Saturday, January 3, 2015

Lessons from Corporate Malaysia in 2014

Mercedes Benz Malaysia Sdn Bhd president and chief executive officer Roland Folger.
Mercedes Benz Malaysia Sdn Bhd president and chief executive officer Roland Folger.
THE year 2014 had been a tough one for many of us.
As I have done in previous years, I penned down my lessons learnt from various corporate organisations in Malaysia. Surprisingly, as I looked back at my Evernote digital note-pad, I realised there were tons of lessons learnt from different Malaysian companies. These below made my Top 10 list:
1. ECM Libra – Grow or decay
In November, Datuk Seri Kalimullah Hassan invited me to a talk ECM Libra hosted featuring Dr Jack Ende from Penn Medical. Ende began his speech by comparing people to wine – both age. The only difference is that wine gets better with age, while we decay. There is a saying that goes “in life, you either grow or decay. If you are not growing, you are in decay.”
Ende explained that most of us reach our physical peak by age 30 while our intellectual peak is in our 40s. After which we start to decay. As I was speaking to a number of corporate leaders during the dinner, we agreed the same principle applies in business. When you are not growing, you are in decay. And at some point in time, decay rears itself externally. Great leaders drive growth. When things are in status quo or stagnant, great leaders push their organisations towards a growth path. Otherwise, decay is a guaranteed consequence.
Lesson for 2015: Are you growing or decaying? Make 2015 your year for growth. Make growth intentional instead of waiting for it to happen. Remember, when you are not growing you are decaying.
2. Johor Port – Speed is overrated
During a leadership programme at Johor Port Bhd last year, a participant raised a question on speed. We had a lively discussion on the importance and downside of speed in a business. Then a wise participant brought up this point – “What is the use of speeding in the wrong direction? You may actually end up worse off than the person who is focused on the right direction yet makes slower, steady progress.”
I could not agree more. Speed is critical in this day and age. Yet, we should only speed once we are clear where we want to go and how we want to go there. Once that is clear, speed is useful. If not, speeding all the time may well be a waste of time.
Lesson for 2015: Speed only when you are clear where you are going. If not, slow down and figure out your bearings.
3. Suria Group (Sabah) – Leadership is moulded through fire
Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Datuk Dr Fowzi Razi, group managing director of Suria Group and having some amazing conversations with him. Fowzi is very clear in his mind that leadership is a process of being moulded through fire.
As we spoke about leadership experiences, we agreed that times of crisis, adversity, change, and great difficulty bring out the best in our leadership. These difficult times mould our leadership perspectives and define our leadership point of view. In fact, we don’t generally grow as leaders when we are maintaining the status quo or in our comfort zone.
Situations that challenge us bring out our best. Leadership is fully internalised when we face adversity, uncertainty, suffering, disruption, alterations and other significant challenges. Leadership and pain are synonymous. So, in light of this, if we truly seek to be great leaders, we need to go through significant pain and challenges.
Lesson for 2015: Are we up for the pains of leadership in 2015? See adversity and crisis through the lenses of opportunity. You will be surprised what you start seeing
4. RHB Bank – Sweat the small stuff
The past few years has seen lots of changes at RHB. Yet, recently, at the MIHRM Malaysia HR Awards 2014, RHB bagged the Grand Award. I had the privilege to hear RHB’s Azaharin Abdul Latiff share the RHB story and one lesson I learnt from RHB is that they “sweat the small stuff”.
To RHB, the little things matter. It takes much effort and dedication to ensure the small little pieces are not forgotten in the pursuit of the bigger goals. Every little person, detail and transaction matters.
This relentless focus on the little stuff enables many of the bigger pieces, including the Grand Award to fall in place. And in spite of the leadership changes, their troops continue to chug along and get small stuff done well. Sometimes, our continued focus on the “big picture” causes us to forget that achieving the big picture requires millions of small dots to be joined together and drawn.
Lesson for 2015: What are the “small” stuff at your organisation? They matter. Ensuring the little pieces are done right will result in big results. Sweat the small stuff.
5. Exact Asia – Leadership commitment counts
This year I attend the graduation ceremony of Exact Asia’s talent in its accelerator programme. As I heard the various testimonials and senior leaders share, I heard one clear message – senior leaders MUST be engaged and committed fully to any change initiative or programme for it to be successful.
Steve Jobs’ personal commitment ensured success of various initiatives at Apple. Richard Branson gets involved in all Virgin’s key initiatives from day one. When I was at GE, Jack Welch’s role-model teaching resulted in other leaders emulating him.
At Exact Asia, their leader Srinivas Sampathkumar together with Nenad Borota were personally involved in their talent programme resulting in a huge transformation across the organisation.
Without your leaders’ championing the cause, you are just wasting your time. Many leaders mouth words of change, but are never committed to the change themselves. Lip service from your leaders, when they call for behaviour change but don’t walk the talk, is a sure way to fail.
Lesson for 2015: Are you driving an initiative or a major change in your organisation? Make sure your leaders believe in the change and are committed to it first before pushing the change down.
6. Mercedes-Benz – Do it right the first time
This past year, my team and I have had the privilege of interacting with Roland S. Folger (pic), president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Malaysia. One thing that impressed me about Folger and his team at Mercedes was their deep focus on quality and execution. During one of our interactions, the phrase “do it right the first time” was mentioned.
I immediately jotted it down and pondered what it meant.
Doing it right the first time means ensuring that every possible process and transaction is accurate and done right. The key to “doing it right the first time” is having the right processes and structures in place which enable employees to have clear expectations. Every organisation that is trying to scale needs to embrace the “do it right the first time” mantra.
