Patrolling corridors

I’m really glad to see more debates and discussions about teaching, workload and the relationship between parents, teachers and the system. Having ministers speak on behalf of the teachers rather than just the system itself is also desirable. I think it is almost shameful the kind of expectations and issues parents of today are taking up about the education system, and getting upset with schools about.

I am actually not surprised that the coping mechanism of the school for not being able to explain to parents how their kids fell or injured themselves was to deploy teachers for corridor duties. It wasn’t about encouraging more responsibility and caution from students, it was not to empower prefects to write simple incident reports. It was to deploy NIE-trained teachers to perform surveillance.

But before even looking at the way the issue was being addressed, schools need to determine and decide for themselves where are the boundaries of the problem they are trying to solve and their responsibilities to the students. While the minister brought up a more complex issue on parenting, it is clear to me that the principal of the school in question did not know the boundaries of the school’s responsibilities. Perhaps the inability to push-back is due to years of the system pandering to parents. Or politicians just passing on requests and complaints to the civil servants without due regard for what are the critical issues at hand.

Either way, I see this as progress for our leadership at the education ministry.

Learnings from an enforced pause

Funny how I talk about seasons and cycles and rest; and then Covid hit me. Yes as it becomes endemic. And with this enforced pause that took place right after a vacation and whilst I was almost jumping back into work, I had the chance to reflect on more of life, work and rest. And here are some of my random learning:

  1. Our attention matters a lot. When our attention is not present, we simply miss the moment.
  2. When we develop a plan, perhaps it is more important to note down our intentions rather than how exactly we want things to be.
  3. Make room for serendipity – it gives an addition meaning to the notion that opportunity favours the prepared.

Maybe I should have more pauses in my life – certainly not one forced by an illness. But my mind certainly cherish being forced to pause and just linger in existence.

Primark pricing

Recalling the wonder of my first trip to the Primark store along Oxford Street in London was rather amusing. More than 10 years ago, as I stepped into the store and looked at the price signages, I was so incredibly surprised by the low prices. Being from Singapore, with little natural resources and gone past the stage of textile manufacturing industrialisation – clothes, especially the type you can wear out of your bedroom are not cheap.

But at Primark then, I could get a hoodie for £5, a tee-shirt for somewhere between £3 and £7; shoes for just £10 or £12. Today, the prices have probably gone up by 20-40% but that’s probably just inflation. These clothes were manufactured in Asia, mostly in Bangladesh and Vietnam, but even regular clothes sold in these countries may come at a higher price. I distinctly remember that the Cedarwood (a Primark brand) and TM Lewin shirts sitting in a store in Bangladesh (said to be selling factory rejects), selling at about $25 (around £22).

That reflects the sheer cost savings that comes from economies of scale, being able to manage huge coordinated logistics, of procurement, shipping, fulfillment, and distribution in-store. By selling a these prices, Primark pretty much guarantee volume sale, thus enabling the huge economies of scale. They try to optimise further by reducing packaging to the minimum, doing away almost completely with anything beyond the label and tags on their products.

And just like that, by pricing things low, Primark essentially create a strong flow of anchor business for the textile plant that needs business in emerging Asia. They are willing and able to keep running for Primark because in times when they don’t have so much orders, Primark is there; and when they have too much orders, Primark can step back a little. This flexibility is valuable to the plants who are looking to cover overheads and staff costs, maintain the skilled labour they had hired and trained. And so the value they create gets passed on to customers, and perpetuate the cycle that keeps them in business.

Who do you want to work long hours for?

The world economy is not just in an energy transition or move towards lower carbon emissions. Given increasing automation and digitalisation, the demand for labour should be declining. Nevertheless, there seem to be a general shortage of labour all around. Perhaps it is an issue of skills mismatch post-pandemic. But many have also identified a few other emerging issues including the fact that people are quiet quitting or finding the existing landscape of work broken.

I don’t think people are not willing to work long hours. In fact people are working so much more than in the past despite the luxuries their higher income can afford, including more leisure time. The question is who and what they want to devote these ‘working hours’ towards.

It would seem almost hilarious that people deem it strange the new generation wants to have space and time for their own lives and side hustle. If we look beyond the cultural norms created in the boomer’s generation, it is clear that the direction towards greater capitalism, marketisation and the free economy is that people would be more cautious about how labour is being traded and delivered.

