‘I would rather be a cockroach than a dinosaur’

  • Books
  • Monday, 20 Feb 2017

Somchit believes that great leadership starts when the leader realises that his or her job is to serve the people around them. Photo: Filepic

Boonsiri Somchit has enjoyed a corporate career spanning over 30 years. She spent 18 years with American semiconductor giant AMD and was responsible for setting up the company’s first offshore financial shared services.

But her leadership development began way before she entered the corporate jungle. It began as she grew up on Jalan Pegawai in Alor Setar. It was there that she learned life’s most valuable skills through the daring adventures she shared with her friends.

Her first book, When The Chicken Dies, Everyone Cries tells the story of how a leader is made, and provides authentic insights into how we can cultivate effective leadership skills today. In an e-mail interview with Star2, Somchit – who is of Thai-Chinese descent and who now lives in Bayan Lepas, Penang – shares some of her key insights.

In the book, you mention asking a global audience of senior managers to repeat, ‘I would rather be a cockroach than a dinosaur’. Why a cockroach?

The cockroach has been around for almost 300 million years, so they were here when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Look around us today. The dinosaurs, majestic and powerful creatures, are gone but the cockroaches are still thriving and still around.

From the cockroach we learn how to be resilient and adaptable. It is something that is needed to survive in the business world – you need to adapt with changes that happen in your organisation and the world around you, or you will be left behind.

You recount an amusing story about how many people can fit on a bicycle at one go. Can you share your insights into what it taught you about resources?

Because we only had one bicycle and everyone in my gang wanted to ride on it, we had to figure out how to fit everyone on it. In the real world, it’s the same. You may not get everything that you ask for but you still need to get your projects done and also to move your team forward in unison. So rather than complain and whine about the fact that your bosses do not understand your needs and how critical your projects are, look instead at how you can use whatever you have today to do more.

When you became an aunt at a very young age, your younger relatives became your servants for a time – what can leaders today take away from how you handled your first leadership experience?

I was a terrible kepala (head). Leadership is about we, not me. None of us make it without any help. We could not have pulled off every strategy, met every goal, been able to “wow” our big bosses by doing everything ourselves, and so our job as the leader is to always remember to reciprocate and to help pave the way for team members to grow with us.

A title is not an entitlement. It should be used wisely to support team members and help them to develop. That is why we should use our title and position wisely. Remember the kepala cannot function on its own; it needs the rest of the body to allow it to move and perform.

Regarding naysayers, you advise that we should “listen, smile, and walk away”. For you, what has been the value of doing this, compared to what you might have done if you had listened to those who tried to put a dampener on your ambitions?

If I had listened to every naysayer, I would not have been able to do what I have done in my career or even what I am doing today. I think one thing that the naysayers tend to forget is that when everyone in the team has a common purpose and shares a common drive, nothing can stand in the way.

No matter what happens you will always find another way so that you can reach the end goal.

When The Chicken Dies, Everyone Cries by Boonsiri Somchit

A common problem found in leadership is leaders who are driven by ego. What are your thoughts on the problem? How does it affect others?

Great leadership starts when the leader realises that his or her job is to serve the people around them and not to be served. When a leader allows ego to run the show, what happens is that team members will clam up. They will not be willing to speak up. They will not be engaged. They will not be willing to go the extra mile.

Yes, they may stay with the organisation for a while, especially if the benefits are good, but guess what? When there is downturn and you need these capable employees, they will be leaving because there is no connection, no relationship, and no loyalty.

You write about the importance of recognising our unique qualities to separate ourselves from the herd. What advice do you have for people who would like to be able to stand out but are unsure where to begin?

Volunteer for anything and everything, even if you have no idea what to do or how to do it. It’s OK, because you can always learn. In today’s digital world, you have the resources at your fingertips so you can Google it or YouTube it and learn.

But make sure that when you commit to helping, you make the time to get the stuff done – but don’t steal the thunder and hog the limelight.

Another way to increase your visibility is to ask questions at forums, meetings and executive communication sessions. Study and know what’s happening in the company and make enquiries. Don’t be afraid to share your own thoughts on any topic, but please do your homework first.

Your book contains several leadership takeaways. Can your share what you consider to be the three most important takeaways for success?

1. If you want to succeed in your career, and even in life, you must be prepared to take risks. Sometimes you may not have all your plans lined up or all your facts and data available. It’s OK, go with your gut. If it doesn’t work, find an alternative – but never give up.

2. Find your strength. Use it, hone it and learn to embrace this strength to develop yourself. As you grow stronger, it will help you become more aware of how capable you actually are and, with that, you will naturally become more confident.

3. As a leader, don’t be afraid to show your own vulnerability and share your own personal memories. This will show your team members that you are no different from them, and they will be able to connect with you more. Leadership is about being human, so be human.

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