Career Path

Quality first

by Charles Mak

Connie Sham, manager, strategic business
Hong Kong Quality Assurance Agency
Photo: Nolly Leung

In a capitalist society, many people associate career success with monetary rewards. Connie Sham, manager, strategic business, Hong Kong Quality Assurance Agency (HKQAA) believes otherwise.

"Whatever the job, you must always aim to give the best quality possible," Ms Sham says. This philosophy is reflected in her line of duty. "HKQAA is an internationally recognized third party certification body offering assessment and certification services, helping to promote effective management systems," she explains. "We operate strictly in accordance with international practices and treat every client impartially."

HKQAA now issues a range of certificates including system certification for quality, environmental, occupational health and safety, food safety, information security, customer service as well as corporate social responsibility management systems.

As manager of the strategic business division, Ms Sham oversees the certification needs of as many as 70 corporate clients involving more than 1,000 certificates. "If there are any new benchmarks, we must take the initiative and send the message out to our clients," she says. "Auditors in our many divisions liaise with clients, compile audit plans, conduct on-site audit and submit audit reports."

Solid ground

Graduating with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Newcastle University in the UK, Ms Sham initially became a chemical engineer for a UK-based pharmaceutical company. Her job was to oversee the manufacture of antibiotics. "A typical process required 30 long hours of my full attention without a wink of sleep," she recalls. "Inspecting the modular chemical reactor was quite an experience — it's like being surrounded by chemicals inside a three-storey high rice cooker. However, we had to ensure proper functioning of all equipment for the chemical process."

"You learn something new every day"

Overstrain was part of her job and it subsequently led to an opportunity to cross over horizontally to the company's environmental, health and safety (EHS) division. Working regular hours plus a growing interest in EHS, Ms Sham went on building her technical competence and completed a postgraduate master's degree in environmental and public health engineering prior to her return homeward.

Back in Hong Kong in 1993, Ms Sham continued to offer her niche in EHS to sizeable corporations including Enviropace Limited for operating the Chemical Waste Treatment Center in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company Limited.

At the turn of the millennium, she became an HKQAA EHS auditor and was promoted to her current position in just a few years.

Now leading a team of professional staff, Ms Sham believes successful leadership lies in mutual support. "Personal and professional developments are essential so I seek to create a healthy growth environment for my colleagues," she notes.

Besides auditing, the bulk of Ms Sham's job comprises public training and seminars as well as research and development of the latest schemes and certifications like the new ISO 14064 for verification of greenhouse gas emissions, corporate social responsibility programmes; and reporting and asset management systems.

Ongoing improvement

According to Ms Sham, a competent auditor must possess excellent communication skills and integrity, while also being independent, objective, understanding and diplomatic. "Analytical skills and a clear head are also key because we base our decisions on facts and figures and do not allow bias of any kind," she stresses.

Such skills do not develop overnight. As such, people wishing to become an HKQAA auditor must have at least five years of work experience. In addition, new recruits joining as provisional auditors are required to undergo intensive classroom training, an observation period, a minimum of 20 audit days of coaching, and depending on individual progress, take the examinations and technical assessment, before becoming auditors. "The entire process takes about three to six months," Ms Sham says.

Newly qualified auditors may undertake audit assignments independently or work in a team. After some time, those who perform consistently and skilfully go through a calibration process where their team management skills are harnessed over another 20 audit days of coaching plus further examinations to qualify as lead auditors who act as project leaders heading their own teams.

"You must be hardworking and have a positive attitude. Don't be afraid to do the extra. You learn something new every day and new opportunities will only open doors for more. Accomplishments give the utmost satisfaction and the exposure you gain is a big bonus," Ms Sham says.

China Opportunities

Headquartered in Hong Kong, HKQAA currently operates offices in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Suzhou and each has in place a dedicated audit team. According to Ms Sham, opportunities in mainland China remain ample. "On the one hand, lots of Hong Kong-based manufacturers have relocated to mainland cities; on the other, a growing number of mainland corporations see the need to align their management systems with international standards," she says. "Our brand and established standing in quality assurance are an advantage to their businesses and we anticipate substantial growth in the scope of our services."


Taken from Career Times 25 January 2008, p. C16
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