Women at BDO: A discussion with Lilian Luu

At BDO, we're committed to supporting our professional women and driving their success. From graduates to partners, we help women build relationships and create well-defined career paths through networking events, coaching, and professional development opportunities.

To celebrate International Women’s Day and to give you an inside look at what it's like to be a woman in accounting – and at BDO – we conducted discussions with some of our most talented professionals. During the conversations, they discussed accounting and their experiences as women in business, and the importance of diversity in leadership.

What do you like most about your position?

I am an Associate Director in the Business Services division of the Sydney office at BDO. I have been very fortunate in gaining opportunities in both chartered and commercial roles, in Australia as well as overseas. Through varied experiences, I have realised what brings me the most joy; and that is partnering with my clients to see them succeed in their financial and non-financial goals. On a day-to-day basis, I strive to help my clients identify the underlying issues keeping them up at night and provide them the tools to move forward.

After spending a couple of years in London, I came back to Australia in mid-2019 and faced a crossroad in my career. At the time, I was in a senior finance position, earning quite a handsome salary and felt well supported by a high performing team. I was offered the opportunity to go back to advisory. Unsure what to do, I had lunch with a colleague and he posed the question, “If you knew you were to die tomorrow, what would you be doing today?” Whilst morbid, it gave me the necessary perspective and resolve to resign from my position that very day, and transition back to Business Services. I now know my personal ‘why’ and goal of being in this field.

I am very lucky to be at BDO, where the DNA is to deliver exceptional service to each unique client in a way that best suits them. This philosophy echoes throughout our team. I have been on the other side of the client-adviser relationship, so I understand what makes an adviser not simply good-enough, but truly extraordinary.

Just last week, I was having a casual conversation with one of our accountants in the lunchroom, and she said to me that her “personal value was to consistently put our clients first”. We discussed how some accountants would have the scope of work in the forefront of their minds and focus on delivering this well. However, scope of work is constrained by the client’s perception of what they need, but there could be blind spots (i.e. ‘what you don’t know you don’t know’). Therefore, we must always consider what the client truly needs, ask questions even if they are outside the scope of the work, and if necessary, go above and beyond… There she was, a young accountant early in her career, but with such a refined mindset. It made me so happy and incredibly proud to work alongside a passionate group of professionals. Hence, another part I love about my position is the opportunity to nurture young talent and empower each to be their best version.

Have you ever felt like you had to overcome any gender-related roadblocks in your career (big or small)? How do you manage those types of situations?

As mentioned, I was in London for a couple of years in a male-dominated industry. I also assisted with financial stewardship of the European portfolio, therefore had the opportunity to work in Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Luxembourg, Milan and Madrid. Whilst Australia and Europe shared many similarities, there were definitely some differences in the work culture. More significantly, I found myself a seat at a prestigious table where I was unique in three factors: gender, age and heritage. My bubbly self and bright-coloured dresses also invited the stereotype-judgements. I learnt the hard way that respect cannot be expected, but must be slowly earned.

I refused to see this as a roadblock, but I remember asking myself, do I want to fit in or do I want to be different? Do I need to blend in and build rapport by acting and speaking like everyone else? Or must I highlight the fact that I possess unique qualities, to stand out and be acknowledged?

In the end, I realised I did not need to choose. I can do both. At the core, a middle aged European man and a young Australian-Asian woman both strive to contribute, succeed and be loved. But we obviously saw the world differently, so I could learn as well as teach.

I did not have to be the same to be accepted, but I also did not have to be entirely radical to add value. The art was to have empathy and the courage to express oneself in order to strike a balance, to embrace the similarities and celebrate the differences.

What piece of go-to advice do you give someone who is looking to start a career in this field?

Many young accountants look at those in senior positions and think that these people must have it all ‘figured-out’. In reality, at one point they were all there; confused and anxious. I recall being a senior accountant at a large international firm while studying for my second subject of the Chartered Accounting post-graduate qualification, and being confronted with this daunting thought, “Do I even want to be an accountant? I don’t even like Maths!”

So, as they say, do not compare your behind-the-scenes with everyone’s highlight reel!

My go-to advice is simply to be curious. When you are young, be curious in what you can do and how you want to define your place in this world. It is this curiosity that will pull you to exactly where you need to be. Trust in that process. And if you choose this field, do not aim for financial wealth or titles, but rather, attach your goals to the quality of your work, the number of clients you can assist, the quality of conversations you have with those clients and the skills you acquire along the way. Everything else will naturally follow.

It is absolutely fine to make mistakes. In fact, have a positive relationship with your failures. Our generation is spoilt with choices and often this abundance of options can actually lead to stress, as we are so afraid of making mistakes. Hence, analysis paralysis. So apart from trusting the process, you must learn to trust yourself. Trust that you will make the best decision based on all the information you have in that moment. Once you have decided, you will never know where the other path would have led so there should never be regret. If the path you chose is no longer right for you, then trust your ability to handle that and make the next decision.

How has COVID-19 changed the way you work, now and into the future?

Needless to say, 2020 was a challenging year, and we have entered 2021 still unsure when this global pandemic will stop being the topic of all conversations. But as they say, it is important to ask ourselves: how is this happening for me, instead of to me?

In many ways, all accounting firms promise to deliver the same thing. But COVID-19 had given us the opportunity to demonstrate what exceptional service truly means. It extends further than having a mission statement that says so, but rather, the practical simple acts to show our clients that we care. It is about picking up the phone to ask how they are doing, both financially and mentally, rather than simply sending out a mass email about new legislations and services. In turn, we have seen a massive transformation in the type of conversations with all our clients, from compliance obligations to now business strategies, from pure financial to now holistic advice. This will strengthen into the future.

Further, there had been a lot of recent discussions regarding the ‘future of work’ and the importance of flexibility. This was another positive from the pandemic. An important shift for me was the change in what was considered ‘professional’. Years ago, you must be in corporate attire to be perceived in a certain way. There was a clear distinction between your professional and your outside-of-work personas. However, with COVID-19’s mandate to work from home, we have seen a blur between work and home life. This will continue into the future, allowing each of us to showcase the full spectrum of our personality and passion. People can be taken just as seriously on a video call, while holding their baby or stroking their pet, as if they were wearing a power suit in a boardroom.

The foundation of all organisations have always been humans, but flexible working had enabled us the ability to display true diversity.