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A few months ago, Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) launched an amazing leadership programme for chief executive officers (CEOs) called the Leadership Dojo.
18 CEOs were selected to be a part of the pioneering batch, where they were given an opportunity to develop their leadership capabilities, business acumen, and learn new exciting skills to enable them to scale and grow their businesses into world-class organisations.
I had the privilege of being the first programme manager of this class and was instructed to “teach” these CEOs and lead them to great learning.
After almost four months with these 18 amazing leaders, I think I have learnt much more than I may have imparted. As I was reflecting through the lessons learnt from these CEOs, I knew I had to share their wisdom and vision so everyone can benefit from their amazing insights.
Here are my Top 10 lessons learnt from the participants in the Leadership Dojo class:
1. Returns generated by hard work > Returns generated by talent
Every single leader in the Dojo programme run highly successful businesses. If you start listening to the stories of Ahmad Fikri Mansor, Ong Chin Yew, Lee Chuen Loong and others on how they got to be successful, you will see an uncanny similarity across all of them – they worked very hard to become successful.
In fact, if you start to dissect the role their own “talent” played in their success, you will find that zeal and hard work were the cornerstone of their success and not intellectual ability or luck. If you want to succeed, don’t put too much weightage on your talent as a sure-fire success factor, but put in your time and effort.
Even Charles Darwin, more than a hundred years ago acknowledged this and wrote,
For I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work.
2. They develop ‘eyes’ for opportunity
As I spoke to John Tong, Yusno Yunus and the other entrepreneurs in the class, I could not believe how their eyes worked. While most of us look at all the obstacles facing us and how to overcome them, each one of them wore different lenses.
Even at the initial stage, all of their stories of how they first formed their companies began when they saw gaps in the marketplace where no one was addressing.
They ended up building businesses to address these gaps and create new opportunities. To become successful, we have to learn to develop our eyes into opportunity-spotting instruments like these Dojo’ians.
3. They leverage the expertise and wisdom of mentors and advisers
As I observed and learnt from Tom Kennedy, Noor Mohd Helmi Nong Hadzmi, Ng Jin Chong and others in the Dojo class, you will realise that all of them are always ready to learn and grow. Many entrepreneurs fall into the trap of believing they are “all-knowing.”
Their employees expect them to know everything (since many of them were founding leaders!) and soon this belief permeates into them believing that as well. Yet, we know that what everyone needs sometimes is a guiding hand.
Great leaders, like the CEOs in the Dojo class, know that they always require help and don’t have all the answers.
They enlist mentors to challenge and give them different perspectives. Great leaders are never afraid to ask for help and guidance and I am appreciative for the participants in this class for reminding me of the importance of constantly asking for guidance and help.
4. They believe despite the facts stacked against them
Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis identified this as a key trait of high performers stating that high achievers, “really believe that in the end they’re going to win, and until they do, they will keep on pushing, keep on making phone calls, writing the letters, whatever it takes.”
Naaman Lee, Ng Jin Chong and every single CEO at our Dojo class are relentless in pursuing their dreams. Others may mock them and find a million reasons why they will fail in their venture, yet they find strength deep within them to keep going and keep believing in their dreams.
“At the end of the day, it is not the strongest person who wins the battle but the one willing to die for the win.”
5. They focus on the ‘mundanity of excellence’
Sociologist Daniel F. Chambliss coined the term mundanity of excellence in a study he conducted on swimmers. He believed that, “superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learnt or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesised whole.
There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of these actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together produce excellence.”
As I have spoken with the participants, every one of them had a “kaizen” mindset – always trying to improve and become excellent. Something as mundane as learning requires practice, practice, practice. Yet, this mundanity of learning is yet another key hallmark of these Dojo entrepreneurs.
6. They work ‘on’ the business, rather than ‘in’ the business
Lam Mun Choong, and Khor Kheng Khoon both taught me the importance of working “on” the business and not “in” it.
Most of us get so mired with the operations and the daily grind of the business that we are soon in the thick of firefighting and “saving” the business that we lose sight of growing the business.
This is very hard to do as it is much easier to work “in” the business than “on” it. To really work “on” your business, we need to step back and have perspective of the business.
7. They don’t operate on ‘neutral’
To succeed in life, you can’t operate in “neutral” gear, so claimed most of the CEOs in the Leadership Dojo class. Jeremy Chong, Sinan Ismail, Koh Lee Ching and others are testament to the fact that you either move forward or you are going backwards.
Each of them is consistently creating new products, innovating their business and finding new ways to grow.
There is never a “neutral” zone. And they operate their “accelerator” mode by consistently listening to their customers, varying their products and by relentlessly pushing themselves and their business forward.
8. They know you don’t need to be the smartest in your industry
Many leaders believe that they have to be the smartest person in their company and also in the industry they are in. What I learnt from the Dojo participants is that being smart is great but not necessarily important to ensuring your company is the best in the industry.
Chua Wee Yee, Kris Uttraphan and others reminded me that you don’t necessarily need to be the smartest to be a successful entrepreneur. It was more important to “hire smart people to work for you.”
Obviously, it is never easy to hire smart people but most of the CEOs in the Dojo programme spent an inordinate amount of time seeking out and hiring amazing folks for their business. In fact, one of the most requested modules for our programme was on talent acquisition, management and development.
9. They understand the difference between urgent and important
Many of us are always busy completing urgent matters that require our attention. However, there are many important (yet not urgent) pieces of work that get postponed because we are so vested in the urgent.
Mark Zuckerberg once said, “The question I ask myself like almost every day is, ‘Am I doing the most important thing I could be doing?’
Unless I feel like I’m working on the most important problem that I can help with, then I’m not going to feel good about how I’m spending my time.”
Datuk Thasleem, Ankur Jakhwal, and each of the 18 CEOs in the Dojo programme clearly understood the importance of investing time on important matters and not being fully engaged with urgent matters.
This enables them to grow the future, invest in new opportunities and also engage in important activities like mentoring and coaching their employees.
Urgent matters will always be there and have to be resolved but to devote your entire day to urgent matters will ultimately result in a non-performing, non-growth business.
10. They know money is not everything
Most people start businesses for the money. In fact, many of the CEOs in the programme did so too. But, today, most of them are not driven by money.
They have something deeper that drives them – a passion to solve a problem, a deep burning desire to make a difference in their community or a need to save the world.
Different reasons drive the 18 leaders in the programme but money is not the key. Interestingly, research also tells us that entrepreneurs who purely chase money will “very likely crash and burn.”
Money can be a short-term motivator but for sustainable long-term commitment needed to grow and nurture a business, there has to be a deeper purpose.
I am so thankful to Koh Lee Ching, Sinan Ismail, Lee Chuen Loong, Noor Mohd Helmi Nong Hadzmi, Jeremy Chong, Naaman Lee, Khor Kheng Khoon, John Tong, Ng Jin Chong, Lam Mun Choong, Thasleem, Ong Chin Yew, Ahmad Fikri Mansor, Kris Uttraphan, Ankur Jakhwal, Chua Wee Yee and Tom Kennedy for opening my eyes to so many amazing lessons that I have learnt from them.
I know these entrepreneurs will go on to make a “huge dent in the universe” and will make this world a better place. Thank you Dojo’ians!