genuine trust (or uncanny ability?) that people will do good and perform well if given the right motivation. These are the leaders that would inspire their teams to deliver exceptional performances and delegate effectively.”
Have a learning mindset
As an individual and finance professional, one should be prepared for the future. Hah mentioned that it is essential to keep updated on industry regulations and accounting standards. He also advised picking up new skills from time to time to ensure adaptability and competitiveness. For example, he is currently learning about app development in his spare time.
“Businesses today are more and more built through partnerships with specialists,” Hah said. This means continued learning, especially through building connections. Those committed to pursuing a finance career should not underestimate the power of networking. Hah meets three new people a week and actively attends networking events, like industry conferences, workshops, training and industry bodies.
Enjoy the journey
“Do what you like” is not a cliché. Hah recommends joining companies that suits your temperament and passion. He enjoys the rapid pace and growth currently in Cigna, and he is also passionate with the company’s mission to make healthcare simple and keep people healthy together.
“Work-life fit” is important to sustain the rapid and enduring pace at work. Flexibility is becoming more and more necessary in work places. Cigna is currently implementing flexible working arrangements, for instance, working from home, flexible hours, full year wear to fit (including casual wear) and non-traditional performance appraisals etc.
He confessed that it is a challenge to balance work with personal time, but one should find their own ways to cope. He personally gets himself prepared very early in the morning and is open for business conversations and meetings by 9:30am. He also sets expectations for efficient communication, e.g. short meetings, necessary emails etc. Planning ahead is also his daily commitment.
Don’t forget, enjoying the journey also means sharing that journey with your colleagues. “These are the people you spend most of your working time with. You don’t have to be best friends forever, but get to know them and understand their temperaments.”
To the next generation
Hah has a strong belief in people and has high hopes for the next generation.
He suggests that young professionals find others with similar interests to share insights and experiences. Hah also recommends finding a mentor to help guide their careers, similar to how his mentor made a difference in his.