Last year Rory Herbert (GradCG) from the UK and Kate Yuen from Hong Kong were selected to participate in the London-Hong Kong Intern Exchange 2019. They talk to CSj, along with Edith Shih FCIS FCS(PE), International President, The Chartered Governance Institute, and Past President, The Hong Kong Institute of Chartered Secretaries (the Institute), about this new initiative to expand the internship opportunities available to trainee governance professionals.
Can we start by discussing how this internship programme came about?
Edith: ‘Samantha Suen FCIS FCS(PE), Chief Executive of the Institute here in Hong Kong, and I got to know Christina Parry, who was the 2018-2019 Master of The Worshipful Company of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (WCCSA) in London, a few years ago on a visit to London for a Council meeting of The Chartered Governance Institute. When Christina visited Hong Kong in 2018, we organised a breakfast meeting for her to meet Institute members. We sat down to discuss future collaboration and I mentioned the possibility of doing an international intern exchange. She was really very keen on this idea so we started to work on it. This inaugural London-Hong Kong exchange is only the beginning; I would like to expand this opportunity to all divisions of The Chartered Governance Institute. This idea has the support of The Chartered Governance Institute Council and we are already working on making this multi-jurisdictional.’
Rory: ‘I’d like to add to that since when you are studying you can forget how international the world of business is. One day, during my internship with CK Hutchison Holdings (CKH), the fact that it was a public holiday in a European jurisdiction was creating a huge headache for the company secretarial team. It was interesting to see the ripple effect from one small country in Europe going on holiday. That gave me a new perspective on how the business world operates and that’s not the sort of thing you would learn in a classroom.’
Kate and Rory, could you give readers a brief introduction to your own backgrounds and why you chose to join the profession?
Kate: ‘Actually I majored in Japanese many years ago and am now studying for a master’s degree in corporate governance with The Open University of Hong Kong. I will graduate in 2020 and since my course grants full exemption to the Institute’s qualifying examinations I hope to become a member of the Institute soon. I am currently working in a private equity company doing fund administration, so my work is very similar to that of a company secretary. Membership of the Institute will help me in my work and career.’
Rory: ‘As a student I had no idea what a Chartered Secretary was. I majored in history and after I graduated I was looking at my options – I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Then I learned that my university offers a master’s degree in corporate governance and law. I have just completed that degree and have come to appreciate the diversity of the profession – the varied workload just captured me. I knew then that this was something I wanted to pursue.’
Could you also tell us something about your experiences as an intern away from your home jurisdiction?
Edith: ‘I should explain here that Kate has so far undertaken the first part of the programme, an internship with my company here in Hong Kong. The idea was that she would go to London for the second part, but visa problems have meant that we are now working on getting her an internship in one of the divisions such as Singapore, Malaysia or Australia.’
Rory: ‘It was quite scary at first because I had never been outside Europe. So coming so far away was quite intimidating, everything was so new and alien to me, but it was really easy to adjust because everyone has been so welcoming. I was particularly worried about making mistakes but I have been guided every step of the way, which has really helped me to ground myself and acclimatise to the new environment.’
What have been your impressions in terms of how different the regulatory and governance environment is here in Hong Kong?
Rory: ‘In terms of regulation, the UK and Hong Kong are quite similar so that helped me because it has been quite easy to apply my knowledge here. I’d say Hong Kong is stricter in some aspects but the UK is now introducing more regulations and more guidance for companies.’
Do you think we are heading towards a world where there will be increased convergence of governance standards?
Edith: ‘The basic governance concepts are similar around the world but the local environment in different jurisdictions – such as the market rules and even the education system – has a huge influence. In the UK, for example, there have been a number of major company collapses. That led to loss of trust of large companies among the public, which then fuelled stricter levels of corporate governance and new governance and stewardship codes. Of course, this happens in many other countries.’
Has the internship helped you in terms of your personal and career development?
Kate: ‘The internship has helped me to apply what I am learning in my master’s degree. You can study risk management but it becomes very real when you need to come up with contingency plans in a crisis. During my internship there were days when it was difficult to plan anything but the staff stayed calm and followed procedures. The internship also made me realise how detailed you need to be. This is one of the things I learned from the Hutchison staff; they were very detailed, writing down everything for me to follow step by step. This was useful and will help me apply this to my own work.’
Rory: ‘Yes, the level of detail also surprised me. If the team were working on a document, not only the content but all the formatting had to be exactly right; that’s not something you are likely to think about when you’re studying. I think the theoretical knowledge you get when studying a corporate governance degree only becomes useful when you are in a situation that requires it. When I started the internship I felt so unprepared, but working here helped me understand and contextualise the information I have learned. It has also given me the foundation I need for the next step in my career. I am very excited to get back home and start working as a company secretary.’
What do you think are the key components of good governance and has anything in your internship experience changed your views?
Kate: ‘This internship has certainly made me aware of the importance of good risk management. The core of good governance is all about implementing internal controls and procedures that help to reduce or deal with risks and that is very important in the kind of situation we have been facing in Hong Kong.’
