And make 2014 a great year by learning from everyone and everything.
THE year 2013 has been an amazing one for me (and many of you too!). As is customary for me, I usually reflect on the year gone by and write out lessons I have learnt.
Here are my top 10 lessons from Corporate Malaysia:
1 Alliance Bank – SMEs are the future: Invest today for tomorrow’s Success
Every year Alliance Bank wins awards for being the best bank for SMEs. Last year, I sat on the judging panel for its BizSmart competition. BizSmart was Alliance’s way of helping grow and support SME businesses less than three years old.
I met future superstar entrepreneurs like Christy Ng and Brian Ong, who gave me a glimpse of the future of Corporate Malaysia. SMEs are the future and organisations such as Alliance Bank understands that investing today in tomorrow makes wise business sense. It is the surest way to grow your future.
Lesson: Ignore the SME market to your peril.
2 Malakoff: Stop groaning and take action
Malakoff is known for its leadership development and talent acceleration programmes. A few months ago, I was teaching a class at Malakoff and a participant started moaning about issues he faced. Within a few minutes, another participant stood up and rebutted him through this story:
In ancient times, a king purposely had a stone boulder placed on a roadway. The king hid himself and watched to see if anyone would remove the huge rock. Some of the king’s most prominent merchants, courtiers and citizens came by and simply walked around it.
Many loudly blamed the king for not keeping the roads clear, but none did anything about getting the big stone out of the way. The moaning and groaning went on for hours. Then a peasant came along carrying a load of vegetables.
Approaching the boulder, the poor man laid down his burden and tried to move the stone to the side of the road. After much pushing and straining, he finally succeeded.
As the peasant picked up his load of vegetables, he noticed a purse lying in the road where the boulder had been. The purse contained many gold coins and a note from the king indicating that the gold was for the person who removed the boulder from the roadway. The peasant, who didn’t moan, but took action, got the gold.”
Lesson: Action beats groaning and complaining any day. Every obstacle you face presents an opportunity to gain, learn, grow and better yourself.
3 Mercedes Benz – Employee engagement takes effort but it is worth the costs
A few weeks ago, Mercedes-Benz Malaysia president and CEO Roland S. Folger launched a talent development programme which has been running a couple of years as part of their efforts to engage with employees.
As I was listening to Folger and later on, to senior leader Veerappan Annamalai go through the various activities, it dawned on me the importance of working hard at engagement. It is easy to talk about “engaged employees” but it takes time, effort, processes and commitment to drive engagement.
Rob Marley, head of Bain & Co customer marketing and strategy practice says that there is such a strong link between engagement and customer loyalty. He believes companies that seriously focus on this area stand to enjoy a substantial competitive advantage. “It doesn’t really take that much to make a huge difference,” adds Markey.
Mercedes-Benz Malaysia, in spite of its staff size, has shown commitment and drive in this area. Regardless of the size of our operations, employee engagement matters and we need to take time, effort and leadership commitment to make this a part of our 2014 commitment.
4 Citibank – Don’t over rely on assumptions
Last year, I had the privilege of spending some time with Citibank CEO Sanjeev Nanavati. Sanjeev is always full of stories. Over lunch one day, he told me a story about his two children. He outlined a situation to them.“There were five frogs sitting on a ledge next to a pond. One of the frogs decided to jump into the pond. How many frogs are there left on the ledge?”
His oldest quickly answered “four”. It was a simple math question. The younger kid paused and said: “None of the frogs jumped. All five are still on the ledge.”
What was your answer? Your answer may be zero as frogs tend to follow the leader. If that was your answer, you got it wrong. The younger child got the answer right. Why?
If you read the question again, it clearly says one frog DECIDED to jump. But it does not claim that the frog jumped. We all quickly made an assumption that the frog jumped leaving four others behind. Sanjeev went on to remind me the dangers of assumption in business. We all make assumptions on everything we do. Projections, estimates, analysis of our business, big major decisions are all made through usage of assumptions. If our assumptions are wrong, regardless of how good your decision-making process is, your outcome will be wrong. Sanjeev reminded me that it was more important to spend time understanding what the various assumptions were as much as we spend time on making the decisions.
Key lessons for 2014: If you break down the word ASSUME, you get ASS U ME. And one of my old bosses in Europe used to remind me weekly in my younger days, “Please don’t assume anything, or you will end up making an ASS of U and ME!”
5 Axiata – Invest in top talent early
In 2013, Axiata launched their Axiata University Leadership Development Programme and invested in top university students. To many, this may not be wise. But Axiata has got it right. The formative years of leadership are developed in schools and universities. By investing deeply in students, Axiata has wisely chosen to start their talent management efforts early in a leaders’ cycle.
Datuk Seri Jamaludin Ibrahim, at the closure of the programme, reiterated why Axiata made it a priority to develop leaders for themselves (and for the nation) — it makes business sense. Looking back, I personally benefited from GE investing in my leadership development while I was in university through intense camps and structured internships. Investing in top university students ensure they fall in love with your organisation and ready themselves to be immersed into your organisation from Day 1 of employment. And you get to groom global leaders in their formative years.
