Q&A: Alvin Liew reveals what it takes to be a global CFO


Alvin Liew is sharing his experience working abroad with other CFOs who are also looking to move.

Alvin Liew’s career as a global CFO brought him to South Africa from 2013 until 2018, when he served as the acting CFO for Monash South Africa and the finance director of Laureate South Africa. After living in Johannesburg for five years, Alvin’s career took him to the rest of the world, including Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

As part of a new series where we look at CFOs who are now enjoying careers abroad, we caught up with Alvin, who has turned his career into a teaching experience for other finance professionals who are also thinking of embarking on a finance career abroad.

Q1: First of all, do you miss South Africa?

We miss it quite a bit. Joburg was a big part of our lives for about five years, which was the longest time I’d spent abroad in a single country. It left a huge impression on myself and my wife.

Q2: Why did you choose a global career?

I always had an ambition to be a global finance professional. I wanted to experience different work environments and cultures across different countries. I wanted to make sure that the experiences and skills I gained throughout my career were rich in diversity.

Q3: What have been your top highlights of working abroad?

The top highlight of a global career is all the colleagues, managers and peers I’ve worked with who have now become lifelong friends.

I’m also fortunate that the experience I’ve gained abroad has helped me accelerate my career in finance, because a lot of prospective employers value the experience abroad versus someone who has only operated within a single country or environment.

Today, in a much more global workforce, that level of competency and the ability to operate across multiple jurisdictions has become increasingly valuable.

Finally, working abroad is enriching from a life perspective as well. It has opened up my worldview and my understanding of things beyond my own work and life. It has made me a much more empathetic and well-rounded individual, which has resulted in my ability to adapt, adjust and relearn social norms and cultures.

Q4: What have been the three worst downsides about working abroad?

The biggest downside of my career has been the amount of time I spent away from home. I missed a lot of birthdays, weddings and anniversaries, which is a huge sacrifice when it comes to your family and mental wellbeing.

The second downside is that you often face an identity crisis, because your perspective on life and work changes when you experience different cultures, people and countries that challenge your status quo of thinking.

The third downside is having to build networks from scratch each time when you move to a new country. For example, I built a strong network and relationships within the CFO South Africa community when I was in South Africa. After I left, I had to do it all over again in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand to establish the same level of connection.

Q5: What has been your favourite country to work in?

Without a doubt South Africa! I was in a stage of my career where I was still growing into the role, and it was a steep learning curve.

I was very fortunate to be in a role that encouraged me to build my competency. However, my honest assessment was that I was three steps behind what the role required from a CFO but the people around me – my colleagues, managers, board members and the wider CFO community – were instrumental in helping me fulfil that role. It was a great learning experience that I valued a lot.

I also built great friendships while I was there. I received a lot of support and guidance from the CFO South Africa community – from the networking events and summits I attended.

At that early stage of my career, being able to learn and observe other more experienced and knowledgeable CFOs was a great learning opportunity for me.

Q6: Tell us why you decided to turn your career abroad into a teaching experience?

Over the years I’ve been informally sharing my experiences with other finance professionals.
Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of interest in a finance career abroad, especially in today’s globalised world. And finance is the perfect type of career where there is a high level of transferability across different markets.

However, a lot of the time people want to go deeper into these experiences and want advice on how they can do the same. So I decided to formalise it even more. First, through the work I’ve done with accounting bodies like CIMA and my university network and alumni, and now through workshops online.

Q7: How did you formalise sharing your experiences?

I recently started on a platform called Maven, a US-based education platform similar to Udemy/Coursera. The only difference is that classes aren’t pre-recorded or via self-study, but take place live online in a cohort learning workshop. You’re not buying a study guide, you’re joining a live learning session with people who have the same interest and instructors who are real-life practitioners.

It starts with a pre-workshop, where I go through an overview of the key tenets of what I teach during the actual workshop. This is to get people to understand where they are in their journey to a career abroad; whether they are just thinking about it, or already abroad and needing advice on how to navigate it.

During the actual workshop (weekends), we walk through the journey of embarking on a global career – from the search, to the preparation, and how to maximise your experience abroad when you are there.

Q8: What advice do you have for another CFO considering a career abroad?

Make sure you are moving for the role, not for the destination. Before you even embark on a career abroad, seriously consider why you want to do it.

Some people want to move abroad because they want to escape their current roles or personal circumstances and look for greener pastures and better economic opportunities. While that’s fine, you would also have to understand that working abroad doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be better off (professionally or economically) compared to back home.

Never settle for a job because you are looking for the right destination. Then it’s no longer a career, but just a job.

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