Lessons I Learnt from Running a Social Enterprise

By

Roshan Thiran

19-06-2019

6 min read

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11 years and still burning with passion

Last year, the social enterprise I founded celebrated its 10-year anniversary and I wrote a piece about the challenges and lessons learnt after a decade at the helm.

Every year teaches me many new lessons, and as I reflected on my 11 years of leading Leaderonomics – a social enterprise geared towards transformative change through leadership development – I decided there are many more leadership lessons I’ve learnt that have been born from experience, which I have yet to share.

Hence, this is Part 2 of my series continuing from my previous piece.

There are thousands of books on leadership, and I’ve been fortunate enough to interview and spend time with leaders throughout the world who work tirelessly to effect positive change in their communities.

I’ve learnt so much about leadership directly from people such as AmBank Group founder Tan Sri Dato’ Azman Hashim, Her Majesty Queen Silvia of Sweden, and eminent physicist and futurist Michio Kaku, to name just a few of the amazing leaders who are building strong legacies.

Other interesting insights have also been garnered by meeting people who have overcome the odds, such as Chris Gardner, Jamie Andrew and many others.

As I was thinking about my own leadership journey, it occurred to me that, while many lessons are learnt through observing others and from other various sources, some can only be realised through time and experience.

There is power in self-reflection – it provides us with insights we can’t gain from anywhere else. As difficult as the process can sometimes be (when done correctly), it’s a critical learning tool that we each possess, and one that we should use as much as possible.

Just last week, I was speaking to financial and economics guru Ravi Navaratnam from Sage 3 Capital and he shared some data he collected on education. He shared that most of our ‘real’ education does not come from school or university but is instead gathered when we accumulate experiences, mostly when we work.

So, what lessons have I learnt through my experiences over the past 11 years? There are several that come to mind, and I’ll cover five key lessons that have served me well so far:

1. You don’t know what you don’t know

As I get older, I realise that I am getting stupider. The older I get, the less smart I become. I do think I am learning and growing and becoming wiser, but I have started to realise that there is so much to be learnt and that my understanding of almost everything is limited.

Knowing that I am limited allows me to do a few things better. Firstly, I never believe that I have all the answers – I always remind myself that I am the stupidest person in a room.

This means I need to ask lots of questions (as stupid people need to learn more!). It also means that I need to be listening well to what others are saying so that I can learn more.

I also learnt to be more agile. When I was younger, I thought I knew all the answers and how to deal with specific situations. When I realised that I don’t know enough and am limited in understanding, I became less set in my thinking, and more flexible – constantly changing my viewpoint.

By knowing that I don’t know, I cannot be certain of anything. So, I do not need to defend any specific viewpoint. This helps me significantly in enabling Leaderonomics to not be stuck in a rut or a specific business model, but be able to pivot and grow when we need to change course.

If you think you know everything, there is a huge possibility that you will be resistant to change. I know I am stupid, so I need to keep learning and changing.

2. Kindness is the biggest currency

In the knowledge economy and in a time when collaboration is king (and probably queen too!), the biggest value that is underrated in leadership today is kindness. It’s something viewed by many as a soft quality, one that leaves you vulnerable, but in my own experience, when you give to others you get so much more back.

The practice of one-upmanship is a zero-sum game, and leaders who value kindness – towards competitors, employees, prospective partners and customers – are the ones who’ll win big in the end.

In Malaysia alone, we’ve seen how being driven by power and greed can topple even seemingly invincible leaders. Times are changing, and people naturally gravitate more towards leaders who continually look to give back and serve others.

At Leaderonomics, part of our vision is to ‘build communities of love’. Love conquers all and we know that if we all truly care and love other human beings, we will work hard to not just make our dreams become a reality, we will also work with each other to make each of our dreams become a reality.

3. Offer sincere praise as much as possible

Traditionally, leadership has focused on the carrot-and-stick approach to motivating their employees, but this is a proven ineffective approach that belongs to the past.

As a leader, recognising that none of what I’ve achieved so far (and what I’m still striving to achieve) would be possible without the incredible people around me serves as a valuable reminder of the amazing contributions they all make.

Although it can be easy to focus on areas of improvement and the work left to do, it’s so important to offer praise to people for a job well done or progress made.

Aside from any benefits it can have in terms of motivation and productivity, it’s simply a wonderful opportunity to connect with people who deliver for you, day-in day-out.

On the flipside, be ready to offer real feedback to people who are not performing and fall short of your standards. This is extremely hard for me to do at times, but I have learnt that an organisation cannot grow if we don’t hold our people to high standards and provide the necessary feedback to employees when they fail to live up to those standards.

4. Get straight to the point

In Malaysian culture, business meetings can often drag on with seemingly no end in sight. While I don’t buy into fads such as the ‘plank meetings’ that are designed to keep things short and sweet while participants plank (yes, really), I’ve come to see the value in spending less time drawing out ideas and leaving more room for execution.

Admittedly, this is a lesson that can easily be forgotten. I constantly try to remind myself that, while talk and discussions are valuable, success is achieved by doing. Be brief, get to the point, decide on actions to be taken, then go do them! Execution is everything. So, talk less and do more!

5. Be patient with your vision but execute quickly on the process

Leaderonomics continues to evolve after 11 years of being in operation. As an enterprise dedicated to transformation, learning, development and growth, our overall vision is one that will surely take time to realise fully.

Some leaders try to get to ‘the finish line’ too quickly, but on the other hand are slow to execute on the process of getting there. At Leaderonomics, my ethos centres on being patient with the overall vision – allowing it to unfold over a natural course – while executing quickly on a daily basis.

If there’s a new idea, approach, system or platform, I try to jump on it as soon as I can if I see it has value. I don’t ‘wait and see’.

To execute quickly on the day-to-day process is what drives progress. Yet, we must have the patience to wait for the bigger vision to unfold slowly.

One of my biggest dreams for our community work is that every school in Malaysia gets access to free leadership development. Over the past few years, we have slowly made progress – from having our free clubs implemented in one school to now over 55 schools in almost all states in the country.

However, there are more than 2,700 secondary schools in Malaysia. I still push really hard for every school in the country to get the same access to leadership development, but the process is slow.

I am patient yet impatient. But I know we have to push hard yet not lose hope, because one day, we will have a club in every school in the country – and hopefully in every country in the world!

   

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