2013 has been an interesting year for me (and many of you too!). As is customary for me, I usually reflect on the year and write out lessons I learnt from last year. There are many lessons learn but here are my top 10 lessons learnt in 2013 from Corporate Malaysia:
1. ALLIANCE BANK – SMEs are the Future: Invest Today for Tomorrow’s Success
Every year Alliance Bank wins awards for being the best bank for SMEs. This year, I had the honour of sitting on the judging panel for Alliance Bank’s BizSmart competition. BizSmart was Alliance’s way of helping grow and support SME businesses less than 3 years old. Whilst everyone focuses on helping start-ups, Alliance decided to expand its support for SMEs through the BizSmart competition and the BizSmart Academy.
Throughout the competition, I met future superstar entrepreneurs like Christy Ng and Brian Ong, giving me a glimpse of the future of Corporate Malaysia. SMEs are the future and wise organisations such as Alliance Bank understand that investing today in tomorrow makes wise business sense and is the surest way to grow your future.
Lesson for 2014: Ignore the SME market to your peril.
2. MALAKOFF – Stop Groaning and Take Action
Malakoff is known for its great leadership development and talent acceleration programmes. A few months ago, I was teaching a class at Malakoff and a participant started moaning about issues he faced. Within a few minutes, another participant stood up and rebutted him through this story:
“In ancient times, a king purposely had a stone boulder placed on a roadway. The king hid himself and watched to see if anyone would remove the huge rock. Some of the king’s most prominent traders, courtiers and residents came by and simply walked around it. Many loudly blamed the king for not keeping the roads clear, but none did anything about getting the big stone out of the way. The moaning and groaning went on for hours.
Then a peasant came along carrying a bucket of food. On approaching the boulder, the poor man laid down his burden and tried to move the stone to the side of the road. After much pushing and straining, he finally succeeded.
As the peasant picked up his load of vegetables, he noticed a purse lying in the road where the boulder had been. The purse contained many gold coins and a note from the king indicating that the gold was for the person who removed the boulder from the roadway. The peasant, who didn’t moan, but took action, got the gold.”
Lesson for 2014: Action beats groaning and complaining any day. And remember, every obstacle you face presents an opportunity to gain, learn, grow and better yourself.
3. MERCEDEZ BENZ – Employee Engagement takes effort but worth the costs
A few weeks ago, Roland S.Folger, President and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Malaysia launched a talent development programme for their employees. This programme was part of their employee engagement programme which was kicked off a couple years ago. Mercedes has worked hard to create “engaged employees,” who are fully involved in, enthusiastic about their work, and acts in ways that further the organisation‘s interest
As I was listening to the excitement of Folger, and later listened to senior leader Veerappan Annamalai go through the details of the various engagement activities, it dawned on me the importance of working hard at engagement. It is easy to talk about engaged employees but it takes time, effort, processes and commitment to drive employee engagement.
Rob Marley, head of Bain & Co customer marketing and strategy practice says that there is such a strong link between engagement and customer loyalty. He believes that companies that focus on employee engagement and tackles the issue seriously stands to enjoy a substantial competitive advantage. “It doesn’t really take that much to make a huge difference,” adds Markey.
Mercedes-Benz Malaysia, in spite of his staff size, have shown real commitment and drive in this area. A key lesson for all of us is that regardless the size of our operations, employee engagement matters and we need to take time, effort and leadership commitment to make this a part of our 2014 commitment.
4. CITIBANK – Don’t over rely on Assumptions
This year, I had the privilege of spending some time with Citibank CEO Sanjeev Nanavati. Sanjay is always full of stories. Over lunch one day, he told me a story about his 2 kids. He asked his kids a simple question. The question goes like this:
“there were 5 frogs sitting on a ledge next to a pond. One of the frogs decided to jump into the pond. How many frogs are there left on the ledge?”
His oldest quickly answered “four”. It was a simple math question. But the younger kid paused and said “none of the frogs jumped. All 5 are still on the ledge.” What was your answer? Your answer may be zero as frogs tend to follow the leader and jump. Wrong answer! The younger child got the answer right. Why?
If you read the question again, it clearly says one frog DECIDED to jump. But it does not claim that the frog jump. We quickly made an assumption that the frog jumped leaving 4 others. Sanjay went on to remind me the dangers of assumption in business. We all make assumptions on everything we do in business.
Projections, estimates, analysis of our business, big major decisions are all made through usage of assumptions. If our assumptions are wrong, regardless how good your decision making process is, your outcome will be wrong. Sanjay reminded me that it was more important to spend time understanding what the various assumptions were as much as we spend time on making the decisions.
Key lessons for 2014: If you break down the word ASSUME, you get ASS U ME. And one of my old bosses in Europe used to remind me weekly in my younger day, “Please don’t assume anything, or you will end up making an ASS of U and ME!”
5. AXIATA – Invest in Top Talent Early
In 2013, Axiata launched their Axiata University Leadership Development Programme and invested in top university students. To many, spending money developing leadership skills on university students may not be wise. But Axiata have got it right. The formative years of leadership are in school and university. By investing deeply in students, Axiata have wisely chosen to start their talent management efforts early in a leaders’ cycle.
