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Smart training grooms leaders

Published on Friday, 26 Nov 2010
Philip Tsai
Audit partner, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu
Photo: Edward Wong

As a partner with Deloitte, Philip Tsai is responsible for planning and managing audits for the Hong Kong-based operations of many multinationals, as well as for listed companies in a wide range of industries.

With almost 30 years’ accountancy experience, he has seen significant changes in the sector, affecting everything from regulations and technology to the general business environment and client expectations. 

For five years to 2005, Tsai served concurrently as the firm’s human resources partner overseeing recruitment, retention and staff development, and establishing a fast–track career programme for accountancy graduates. He is actively involved with professional bodies and contributes to various government, community and social service initiatives. He talks to Jan Chan.

Could you briefly outline your career history?
Following my parents’ advice, I joined Deloitte on graduating from university in 1981. They told me job security was important no matter the state of the economy, which has turned out to be true. When I was starting out, most of our work was in auditing and taxation. Today, we call ourselves a multi-disciplinary professional services firm, which also handles finance advisory, enterprise risk, and consulting activities.

What are the keys to being an effective leader and building a strong team?
To be an effective leader, firstly you have to know your people and must understand the strengths and weaknesses of each member of the team. I always say you are only as good as the weakest link. Secondly, you must be willing to work in the trenches with your team and be sufficiently hands on not just to review projects they complete. Thirdly, you need to understand that respect and trust must be earned. They don’t come automatically along with your job title.

Which mistakes in your career have ultimately taught you the most?  
There have been quite a few, but they all taught me valuable lessons, especially that we shouldn’t take things for granted. I agree with the saying that you are only as good as your last deal. It reminds me that whatever you may have done well is already history and is no guarantee of future success.  

How do you translate management theory into practice?
I have read books by the likes of Peter Drucker, Jim Collins and Jack Welch, and have attended numerous business seminars and management talks. In the end, it comes down to seeing what gets the best results in your work environment. I often find it pays to go back to basics because, sometimes, we just make things too complicated. Taking a step back and identifying a single core issue to resolve can be the best way to move forward. 

What is needed to train the next generation?  
Overall, we are in the people business; our staff’s time and professional skills are the firm’s major assets. As a partner, it is my responsibility to develop their potential by providing the right training and exposure. That’s why I initiated our smart training programme in 2004 to accelerate the career progress of high-potential employees. The objective is to groom future leaders and give selected individuals the chance to advance faster.  

Which books have most influenced your outlook on life?
I like Mitch Albom’s books and have read his Tuesdays with Morrie many times. It discusses different aspects of life such as money, family, culture, global issues, and life and death. Each time I read it, I gain some new insight. Sometimes, we can be too focused on work and forget about the other essentials in our lives.

What type of voluntary activities do you take part in?
I am a member of the advisory committees for various professional bodies and am chairman of the Hospital Governing Committee of the Hong Kong Red Cross Blood Transfusion Services. Part of the reason I’m involved in these activities is to enlarge my circle and meet people from all walks of life. Understanding their different perspectives is a good way of enriching my own knowledge and experience.

How do you unwind and deal with day-to-day pressures?  
This is not easy. We all know that long working hours are very common in Hong Kong and today’s technology means it is harder than ever to separate work from off-duty time. Personally, I don’t believe there can be a strict line between the two. We should just learn to integrate work, life and personal values. That said, I still try to make time to read, listen to music and exercise, whenever possible. When younger, I was a distance runner and a regular squash player. Nowadays, I’m more likely to go to gym during lunchtime.

What advice do you have for graduates interested in the field? 
They should be passionate about the profession and realise that hard work is a given. Whenever I talk to students, I remind them there are three essential attributes. The first is proficiency in English and Putonghua. If you have a brilliant idea but can’t explain it, no one can benefit. Next is to have a global outlook and to be mobile. Young people today should be ready to go where the work and the clients are and not expect to have a single designated workplace. Thirdly, you must keep adding value through continuous learning and development.

By the way  

  • Tsai is vice-president of the HKICPA and a member of the audit committee for the Western Kowloon Cultural District
  • Welcomes colleagues to talk and discuss with him, and likes to join them after work for informal occasions
  • Was proud in his younger days when he finished the 100km Oxfam Trailwalker in less than 24 hours


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