FISHERMEN in old Malacca, Achilles of Troy, and Simon and Garfunkle are widely disparate topics not normally discussed in StarBiz interviews. But Datuk Larry Gan, who has just retired from Accenture as its country managing director after 25 years there, somehow makes them all gel for senior analyst K.P. LEE who caught up with him last week as he embarks on the next phase of his life journey.
BE prepared to sketch a tree diagram when talking to Datuk Larry Gan. A simple question leads not to an answer, but a winding mental journey that meanders up one branch after another. At the end, if you’re still looking for an answer, you’ve probably missed the point completely.
It’s not that Gan doesn’t believe in straight answers – you have to have a vague idea of the destination, he said – but it is the experience of the twists and turns of the journey that make all the difference. “Appreciate and enjoy it,” he said.
Unless you’re a reporter still hopelessly looking for a news lead, there is much to enjoy. Gan’s wisdom trickles in tempting little anecdotes and seemingly unconnected stories, but oozes out most generously in what he unashamedly calls “going a bit astray.”
A little like getting lost in a Minoan labyrinth, you begin to appreciate how one of the country’s foremost thought leaders learns.
By way of the shop along Sungai Melaka where he spent his childhood vending coffee to local fishermen, a respect for the fatal heroism of Prince Hector of Troy, a passion for the classical guitar and a liking for the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkle’s April comes she will, it wasn’t a journey that looked anything like the CV provided by Accenture.
There, the milestones were clearly destinations: trained as an accountant in London, he joined Accenture’s predecessor (and later archrival, but now defunct) Arthur Andersen in 1978, became partner of Andersen Consulting in 1988 and its Malaysian managing partner the following year. He was appointed managing partner for Asean in 1993, and Asia managing partner in 1997, later playing a key role in bringing Accenture public in its 2001 IPO on the New York Stock Exchange.
Now just some six months shy of his 50th birthday, Gan has left the firm where he spent half his life. “I had never planned to stay this long, but now I think it’s time: there is so much more I want to explore,” he said.
Today, Gan said, he would be pursuing his interests in history and the performing arts such as the children’s theatre at Actor’s Studio, as well as spending time with his eight-year-old son, “not just as a to-do list.” He has plans to travel to places like Laos, Tibet and Nepal “to connect the happenings there with what you read.”
He is also considering a number of offers from the corporate world, although he does not divulge any more. But “in the meantime, I want to do nothing,” he said.
The decision to leave wasn’t a sudden one though. Gan admitted that despite enjoying his 25 years’ stay at Accenture, he was well aware of the opportunities around him. “I was on a constant lookout for a new challenge,” he said. Despite having been attracted to join multinationals, merchant banks, and other consulting firms, and toyed with the idea of setting up on his own, “every single time, I came back to renew my relationship with the firm.”
He said it was refreshing to always re-look at the options. “Each time you review an opportunity, it is always so much more attractive when you decide where you want to be.”
Which was why Gan said it wasn’t helpful to have too clear and rigid a goal for the future: there should be a vague idea of the destination but the route options must be open. “Always explore the alternatives and once in a while, go astray. Only then can you make new discoveries,” he said.
Today’s fast changing world, too, demands greater flexibility than two decades ago. “Previously, daily life was ‘almost routine’ but today you have to be on a constant watch-out. On a daily basis, almost everything you read or see in the media either affects your business or personal life, whether it is decisions about national security, commercial groupings or commodity prices. The world feels like a very small village at this point,” Gan said.
Even more so now than ever, he said, a perspective of history was important. “For leaders, history gives a proper context and allows them to better articulate and communicate their ideas, thus giving them a better chance of achieving their goals,” he said.
On a higher level – as a country – this was also a weakness for Malaysia. Gan said: “Our memories are exceedingly short. There are plenty of things we can learn (from history) – we can be ambitious in our thinking and have been successful on many fronts. But there are many threats such as in implementation and execution which have generally been poor.”
It was a mindset change needed for leaders in both the public and private sectors. “They have to reward people who implement and execute, rather than just people with ideas and can’t go beyond ideation,” he said, adding that capability gaps need to identified and addressed.
“You have to use capable people, and if they don’t exist, then you have to question whether your big ambitions can be achieved,” he said.
Yet Gan said it was easy to be overly critical of Malaysia. It has to be remembered that this is still a developing country, he said.
But it is also a land of boundless opportunity. “There is a Malaysian dream, like the American dream, where someone with two cents in his pocket can strike it big,” he said, claiming it was still true.
Although there is still a tendency to reward people for short-term gains and consider intellect purely in the form of ideas, this is changing. Gan said longer term and more sustaining endeavours like building a corporate culture over time, or nurturing a group of individuals into capable managers, or building an organisation based on its core values were slowly starting to be recognised.
“I am all for big ambitions. We have always thought big and achieved big. But it is achieved through the collective intellect and single-mindedness towards execution,” he said.
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