Experience things outside your comfort zone, says Monash South Africa's Alvin Liew

Alvin Liew, Acting CFO of Monash South Africa, grew up and was educated in Malaysia, completing his articles in Australia. He came to South Africa on an assignment with Laureate Education, the largest private network of higher education providers in the world, which has a global network of more than 70 higher education institutions in 25 countries. Monash South Africa is the first partnership that Laureate Education has embarked on in Sub-Saharan Africa. “South Africa is a great country. It has its quirks and eccentricities, but I enjoy this,” he says. Alvin has worked for Monash South Africa for three years and says that when it comes to reaching economic transformation goals, nothing can have as big an impact as education: “I believe the greatest enabler of economic transformation is education – no other factors come close to the importance of education when it comes to radically transforming a country.”

Your career has seen you work in various countries (India, Malaysia, Vietnam, SA). What have you learnt from operating in these different business environments?
Different countries pose different challenges, and there's a stark contrast in terms of the cultural nuances of each country and how these translate into the working culture. It is challenging in each new environment. I received good advice after completing my articleship and officially my CA: that I should not be too comfortable in an environment that I know and that I should be constantly challenging myself in different environments. This is what made me decide that I wanted to pursue an international career; and not just an international career that took me to developed nations such as the UK or the US, I think the value of international experience is working in environments that are extremely alien to you; where you face huge cultural and language barriers. I imbibed this advice earlier in my career, which helped me tune into the different nuances of these environments - different cultures give you different working approaches and personalities in the workplace. In the world of finance, you don't hear much about building some form of community; understating where people are coming from because of the cultural differences. That's a skill I'm still working on. It helped a lot to help me adjust to working environments and to fit in where I'm managing different nationalities or cultures.

What have these different experiences taught you about yourself and your abilities?
"The biggest thing I would say I've learnt is that I need to be more assertive and confident, and more natural in terms of public speaking. Growing up in Malaysia, in an Asian environment, one of the distinct disadvantages is that you're never encouraged to speak out, being opinionated and being able to project your opinion clearly. Also, finance professionals are typically more introverted than extroverted. From my perspective: I'm a person of Asian descent working in the finance industry. It took a lot for me to realise that if I ever want to climb the corporate ladder and manage nationalities different to mine, I needed to be more assertive, confident and able to clearly voice my opinions. Communication is one of the key learnings I've gained from these experiences."

Tell us about your role at Monash South Africa.
"Monash South Africa is an intimate, personalised institution - we have a student body of about 4,000 and a staff contingent of about 300. The role of finance here is unique because of the reporting responsibility to South African Accounting Standards, Australian Accounting Standards (as the result of its ties to Monash Australia) and US GAAP Public Entity Reporting (as part of the Laureate Network). I'm proud that my team is able to do that, because it's something you don't see too often."

Tell us about your team - what are its strengths, where can it improve?
"My team comprises about 50 people as I oversee the Finance, Procurement and IT function. I do have a high concentration of CAs - five - which is uncommon for an organisation of this size, although the level of complexity in terms of what we do (multiple accounting jurisdiction reporting) requires this. But I believe this is one of our strengths. The team is extremely competent, capable and can report across different accounting standards. That ability to understand and have experience in doing financial reporting for a public, listed company in the US (because we are a subsidiary) gives the team a major advantage."
"In terms of improvement, something I've been strongly encouraging is for my team members to push themselves in terms of their own capabilities and ambition. For example, when I'm dealing with my front-liners, I encourage them to pursue continuous education and up-skill themselves while they are working. Being an educational institution, we encourage our staff to upskill themselves via education, so if they want to pursue a part-time or distance diploma or degree, I really encourage that."

"For my CAs, I challenge them to get hands-on and be on the ground to be able to appreciate what the front-liners or more junior staff are actually doing, because this brings with it an appreciation of how the entire finance machinery works. I also encourage my CAs to be involved in committee engagement activities on campus, such as to volunteer at open days and recruitment drives. I want them to understand what makes the business tick outside of the finance realm.

"I also encourage them, because we are part of a global network, to explore opportunities outside of South Africa in the way of secondment stints in our partner institutions, because the value of the experience you gain outweighs the discomfort of being outside your comfort zone or usual surrounds."

What is the most significant change or improvement you've made, or the achievement you're most proud of, while in your current position?
"I'd say the investment I've made in the people who I've employed over the past three years. Being an education institution, you don't have a product line. So, because you're delivering an experience, you rely on your people to make that an extremely well-executed academic experience for students. That's the lasting memory we want to imprint on everyone who walks out of our gates. To do that I need to invest in people - people in the finance organisation run the back end machinery when we deliver a student experience, although they aren't always in direct contact with students."

"Three years ago, we only had one CA, today we have five. We've made four to five internal promotions, promoting from within, as people have upskilled themselves. That's something I'm proud of because, in line with what we try to do in the education industry, we also providing people with the opportunity to upskill themselves and to broaden their horizons beyond the normal scope of work they're used to, and to develop a talent pool within the finance industry in SA."

What is your leadership style like - what are your strengths and weaknesses?
"I think my strengths stem from my international experience. Being a finance leader with the ability to be in tune with the different nuances of managing a diverse workforce, being emphatic to how people like to be managed and knowing what their motivation drivers are is a strength I derived from my global experience. I believe I am able to strike a balance to do that and simultaneously get the most from people and challenge them beyond their comfort zones for their own development."
"One of my shortcomings is that, as much as I've learnt how to communicate more succinctly, clearly with not just my subordinates but everyone else, I think that I need to communicate more; I need to be able to provide feedback and recognition to work that has been done in my team even more. In the South African working environment, people appreciate this more so than anywhere else; to be given feedback and to be recognised by senior leader in the organisation. I think this stems from my introvert nature: the focus and single-mindedness in terms of my work at times does not allow me to communicate and adequately acknowledge people."

Where to from here for you?
"I have African ambitions. I do hope that if ever I were to move into another role within or outside the organisation I work for, I would hope for an African assignment. I think there's so much potential in Africa, not just in the education space but across different industries, and this is something that's very appealing to me. I've seen first-hand how economic transformation can benefit a country. In my very first international assignment when I first started my career, I saw Vietnam the way a lot of people may have imagined it was - far behind in terms of infrastructure and education, but look today, it's almost unrecognisable. Some parts of Africa haven't lived up to their maximum potential. One of the key drivers for me when I took this assignment in South Africa was that I see the value in education and how education can help deliver this economic transformation in a country.