Lesson for 2014: It is never too early to invest in great talent. The earlier you start, the bigger the benefit to be reaped.
6 Paramount Group - Always aim for greatness
Paramount Group chairman Datuk CQ Teo, is also a school alumni. He has taught me countless lessons the past few years whilst working on alumni projects together. Last year, I had the privilege of hearing him address his senior leaders on succession and how leaders need to develop leaders. One point he made, which he personally lives out is this: “It is good to be good but better to be great.” Greatness is something all great companies set out to do. It is not impossible to achieve greatness but it is painful and takes great effort.
Lesson: Every great achievement was once considered impossible. Greatness is possible. It is something every company in Malaysia should strive for. Don’t settle for being good and OK – aim for greatness!
7 TalentCorp, Mckinsey & PepsiCo – Women, the new capital
A few months ago, I was invited to a special TalentCorp-McKinsey talk where Joanna Barsh expounded the need for more women leadership in the workplace. As I was among a handful of men in the audience, it was interesting to see how the women in the room debated on various aspects of women leadership. TalentCorp CEO Johan Merican, together with Salika Suksuwan constantly remind us that unlike other countries where women may take a break for a few years but later return to the workplace, Malaysian women tend to leave their offices in mid-career and never return.
Last year, I also had the privilege of meeting one of the top women CEOs in the world, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. As a good Indian daughter, she is personally taking care of her mother and also balances being a good wife and mother to her two kids. Nooyi is a great role model to women everywhere. Yet, she advocates that the corporate world MUST start embracing women and change our policies and culture to enable women to thrive in their leadership roles. As I thought about Barsh, Nooyi and Suksuwan, it became clear to me that women are the new capital. We have to hire, grow, develop, care for and build processes so that they can be great leaders in our organisation. If we don’t, we may lose a great opportunity for an amazing talent pool for our businesses.
8 Star Publications – There are hidden gems everywhere
Last year, I spent a few months on a “sabbatical” assignment with the Star Media Group. The most fun part of this assignment was meeting people, learning what they do and looking for “hidden gems” in the organisation. Interestingly, we uncovered not just one or two hidden gems, but tons of “gems” spread across the organisation. As I explored this further, I found that most companies have enormous number of “hidden gems” tucked away in the far corners of the organisation. It usually takes someone from the outside to see these gems for what they are – great opportunities for the business.
The majority of business transformations do not begin from external sources. Most of the most remarkable transformations in history, from Apple’s rejuvenation in 1997 to Marvel Entertainment’s rise from the grave point to an internal trigger. In fact, Marvel, which had more than 5,000 superheroes and comic characters didn’t realise the goldmine they were sitting on until they were close to death and a new leader who looked inside uncovered these gems and made these cartoon heroes into movie celebrities.
Lesson: Look deep into your organisation for hidden gems. They exist. If you can’t find them, look harder.
9 S P Setia – Don’t ever listen to anybody. Do it your way
I had the opportunity to listen to S P Setia CEO Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin a number of times last year. He is an extremely passionate man who never tires to teach and inspire. One key lesson I learnt from him last year was his constant reminder to “do it your way.” You will always receive lots of advice and well-intentioned counsel, yet he advocates that it is not important to follow these suggestions unless it makes sense to you. The best leaders know when to listen and when to ignore such advice but keep pushing. You determine your success. So don’t give yourself excuses that you took “expert” advice and it fail to pan out. Believe in yourself and keep pushing forward.
Lesson: Be your own leader. Be authentic. Be yourself, always!
10 Tupperware – It is far better to give
Tupperware MD David Wang is one of the most humble leaders I have ever met. He and his team have built Tupperware into one of the most outstanding organisations in this country. Part of their success is their believe in giving. I remember how the folks at Tupperware provided numerous products (with food!) to the rural villages of Sarawak and other parts of Malaysia. Although there was a limited market for their brand in rural Malaysia, Tupperware continued to give their best because they cared.
Even with their employees, Tupperware gives. In spite of not having thousands of employees, Tupperware still managed to invest deeply in the development of its employees through special programmes. Tupperware continues to give and they continue to grow. David and his team truly embody the statement “the more you give, the more you get! For it is far better to give than to receive.” Great companies understand the power of giving. The more you give a community, the more the community rallies around you and your product. Giving authentically (and not for CSR and publicity only!) makes a huge difference in the power of your brand.
Lesson: Keep giving of your time, energy and funds to make this world a better world. You and your organisation will be blessed many times over.
There are many more lessons I learnt last year. But the most important thing about lessons is to internalise them and leverage on them. Make 2014 a great year by learning from everyone and everything. Thank you again for partnering with me and my team at Leaderonomics in so many ways. I wish you blessings for the new year. Remember to keep learning and keep growing.
Roshan Thiran is CEO of Leaderonomics, a social enterprise passionate about transforming the nation through leadership development. Roshan and his team at Leaderonomics wish everyone a blessed New Year ahead. For great learning programmes for your organisation for 2014, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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