Rory: ‘I think, in addition to risk management, good governance is about having transparency and accountability. If you are transparent and accountable, you’ve inherently got checks and balances in place and you can be flexible when you’re dealing with problems as they arise. I also think that governance professionals have to lead by example. This is something that both Edith and Samantha Suen have said to me – you want to be at the forefront of governance because then everything follows. In the UK we are moving towards corporate governance codes that are stakeholder-focused and that look at the impacts of company actions on the environment and society. Company secretaries are the gatekeepers. You can’t let anything slip by you because you’re the last line of defence for the company. When you’re working here you get a sense of that – any mistake that slips by you is inherently on you.’
Kate: ‘But you also need to influence your team members to have the same level of integrity and that might be quite difficult.’
Do you like that aspect of the profession – the requirement to be a gatekeeper for ethics and good governance, because that of course puts a lot of responsibility on you?
Kate: ‘That is one of the reasons I am attracted to the profession – I want
to be the gatekeeper and to have the right training and knowledge to perform this role.’
Do you think you’d have the courage to speak up in board meetings on questions of ethics?
Rory: ‘That’s the challenge and I think that’s why company secretaries love their jobs. Sometimes it might be a question of using soft power – raising your voice and just saying no might not be the best option. That’s what encapsulates the profession and makes it so interesting, you have to think about how to present your case. Sometimes the board won’t listen to your advice, but at the end of the day you are the gatekeeper and if the board chooses not to listen at least you’ve tried your best. You also have the backing of the Institute, so if you feel something’s not right you can contact them for advice.’
Was there anything in your internship that changed your views on governance?
Kate: ‘I haven’t done the overseas part of the internship yet, but I hope to find that the governance principles I have learned about are basically the same in whatever jurisdiction I work in.’
Rory: ‘Yes, I think that’s important. If there’s a country that has weak governance rules, leading to weak transparency and accountability, there are some companies that will go and exploit that. If we don’t have international cooperation when it comes to governance, then it will only be as strong as the weakest link.’
Edith: ‘I would add that ethics is closely linked to governance. We have to instill an ethical mindset in governance professionals – this will be the foundation of their conscience. Where people are trying to sidestep the rules and laws without a true sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, it will always be an uphill battle. In that scenario, whatever rules and laws you have in place, you will always be very busy trying to police people. It is a lot easier when you educate people when they are young to differentiate between the right and the wrong. When I was young we had a subject called “civic duties”. Unfortunately this subject seems to have disappeared from the syllabus.’
Do you feel that the younger generation is more focused on good ethics? It’s often said that millennials are looking for employers that respect their own values.
Kate: ‘I am not a millennial but I think my generation needs to understand the next generation better. The next generation in Hong Kong have a mindset that is very different and there is a gap between their values and those of the older generations. So I think we need to communicate better with them. That means understanding what they are thinking, as well as sharing our experience and our point of view and values with them.’
Edith: ‘Of course people come to us with different backgrounds and values, but I hope that they can learn the standards we require in this company and conduct themselves accordingly. We may be operating in a country where the standards are very different – I don’t mean necessarily lower standards – but we have a set system and when we go to a new country the whole system goes with us. Our system also requires that head office gets to review everything relevant to the governance arena, so we are able to set the requirements and ensure that our company standards are being complied with by our colleagues everywhere.’
Rory: ‘I think globally we are taking a step in the right direction because many countries are looking at corporate governance as a way to fix a lot of business and social issues that have arisen in the modern age. A lot of countries around the world are reviewing their corporate governance systems and introducing more transparency and more accountability because they know the benefits this will bring to their economies and reputations.’
Edith: ‘And that dovetails with what The Chartered Governance Institute is doing. We are promoting our roles not only as company secretaries but as governance professionals. Our role is not limited to filling in and filing forms or keeping records, it is also about ensuring compliance and good governance practices – this is a higher level in terms of the value we bring to organisations. So the profession needs to be seen with a wider angle now.’
One last question, Edith. Can you share your views on the wider implications of this intern exchange? What role do you think internship and mentorship can play in the training governance professionals need?
Edith: ‘We need to have the ability to interact with others and to deal with issues as they arise. As Kate mentioned, Hong Kong has been facing a political crisis since summer 2019. On some days our staff had to leave the office and go home earlier to stay safe. We have a Whatsapp group to account for the last colleague to arrive home – we keep an eye on each other. I think internship and mentorship provide an ideal opportunity for students to get the soft skills they need.
I do quite a lot of mentoring for my university, Columbia University. Columbia sends undergraduate students from New York to Hong Kong every summer to spend two months here working for various employers. I also work with mentees from the Institute here in Hong Kong in the summer. So the summer months are a very good opportunity for local mentees and those from New York to work, learn and socialise together.
I feel it is important to have the time to interact with mentees. There’s no point taking on interns if you are not going to be working with them or your colleagues cannot spare time to work with them. I like to spend as much time with them as possible. It is also rewarding for mentors. The beauty of mentorship is that, while one is still alive and is able, one can help young people reach their full potential. Providing funds or scholarship after one has passed away does not generate the same rapport or benefits. I think senior people in our profession should try to do as much mentoring as possible. I still have mentees from six or seven years ago, sending me questions about their work. Sometimes I know the answers, sometimes I don’t – so I go and find the answers and then I have learned something too. I believe in passing the torch and continuing learning.’
Edith, Kate and Rory were interviewed by Kieran Colvert, CSJ Editor, at the CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd headquarters in Hong Kong in December 2019. More information on the London-Hong Kong Intern Exchange 2019 is available on: www.hkics.org.hk and www.wccsa.org.uk.