Leadership Lessons From Asia & The West

By

Roshan Thiran

04-11-2016

11 min read

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What Are The Leadership Lessons Learnt From Different Cultures?

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10 leaders who inspired me to learn more, grow more and be more

There are many folks who claim Asian leaders are better than Western leaders and there are others who feel otherwise. In the past few decades, I have had the privilege of working with leaders from the US, South America, Europe and also Asia. Despite cultural differences, I find that very little distinguishes Asian leaders from their Western counterparts.

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As I look back at my own personal leadership, a huge part of my development stemmed from my interactions with these “global” leaders. Each part of the world has its own nuance. Still, to me great leadership is characterised by amazing vision, a humility to be self-aware both individually and organisationally, having the ability to learn and execute ruthlessly to achieve the vision laid out, and having outstanding decision-making ability – regardless of one’s place of birth.

Nevertheless, each country and situation poses its own unique challenges. This week, I look at ten leaders across the world who have inspired me over the past three decades:

1. Michael Petrucelli – The Matthew Effect

Micheal, or Mike, as we used to call him, was my first boss at General Electric (GE). He was the chief financial officer (CFO) and was a tough boss who demanded excellence. Yet, he spent many hours coaching and mentoring me. One of the most profound lessons I learnt from him was the importance of constantly exposing oneself to as many experiences, as early as possible. I remember how he “forced” me to do many presentations even though I was a novice and could have caused him much agony. He also insisted that I speak up at meetings, even though my inputs were hardly what you would term “insightful” nor “valuable” at that early point in my career. Yet, he pushed me to situations I hated to be in.

We term this the Matthew Effect, taken from the Book of Matthew where it states, “for to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Mike believed that in order to succeed in life, you have to take the little that you have and use it till it becomes polished.

I learnt to provide ample opportunity for my employees to take their skills and knowledge and keep using it so that it will not be lost to lack of use but could be amplified. So, we all must keep amplifying whatever bits of talent and skill we have if we hope to become world-class.

2. Mokhtar Dahari – Forget positive thinking. Instead Practise. Practise. Practise.

Mokhtar Dahari was one of Malaysia’s best-ever football players. He also happened to be my first football coach when I was in school. I remember our tough training sessions with Mokhtar. At 13, I was one of the youngest players in the squad and also probably one of the least talented.

There were many other much more talented boys in the squad who had incredible skills. Yet, Mokhtar would continually be unimpressed with folks who displayed positivity and talked about how they would be successful as football players.

Mokhtar Dahari.

Mokhtar Dahari. Photo sourced from www.sports247.my

Mokhtar didn’t believe in positive thinking. He believed that all those positive images and fantasies would cause you not to work as hard and be motivated. He used to talk about the importance of hard work and practice. Nothing else mattered.

In studies conducted by Professor Gabriele Oettinger, he found that “when jobseekers spent time visualising their dream job” they were less likely to have found employment two years later. He added, “You can seduce yourself into thinking you have already achieved your dream, and that can prevent you from doing what you actually need to attain it.”

Mokhtar’s plea to me before he left for treatment (he was diagnosed with a rare disease towards the tail end of our training season) was to practise, practise, practise. In whatever we do, don’t believe that you are destined to succeed. Believe you are not. And take steps to ensure you do. That comes from pushing yourself but never losing hope of the dream you have.

3. Keith Sherin – Be uncomfortable always

Keith Sherin became the youngest CFO in GE’s history at 38. I had the privilege of working for him in one of my roles. After spending a few years observing him in action, one key lesson learnt from Keith was to always do things you are not comfortable doing.

Keith Sherin. Photo sourced from Wall Street Journal.

Keith Sherin. Photo sourced from Wall Street Journal.

Keith would advise finance professionals at GE to always take on the tough jobs, the jobs that no one wanted. If you succeeded in a role that was tough, the upside was always higher. He also believed that tough roles strengthened us significantly. More importantly, when you keep doing uncomfortable things which we struggle with, we grow more. We learn new things and we end up believing that anything is conquerable. I took Keith’s advice many times when I pondered new roles or opportunities. The more uncomfortable we are, the more unlikely we are to grow stale and decay.

