Labor CFO preaches governance

Mok's background provides launching pad for change

Samuel Mok could have been a priest, studying biblical passages and pondering their meanings. In fact, the Labor Department's chief financial officer was once advised to join the clergy while growing up in Hong Kong.

"Most of my career has been spent on interpreting accounting rules, accounting policies," Mok said, sitting in the conference room next to his office in Washington, D.C., which overlooks Constitution Avenue. "Interpreting — that's what a priest does."

And an ecclesiastical inclination lingers. "I preach," Mok said. "I preach government ethics, corporate governance. I've been doing that most of my life." As co-chairman of the financial line of business, an effort to consolidate agencies' back-office financial systems, Mok can exhort his ideas before a governmentwide audience.

He also knows when to console agency officials who worry about the future. "Standardization and consolidation is the preferred approach when it makes sense," he said, adding that officials should not force cookie-cutter reforms.

Mok's youthful advice is no surprise, said Rose Parkes, co-chairwoman of the financial line of business and the Energy Department’s chief information officer. "Sam has infinite patience," she said. "He tries to learn from every experience. I've met a few priests in my life, and I think those are characteristics not just of priests, but of successful executives." Some of Mok's other associates describe him as a man with a focus or vision.

Mok also has a preference for talking in parables. "I always find it easier to convey a message through images and stories," he said.

For example, Mok might tell people to think of the CFO's increasing number of tasks as a troupe of daredevil motorcyclists racing inside a circus steel sphere. Financial managers must balance the books and satisfy the many legislative reporting requirements, all while seeing budgets shrink and employees retire. The financial line of business will help create a solid structure that allows officials to coordinate those daredevil stunts, Mok said.

Or consider this Mok favorite. A man is traveling in a hot-air balloon that’s been blown off course. He spies a stranger and shouts, "Where am I?" The ever-observant stranger replies, "About 300 feet up in the air." The lesson: CFOs can produce information that can often be "technically correct but absolutely useless," Mok said.

Mok said he's trying to coax officials into seeing that CFOs offer more than mountains of data. Few agencies use financial data to manage programs, mostly reserving it for budget formulation, he said.

"Whose fault is that?" he asked. "I don't agree that it is the user's fault. It's our fault. Financial information hasn’t been made useful for the program managers who could use it."

If Mok were an orchestra conductor, "he would work with each instrument individually," said Lisa Kazor, chief executive officer of Savantage, a financial management systems provider. Using this approach, harmony may seem impossible to achieve. But ultimately, "you'd all be playing in tune, you’d all have the same rhythm," Kazor said.

Adaptation and innovation are the morals that run through Mok's favorite tales. Don't count on him to be a proselytizer of change for change's sake, however. "People don't like changes. I'm one of them," he said. Mok advocates change — whether personal or organizational — based on need. Mok’s beliefs aren’t book-learned either.

At 5, Mok was a refugee, one of many fleeing China after Mao Zedong's triumph in 1949. Both his parents were active loyalists of the overthrown nationalist government, and their lives depended on a hasty departure. "Some of [my parents'] brothers and sisters didn't leave," Mok said. "It didn't quite work out for them, unfortunately."

Arriving in Hong Kong, Mok’s father discovered that his Chinese law degree was worthless. He switched careers to become a teacher. Political instability in Hong Kong during the 1960s forced his family to move to Brooklyn, N.Y.

In the United States, his father again found that his previous job experience was useless in a new place. He worked where he could, starting as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant. His parents eventually owned a Chinese restaurant and grocery store in Maryland.

But when parsing this tale for lessons, Mok finds another one hidden behind the obvious morals of gritty resourcefulness and patience. "I have an ability to think in a stereoscopic manner," Mok said. "I can go both ways," he said. That ability is the product of the synthesis of the East and West, which allows him to see situations from many perspectives.

Change is risky, and Mok said neither he nor his family are risk-takers. An apparently bold solution may merely be an active decision to accept a small level of danger now rather than an overwhelming amount later. For his family, leaving China and then Hong Kong was "a choice of the lesser of two evils," Mok said. "In China, you can get on a train and leave," he said. "Hong Kong is an island. There's no place you can go, so you may want to leave while you can, before you’re locked in."

Mok is, after all, an accountant, and the stereotype of cautious bookkeepers is somewhat applicable. Accountants are in need worldwide. Their credentials won’t be revoked in a new country, he said.

But Mok sees another layer to accounting. Bookkeepers know the rules. And "once you understand what the rules are, anything that is not specifically prohibited is implicitly permitted," Mok said. "An obstacle is an obstacle only if you want it to be."

The Samuel Mok file

Place of birth: Shanghai, China.

Position: Chief financial officer at the Labor Department.

Residence: Montgomery County, Md.

Year arrived in United States: 1963.

Education: Mok received a master's degree in auditing from Catholic University in 1982 and a bachelor's degree in accounting from Fordham University in 1968. He is also a graduate of the Army Institute of Administration at Fort Benjamin Harrison and the U.S. Foreign Service Institute.

Career highlights: After college, Mok joined Main & Hurdman (now KPMG Peat Marwick) in 1969; spent five years in the Army, from 1971 to 1976; and was director of accounting at Time Life Books until 1982, when he joined U.S. News & World Report, eventually becoming corporate treasurer. He served as a foreign service officer in the State Department in 1986 before being appointed to the Senior Executive Service as Treasury Department comptroller in 1987 by then-Secretary James Baker. Mok was appointed Treasury's CFO in 1987. He worked in a private practice from 1992 to 2001 and founded an international trade consulting firm with former Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.). Mok has been Labor CFO since January 2002.

Family: Wife, Nancy Mok, a retired nurse; two children, Arthur and Angela; and five grandchildren.

Favorite breakfast: Rice porridge with seasoned pickle, spicy bamboo shoots and shredded fried pork. But during the week, he just has coffee in the car.

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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