Dato’ Sri Jamaludin Ibrahim, at the closure of the programme, reiterated why Axiata made it a priority to develop leaders for themselves (and for the nation)—it made business sense. Looking back, I personally benefited from GE investing in my leadership development while I was in university through intense camps and structured internships. Investing in top university students ensure they fall in love with your organisation and ready themselves to be immersed into your organisation from Day 1 of employment. And you get to groom global leaders in their formative years.
Lesson for 2014: It is never too early to invest in great talent. The early you start, the bigger the benefit you will reap.
6. PARAMOUNT GROUP – Always aim for greatness
Dato’ CQ Teo, the chairman of Paramount Group, who also happens to be a school alumni, has taught me countless lessons the past few years whilst working on alumni projects together. This year, I had the privilege of hearing him address his senior leaders at Paramount Group on succession and how leaders need to develop leaders.
One point he made, which he personally lives, is this – “It is good to be good but better to be great.” Greatness is something all great companies set out to do. And it is not impossible to achieve greatness yet is painful and takes great effort.
Lesson for 2014: Remember, every great achievement was once considered impossible. Greatness is possible. It is something every company in Malaysia should strive for. Don’t settle for being good and OK – aim for greatness!
7. TALENTCORP, MCKINSEY & PEPSICO – Women, the new Capital
A few months ago, I was invited to a special TalentCorp-McKinsey talk where Joanna Barsh expounded the need for more women leadership in the workplace. As I was among a handful of men in the audience, it was interesting to see how the women in the room debated with each other on various aspects of women leadership.
TalentCorp CEO Johan Merican, together with Salika Suksuwan constantly reminds us that unlike other countries where women may take a break for a few years but later return to the workplace, Malaysian women tend to leave their offices in mid-career and never return.
This year, I also had the privilege of meeting one of the top women CEOs in the world, Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi. As a good Indian daughter, she is personally taking care of her mother and also balances being a good wife and mother to her two kids. Nooyi is a great role model to women everywhere. Yet, she advocates that the corporate world MUST start embracing women and change our policies and culture to enable women to thrive in their leadership roles.
As I thought about what Barsh, Nooyi and Suksuwan, it became clear to me: Women are the new capital. We have to hire, grow, develop, care for and build processes so that they can be great leaders in our organisation. And if we don’t, we may lose a great opportunity for an amazing talent pool for our businesses.
8. STAR PUBLICATIONS – There are Hidden Gems everywhere
This year I spend a few months on a ‘sabbatical’ assignment with the STAR Media Group. The most fun part of this assignment was meeting people, learning what they do and looking into the organisation to find ‘hidden gems.’ Interesting, we uncovered not just 1 or 2 hidden gems, but tons of ‘gems’ spread across the organisation. As I explored this further, I found that most companies have enormous amounts of ‘hidden gems’ tucked away in the far corners of the organisation. It usually takes someone from the outside to see these gems for what they are – great opportunities for the business.
The majority of business transformations do not begin from external sources. Most of the most remarkable transformations in history, from Apple’s rejuvenation in 1997 to Marvel Entertainment rise from the grave, all point to an internal trigger. In fact, Marvel, which had more than 5000 superheroes and comic characters didn’t realise the goldmine they were sitting on until they were close to death and a new leader who looked inside uncovered these gems and made these cartoon heroes into movie celebrities.
Lesson for 2014: Look deep into your organisation for hidden gems. They definitely exists. If you can’t find them, look harder.
9. SP SETIA – Don’t Ever Listen To Anybody. Do it Your way
I had the opportunity to listen to SP Setia CEO, Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin a number of times this year. He is an extremely passionate man who never tires to teach and inspire. One key lesson I learnt from him this year was his constant reminder to me and other entrepreneurs to “do it your way.” You will always receive lots of advice and well-intentioned counsel yet he advocates that it is not important to follow it unless it makes sense to you.
The best leaders know when to listen and when to ignore such advice but to keep pushing through your dream, regardless how others believe it will pan out. Only you can determine your success so don’t give yourself excuses that you took ‘expert’ advice and it fail to pan out. Believe in yourself and keep pushing forward.
Lesson for 2014: Be your own leader – be authentic – be yourself, always!
10. TUPPERWARE – It is far better to give
David Wang, MD of Tupperware is one of the most humble leaders I have ever met. He and his team have built Tupperware into one of the most outstanding organisations in this country. Part of David and his team’s success is because they believe in giving. I remember how the folks at Tupperware provided numerous products (with food!) to the rural villages of Sarawak and other parts of Malaysia. Although there was a limited market for their brand in rural Malaysia, Tupperware continued to give their best because they cared.
Even with their employees, Tupperware gives. In spite of not having thousands of employees, Tupperware still managed to invest deeply in the development of its employees through special programmes. Tupperware continues to give and they continue to grow. David and his team truly embody the statement “the more you give, the more you get! For it is far better to give than to receive.” Great companies understand the power of giving. The more you give a community, the more the community rallies around you and your product. Giving authentically (and not for CSR and publicity only!) makes a huge difference in the power of your brand.
Lesson for 2014: keep giving of your time, energy and funds to make this world a better world. You and your organisation will be blessed many times over
There are many more lessons I learnt last year. But the most important thing about lessons is to internalise them and leverage these lessons. Make 2014 a great year by learning from everyone and everything. Thank you again for partnering with me and my team at Leaderonomics in so many ways in 2013. I wish you blessings for this new year. Remember to keep learning and keep growing!