4. Datuk Steven Tan – Build a compelling vision and keep looking forward

Almost a decade ago, I met Datuk Steven Tan, then CEO and later the Executive Deputy Chairman of Star Publications (Star), renamed Star Media Group recently. Datuk Steven had taken The Star from a regional newspaper into a nationwide publication and had made it an extremely profitable organisation. Even after more than 20 years at the helm, he was still dreaming the next dream.

Datuk Steven Tan. Photo sourced from The Star Online.

Datuk Steven Tan (far left). Photo sourced from The Star Online.

When I met him, he was articulating what he believed should be the new vision for the next 10 years. In spite of all the success he had, he was still looking forward to building the next phase of The Star’s growth. Many leaders, as they reach the peak of their achievements, tend to have more memories than dreams. Datuk Steven, like many great leaders, has more dreams than memories.

Michael Hammer, business guru and author cautions: “One thing that tells me that a company is in trouble is when they tell me how good they were in the past. Same with countries. I am glad you were great in the 14th century, but that was then and this is now. When memories exceed dreams, the end is near. The hallmark of a truly successful organisation is the willingness to abandon what made it successful and start afresh.”

Great leaders, regardless of where they originate from, have a clear and compelling vision of the future. They constantly articulate it and relentlessly work to achieve it. I learnt this from Datuk Steven and his continued relentlessness to create a new vision for the organisation when the previous one has been achieved. Likewise, we must refrain from going into memory-mode, reflecting on past glories, but rather focus on building the future.

5. Robert Elstone – Get the right person, always!

Robert is a British leader and is currently the CEO of Everton Football Club. I met Robert more than a decade ago when I was helping Everton FC on some consulting work and Robert was then the Deputy CEO. He quickly assumed the CEO role and every year we catch up with each other and have great conversations. Every time I speak to Robert, I learn something new.

Robert Elstone, Roshan Thiran

Robert Elstone (left) and Roshan Thiran.

About a year ago, Robert mentioned to me he was looking for a new Academy director for Everton’s famous football academy which groomed players like Wayne Rooney and many others. Generally, most academy directors are run by ex-footballers who have gone into coaching and have built a reputation. Robert however, was not satisfied with status quo. He wanted something different. He was adamant about getting an Academy Director that brought science and technology to the sports as much as expertise. And he searched long and hard all over the world.

Finally, after an exhaustive search, he found Dr. Peter Vint, who was then part of the US Olympics set-up. Dr. Vint joined Everton as its new Academy Director and immediately brought significant changes to the set-up. I recently had the opportunity to spend an hour interviewing Dr. Vint for some of my own research and was blown away not only by his knowledge but by the science he was bringing to the Premier League and to every single stakeholder in the academy, including the parents of the kids.

In contrast, I have seen on numerous occasions, many leaders (including me and my team), in our zeal to fill up a critical open position, in spite of not having the ideal person for the role, we have made hasty hiring decisions that we have all come to rue.

Robert is extremely smart but I truly admire his zeal to be different. Regardless of how long it took him to find his man, he never gave up. It took significant time and investment to locate someone far away from the US who had the expertise needed but that didn’t deter him. Robert taught me to never give up till you get what you seek. Getting the right person makes all the difference between success and failure.

6. Prof Dr. George Kohlrieser – The power of human bonding

Prof Dr. George Kohlrieser

More than 10 years ago, I was invited by Khazanah to help in the GLC Transformation project championed by our former Prime Minister Tun Badawi. They had hired former hostage negotiator and leadership expert, George Kohlrieser to help support the transformation efforts. George and I began spending hours together.

A big insight I got from George – never be taken hostage. Many of us are constantly taken hostage by our employees, our bosses, our children and occasionally our spouses. Yet, George constantly reminds me that the success rate for hostage negotiators to diffuse a hostage situation is more than 95%. This means that even though someone may have a gun pointed at them, they successfully get the hostage-taker to hand them their gun and willing go away handcuffed knowing they will very likely be put in prison for a long time.

So what is the secret to their success? The answer is to be able to bond with another individual, no matter how difficult they might be. George showed me that this same technique can be applied to a difficult employee, a tough customer or even in negotiations in the boardroom.

