Mentorship can transform careers and lives, only if we do it with the right intentions and approach — for both mentors and mentees. Tony Chin, an ICDM Fellow, CAANZ Fellow Chartered Accountant and Chairman of Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation Malaysia Berhad (“SMBCMY”), currently has 25 mentees under his wings, aged between 19 and 45. He shares his personal experience after being a mentor for over 20 years (and still counting). In this article, Tony shares his PSR; Personal Social Responsibility journey and highlights some of the potential pitfalls in mentorship.
Tony is himself a beneficiary of mentorship. He was unofficially guided by a few people when he was at a very young age. “As I progressed through my career, I realised that it was extremely beneficial. I felt that it is then incumbent upon me to pay it back and pay it forward.” Tony has been practising mentorship informally throughout his career until he joined a structured mentorship programme for undergraduate and post graduate students instituted by his alma mater, University of Melbourne, about half a decade ago. Since then he has volunteered in other mentorship programmes at home and abroad and has had mentees from a wide range of vocations (students, professionals, entrepreneurs) and nationalities, including Malaysians, Italians, Chinese, Americans, Vietnamese and Australians.
Tony met most of his mentees through the structured programmes but about 30% of them were chance encounters, and Muhseen Firdaus, a 23-year-old ICDM Affiliate Member, is amongst those that Tony did not plan but was destined to meet. “We met at a leadership conference. It took nothing more than him and me sitting side by side. It started from there.” By chance, they met. But by choice, they kept in touch. “After learning about Muhseen’s ambitions, Tony recommended that he joins ICDM as a member. Now, they are working together on a few projects to uplift the underserved communities in Malaysia. “You can say that it is his good karma to have met me, or my good karma to be associated with such a young enterprising person.”
Serving as a Living Library
Tony does not have a fixed formula when mentoring people as there is no one size that fits all. There is however one thing which he takes great pains to avoid — which is to lecture his mentees. “I deal mainly with young people and they will equate such a lecture to the dreaded nagging by their parents, irrespective of the good intentions of their parents.” Instead, he serves as a “living library”, which is a term The University of Melbourne uses to describe the mentors, and it resonates strongly with Tony and his approach. “The book doesn’t talk to you. You are the one that needs to be curious and ask questions and the mentor is the resource to help address those questions.”
Typically, Tony will ask the mentees to prepare a list of burning questions before each One-to One confidential mentoring session. Tony will respond to each question during their conversation based on his knowledge and experience. This is to ensure the conversation is a real time Q&A with no premeditated answers from his end. It is very important to build the trust level between the parties as soon as is possible. Mentees will respond positively when they are comfortable in the thought that they have the 100% listening ear of the Mentor.
He is conscious not to make up answers if he is unable to assist. “For the mentees, the last thing they would want is for someone they trust to give made-up answers. If I do not know the answer to a question, I will tell them. And if it is an important issue to them, I will ask them to give me a bit of time to find someone who can help. This is a critical point because the mentees are looking to me for leadership and advice and if I make up an answer just to fulfil my ego, it may lead them up the proverbial garden path and land them in hot soup.”
On many occasions throughout Tony’s mentoring journey, he would unintentionally serve as a temporary father figure to some of his mentees. Some of his mentees would ask questions that would normally be posed to one’s father. “Children can be rebellious throughout the teenage years and may have many disagreements with their parents; some to the point where there exist a “dialogue void” between them. Because Tony himself has two daughters, he is able to address the questions fairly easily. “I would say to them: Look, I am not your father, but if you need help, I will address your issues and concerns and advise you in the same way as I would with my own daughters.” This approach is often acceptable to the mentees as they will understand that I have their interests at heart.
Removing Barriers to Women’s Leadership
Tony believes that women generally have a more challenging path pursuing leadership roles — be it in senior management or at board level — as their careers could be interrupted when they take time off to focus on raising and caring for their children. Due to the speed and momentum of changes in all aspects of our society, the women who resumed their careers in the past can feel very much left out and left behind. Fortunately, with the advent of technology and availability of distance learning and self-learning, it is now easier for women to update and upskill themselves and return to the workforce when they are ready.
However, “what is lacking in all that is human interaction — something that would help women increase their level of confidence, especially in taking on leadership and board roles. Here is where we can introduce mentorship, to help them move on to the next level.” Given sufficient encouragement, nurturing and support, Tony is confident that more women will become valuable and competent candidates for board positions. “Once they break through the barriers, they will blossom.”
Mentorship is not Networking
Many people tend to conflate mentorship with networking. In Tony’s opinion, the two are very different. Therefore, when embarking on a mentorship programme, it is important to address those expectations. Both mentors and mentees need to be screened. “The attributes of a mentor should match what the mentee is looking for. As for the mentees, they must have a clear sense of what they aim to achieve and learn from the programme. Once that is established, there is a very strong chance that it will be a successful mentorship journey for both parties.”
“I often tell my mentees that they should have at least three mentors in their lives because no one mentor can know everything.” But he cautions that having too many viewpoints can also be tricky as they may become a source of confusion rather than guidance.
Learned to Learner
As a mentor, Tony has achieved immense personal satisfaction seeing his mentees progress and thrive in life. Professionally, he has learned and gained plenty of insights from his mentees too. “Those sessions allow me to stay in touch with how young people think. That is very important especially for my role as the Chairman of the Bank. I often have to deal with people of all ages — and some of them are very young. If I am able to speak their lingo and think like they do, there will be less generation gap between us.”
Tony was appointed an Independent Non-Executive Director of SMBCMY in 2015 and as its Independent Non-Executive Chairman in 2018. He had wanted to start a mentorship programme within the bank right away, to help the young Japanese expatriates who have been assigned to Malaysia adjust and adapt to living here. After getting the support from the Bank’s headquarters in Tokyo, the programme was finally launched in late 2019.
“I took it upon myself to organise Group mentoring sessions for eight to ten young professionals who would eventually become the future leaders of the Bank. It took a bit of convincing to make them comfortable as they got a bit shell shocked that the Chairman of the Bank wishes to engage directly with them.” Tony allayed their fears and concern by stating upfront that their participation is entirely on a voluntary basis and that he was engaging with them as a mentor in his personal capacity; and not as SMBCMY’s Chairman. He further emphasised that the sessions are not part of a performance appraisal programme, that it is his hope that through their participation they will be able to improve on their living experience in Malaysia and also be encouraged and empowered to be better leaders when they assume senior leadership roles at HQ. Once the trust was established, the programme got underway but has since been stymied by the restricted movement control orders implemented by the authorities.
Tony would love to see the culture of mentorship proliferate further in corporate Malaysia but he understands that mentorship is not for everyone. One must have a genuine interest and passion to nurture and guide others; otherwise, it will just be a chore or a box-ticking exercise. Chemistry is important too. To grow the culture of mentorship organically, he is looking to create a ripple effect through his mentees. He hopes that at some point in their lives, they would also reach out to help others. “I start with a little stone in the middle of the pond and then it just ripples across the entire pond over time.”
On a final note, if ICDM were to introduce a mentoring programme for its young members, Tony has said he would lend his utmost support for this very worthwhile cause.