Doing it right the first time is a culture that seems to be lacking in businesses today. This results in huge delays, losses and quality issues including rework and recall. A number of years ago, when I was working in an aviation organisation, we had to get it right the first time. Anything less than perfection in our first time attempt could have resulted in deaths.
Imagine if you could build “doing it right the first time” into the DNA of your organisation. It could spell the end for your competitor and it could mean significant profit margins. Yet, not many of us are prepared to build our organisations in this manner.
Lesson for 2015: Does your organisation really care about its quality? If so, are you ensuring you “do it right the first time?” If not, make 2015 the year of quality for your organisation where you embed world-class processes and structure to get things done right the first time.
7. MMC Corp Bhd – Opportunities are everywhere, yet most never see them
This year I heard MMC Corp group MD Datuk Seri Che Khalib Mohamad Nor explain that leaders must always look beyond the obvious and open their eyes to unseen opportunities. He reiterated that there are opportunities everywhere but it requires a different set of eyes. Growth companies always look for opportunities and have an eye for the future.
Many organisations grow complacent when they grow big and soon their “eyes” only see today. They don’t open themselves to future possibilities and thus stagnate. Che Khalib went on to remind us that everyone falls into this trap from time to time. When we do fall into this snare, we need to relook the situation and be opportunities-focused rather than be defensive. Even in times of crisis, there are tons of opportunities.
Lesson for 2015: Have you grown complacent with “today” vision? It is time to re-examine our “eyes” and replace our “status quo” lenses with lenses of opportunities.
8. Paramount Corp Bhd – Always go against the grain
Datuk Teo Chiang Quan, executive deputy chairman of Paramount is a humble yet intuitive leader. He recently vacated the CEO role and I managed to catch up with him for lunch. As we spoke about different issues and challenges facing Paramount and himself, his stories reminded me of what made him a successful leader. He seemed to always go against the norm. He is very proud of Sri KDU, one of the premier international schools. When he first set it up, people questioned the huge investments it required. It was unheard off at that time. Today, there is a profusion of such schools mushrooming everywhere.
At times, Teo had to make hard decisions which were not the norm. As I heard some of his stories, it became clear in my mind that to succeed, you had to be a heretic at times and tear up the traditional script book. Jobs, Andrew Groove and Howard Schultz did it. So have most of the great Malaysian CEOs. Sometimes you just have to go against the norm and do things that other companies aren’t doing. It may be risky, but in the long run, it may just be the reason for your organisation’s long-term sustainability.
Lesson for 2015: Don’t be afraid to play the role of a heretic. Be different. Don’t be afraid to stand out of the pack. You may not please people today but in the long term, you may reap huge benefits.
9. MIDF – Execution means everything
I had the pleasure recently to sit through a business project review session that Datuk Mohd Najib Abdullah, group MD of MIDF conducted with his high potential leaders. At the review, Mohd Najib explained the importance of execution and following through. I started jotting down notes and I heard four key aspects of execution:
> Clear goals that compliment overall business strategy;
> Ownership for those goals;
> Clear measurement of progress regularly; and
> Clear accountability of progress.
Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy in their book Execution state that execution requires having a “systematic way of exposing reality and acting on it.”
I have worked in numerous organisation and the ones that have thrived are the ones with a clear sense of execution. Many young entrepreneurs feel that having a great idea and good timing is what will make their business thrive. I know personally that timing and great ideas are completely useless if you don’t know how to execute. The ability to execute is what separates the greats from people with good ideas. Everyone has ideas. It is the person that takes the idea and makes it a reality that will win.
Lesson for 2015: Are you executing the great ideas you have? Don’t regret when others execute your ideas and you then lament and claim that you had that idea first. Ideas are meaningful only if you can execute them.
10. Leaderonomics: Love your customers and don’t sell products
I usually refrain from internal lessons learnt but this lesson learnt from Ian Lee, our head of Growth and Diagnostics, was just yelling out to be shared. Lee shared that we must all learn to really love our customers.
In reality, not many people really love their customers. Most will claim to do so. In fact, during an interview, you find that most shy away from customer-fronting roles. Why is that so? Because dealing with the customer is not easy. Customer reject, negotiate, make harsh demands, expect crazy needs to be filled and are fickle. Working internally in back-end functions is easier and safer.
Yet, at Leaderonomics, there is joy in partnering with customers. Part of this joy is because customers provide ideas and insights for new products, new avenues of application of your offerings and also early warning signals on your quality and expectation fulfilment.
Another key part of loving your customers is not to sell products but to solve their problems. Providing customers with possibilities rather than products usually results in sustainable relationships and revenue.
Lesson for 2015: Customers are the lifeblood of your organisation. Everyone knows this but not many internalise this. Knowing your customer is knowing your future. And remember, don’t just sell products. Solve their problems instead.
Final thoughts
2014 was indeed a very tough year for me personally with many amazing lessons learnt. But the most important thing about lessons is to internalise them and leverage these lessons. Make 2015 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 in 2014.
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. Check out Leaderonomics’ new leadership content site at for more great tid-bits of wisdom for 2015.

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