Bonding is a crucial skill in leadership that all hostage negotiators are taught. And if we learn to bond with other humans, half our leadership battles are won.

To watch Dr. George’s video on What Leaders Need To Know Today, click here.

7. Dr. Goh Chee Leong – Life is either a daring adventure or nothing

I grew up with Chee Leong. We spent countless hours together in our youth. Today, he is a dean of a university, a CEO of a thriving business and also one of the top psychologists in Asia. When I was 14, he gave me a book as a gift and on the cover of the book, he wrote my favourite quote by Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or not” and he added, “make your life a daring adventure.”

One of the biggest problems we all encounter is our fear of failure. Many leaders try to protect the status quo and the fear of failure. At an early age in life, I learnt the need to never be afraid but to treat every experience, good or bad, as an adventure. But the best leaders have no fear. They understand failure and the risks involved in any endeavour, but that doesn’t stop them experiencing life to the fullest. They push hard and try new things because they know this adventure called life is a short one. To not live it to the fullest, would be a shame. Great leaders take risks and never let the fear of failure cripple them.

8. Camille Farhat – Get authentic feedback

I met Camille when we were both at GE’s Corporate Initiatives Group and he became a mentor and inspiration to me. Camille hailed from Lebanon but was highly successful wherever he went. From Camille, I learnt one important lesson – get real feedback from as many places as possible.
One of the biggest gaps leaders have is the inability to truly know what is happening on the ground. Most people give their leaders answers that they think the leaders want to hear. To really succeed, you need to know what is happening on the ground. There is a need to get truly authentic feedback. And to get real feedback, you need to build authentic relationships with your customers and employees. If they feel they can trust you, then they will tell you the truth.

Unless they are truly upset, no one voluntarily gives you feedback. Even your manager or boss may not give you daily feedback unless you request it. So find ways to ensure you get your daily feedback, be it from customers, employees on the front line and even your competitors. This helps you make high quality decisions all the time.

9. Kaye Foster – Meaningful work and competent colleagues

Kaye Foster. Photo sourced from the-chiefexecutive.com

Kaye Foster. Photo sourced from the-chiefexecutive.com

Kaye was the Global Human Resources (HR) head for Johnson & Johnson when I joined them almost a decade ago. She was fearless in her execution, yet graceful and wise in her interaction with people. In one of our interactions, she impressed upon me the importance of crafting meaningful work for our employees. She believed that the key to retaining and engaging our employees is through providing them meaningful work. The next most important thing was to ensure that they were surrounded by competent colleagues. To her, work that makes a difference and the ability to do that work surrounded by great people is what truly makes people stay, not money.

As I built Leaderonomics, this specific insight from Kaye was extremely helpful in ensuring the work we provide for our employees is not just work but serves a bigger purpose and brings meaning to their lives. Each role is not just a role but a path to achieving a greater end and to making the world a better place. And we also had to ensure each person we brought into the team was competent and was able to collaborate with each other to achieve the vision. Kaye understood the importance of what we as human beings crave most – meaningful work with competent colleagues.

To read about Leaderonomics, click here.

10. Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin – Be different, be better

Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin, chairman

Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin,
chairman

For four years now, Tan Sri Liew and I have been working together as judges in the Alliance BizSmart competition. Each time we interact, I continue to be amazed by his wisdom and insights. Recently, Liew shared his personal life journey with MDEC’s Leadership Dojo class. I was inspired with one powerful piece of advice he imparted: Be different, be better.

All his life, he has always stood out. He was a banker who went on to become a developer. He was always different but always better. His businesses were executed impressively but they were also innovative. Even now, after succeeding with his first business empire, he decided to come back again, never failing to hold himself and his organisation to the call to be different but better.

Being better every day is a call to each of us to continuously improve. The best leaders in the world strive to be better tomorrow than they were today. They may term it as Kaizen, continuous improvement or Six Sigma, but it simply means learning, growing, listening and changing daily.

They never tire to better themselves. While many would have retired and enjoyed their success, Liew continues to change and better himself daily and I think all of us can learn from him. Never tire of learning, growing, changing, being different and being better. That’s what great leaders do.

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