Up close & personal with Roshan Thiran

The CEO of Leaderonomics calls his company a social enterprise focused on inspiring people to leadership greatness.

ROSHAN Thiran comes across as very driven. Pulling out a chart which traces his career milestones, beginning with his job at General Electric Co (GE), he rattles off for the next 30 minutes or so about his time with the US conglomerate with nary a pause in between.

He spent about 10 years working abroad, moving to different companies and positions within the group.

There have been times when he failed and he speaks of this candidly.

“Failure is the mother of success. It’s okay to fail, but make sure you learn something from that trip,” says Roshan, who is now the CEO of Leaderonomics Sdn Bhd, a company he set up about a year ago.

He calls it a social enterprise focused on inspiring people to leadership greatness. “There is a shortage of leadership role models in this country. When we think of role models, we think of politicians,” he points out.

The company offers leadership programmes to young teens right up to entrepreneurs. Star Publications (M) Bhd has a 51% stake in Leaderonomics.

As the interview moves along, it is obvious that he is a great fan of Jack Welch, the GE chairman and CEO between 1981 and 2001. Roshan joined the company as an intern at 20, after graduating with a degree in international business in 1995.

Welch gained a reputation for his uncanny business acumen and unique leadership strategies. Today, he remains a highly regarded figure in business circles due to his management strategies and leadership style.

Roshan wants to lead, hence the setting up of Leaderonomics. Drawing qualities from a diverse range of people, from Mother Teresa to Welch, from Thomas Edison (who invented the light bulb) to Sir Winston Churchill, Roshan emphasises the importance of leading and learning.

“All of us are leaders in our different fields and roles. There comes a time when one has to lead. It has something to do with giving back to society. The Western world is familiar with this. Seldom is this trait displayed in Asians,” he says.

“Every one of us has the same amount of time. What we do with that time is up to us. The trouble is, when you don’t learn or don’t accept the opportunities that come your way, you are essentially allowing opportunities to pass you by. When you don’t learn, you don’t grow and you stop living.”

He adds that he formed Leaderonomics because he wants to lead as many young Malaysians as he can.

“They need some road signs to guide them. When I first returned to Malaysia, I realised that the mindset here is rather hierarchical. A lot of people had low self-confidence, absolutely no exposure and were unable to think strategically,” he explains.

“Technically, they were sound. But they were unable to perform or communicate the same way as talents from the US or Europe, who had global experience. It is these qualities – self-confidence and a deep belief in oneself and one’s abilities – that I am trying to imbue in the young people, from teenagers to young adults.

“We want to give kids and young people opportunities to have access to leadership. This is how they learn to lead. They have to do it, not just read or listen about it.”

With the technologies available today, he tries to keep in touch with the participants to check on their progress.

He adds, “Most of us have heard of empowerment, but it is something that is difficult to do unless there is constant reinforcement and affirmation.”

As Roshan verbalises his thoughts, one of his staff pops into the meeting room. “I’d like to hear this. It is good for me,” he says and plonks himself in a chair.

Roshan lets him be and continues: “I could have stayed on with healthcare group Johnson & Johnson. I’ve asked myself why I’m plodding along here? I’ve looked back the past one year and I asked myself, what have I learned the past one year?

“I have learned to run a business, balance profit and pull together 25 people of diverse backgrounds. I’m tailoring programmes for young people and working adults.

“The other thing that has changed was the arrival of my son. I’ve always been passionate about helping kids. And this is one very important kid. I was travelling nearly every week during my last posting and I wanted to be in Kuala Lumpur.”

At 35, Roshan has done things and has been to many places those double his years have not. He is still raring to go. Roshan is not going after Utopia. He is after challenges and the bigger, the better.

At the end of it all, the one single thing which drives him is his desire to learn.

He is one who likes to vacuum everything in the brains of those he finds worthy. His definition of worthiness is intelligence, foresight and vision.

There are a number of times where he has failed and he has no qualms telling his listener where he failed.

Much of the work he does today is drawn from his experiences at GE, his first employer after completing his university education.

He has obviously familiarised himself with the conglomerate’s various businesses. He’s also been tasked with different responsibilities – business development, finance, IT and sourcing. And when he was at Johnson & Johnson, he handled its human resources on a global scale.

The sentence “I want to learn new things and to grow” peppers the interview.

“There have been times when I have fallen flat on my face. I have failed but I have also learned from my failures. I have come out of my comfort zone, to take on something way bigger than myself. I have stretched myself,” he says.

“The worst thing is to fail and never learn.” And he pauses.

That few moments of silence is heavy. He’s been rattling on about the different milestones in his life at about 100 words a minute. The photographer lets out a little sigh. It is not easy trying to keep up with his every word.

Roshan then talks about the challenges he has encountered since graduating from University of Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he won a football scholarship. The first flop happened just after he joined the finance department of GE Investments. He accidentally left the staff payroll on the photocopier.

He was fired. For the next two weeks, he was utterly miserable. His former boss called him and asked him why he was not at work.

“He said he deliberately did not call me because he wanted me to learn the importance of data integrity. Today, every time I send out an email, I check it three to four times,” he says.

There were other challenges but the next big one was in Dallas, Texas, also with GE. He was tasked with implementing a system that nobody used. “I learned the important lesson of engaging people and getting them to commit to change.

“Today, that is called the soft side of things. It is pointless to implement change without first of all taking into consideration the people who will be using this system. When you try to change something, you cannot put in the processes and make things happen. You need to engage and empower, and get people to come along and drive the changes.”

As Roshan traces his different stops and the lessons he picked up from his time with GE and Johnson & Johnson, it becomes clear that the pace he wants to keep is almost relentless.

The desire to learn every moment, to be on top of things every hour, to know where he is going every morning he wakes up, fills his spirit and soul. He rises every day and asks himself what he wants to achieve that day. Every hour, he refocuses on what he’s going to do.

“It’s easy to lose sight of my purpose. My weakness is I cannot say no. I am trying to build a team in order to delegate. Every one of us is given the same amount of time. And the better I develop my team, the sooner I’ll be able to celebrate,” he says.

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