And perhaps that is exactly what is happening. We are finally recognising that the labour market has been broken and with the advent of technology, the solution is more freelancing, contract work and piece-based or scope-based compensation. No more over time or time-based pricing. No more self-worth being tied to your job titles. Everyone can be in the C-suite. Everyone can be their own bosses.

It already started when the corporate or career ladder was torn down one or two decades ago. Partly as a result of economic crises requiring ‘restructuring’ or ‘right-sizing’ of firms. And partly because of the perverse financial incentives pervading the frenzy of financial optimisation through spin-offs, mergers & acquisitions – all of which disruptions the more traditional notions of the ‘ladder’.

In any case, I think the new trends of the workplace are still functions of the direction we have been taking our economy towards: increasing adoption of technologies, reduction in contracting costs leading to the breakdown of the Firm (as predicted by Coase in his theory of the firm), fragmentation of markets driven by endless differentiation and specialisations. That in turn creates a force to reshape demand through marketing, advertising, culture-making – an aspect not addressed by economics but nevertheless driven by economic incentives.

We often forget that our culture is in a large part shaped by economics and incentives; and the doctrines and policy approaches we have taken shapes these incentives in profound ways.

Recruitment emails

I’ve been receiving emails from recruiters. The sustainability and energy industry is in need of talents. Those who are keen to enter the industry and need some directions on how might like to search some of my past blog posts, as well as my coaching hub materials.

Meanwhile, one of the recruiters who reached out to me with a really poor linkedin mail to solicit interest in a job role which inspired this post. For recruiters to be do a good job as they reach out to targeted prospects, they should be including the following details into their initial messages rather than to just connect broadly:

  • Prospective employer background (industry, products/services, target clientele served)
  • Exact name of role or at least describe the role to indicate if this is a leadership or individual contributor role
  • Ballpark range of remuneration (even a broad range like 80-150k gives a clear sense whether a prospect should invest time in the conversation)
  • How a targeted prospect’s profile may potentially work for the prospective client

I thought the 4 points above were pretty basic and part of the work that has to be done by a recruiter. For junior entry roles, perhaps it is not really necessary to do all that because the prospect who is probably an entrant into the industry may not have much history to align with the job role. If the expectation for the job role is to identify mid-career candidates however, then the recruiter must be expected to take on all that work to initiate conversations.

Going purpose

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia has just announced that he is giving the full stakes in the company to trust entities that are committed to addressing climate change challenges. The company is valued at about $3 billion according to New York Times but I imagine the value that it is going to have in terms of making a difference for the world will be way more than that.

Instead of “going public,” you could say we’re “going purpose.” Instead of extracting value from nature and transforming it into wealth for investors, we’ll use the wealth Patagonia creates to protect the source of all wealth.

Yvon Chouinard

Patagonia has always been leading the way in terms of its focus on sustainability and profit for a purpose. To a large extent we need to recognise that Earth and our existence on it is not just the source of all wealth but also all the income stream and values we can generate. It thus serve also as the greatest possible investment we can make in our lifetimes for both our own and our descendants’ future.

The continued fragmentation of the world, driven both by political interests, the self-interest driven nature of capitalism, and the sheer inability to coordinate climate action beyond lip service is frustrating. But Patagonia gives us a clear example of how meaningful drastic actions can be taken that flips the switch on our incentives.

And aligns us to the better angels of our nature.

Physical Retail II

I previously wrote about the power of physical retail and as I recently was on vacation in London, going through high street shops, huge department stores such as Harrod’s and shopping malls like Westfield, I feel even more qualified to share more about the magic of physical shopping and hence retail.

The shopping experience is more than just about giving shoppers a moment of experiencing how it is like to own the item physically and “have it” – there’s also the environment, the context to make the purchase decision, and also the opportunity for store to tell a story about the shopper’s identity.

Take for example the Prada stores that control the number of shoppers in the store at any moment by creating a queue and allowing only a certain number of people at any one time to enter the store. This makes you have that special sense of pride when you’re in the store while looking at the long queue outside, thinking you’ve earned the privilege of being in, so it must make sense for you to at least buy something.

Then, there’s the concept like Harrod’s of having many service counters focusing on an array of product each, breaking down a phenomenally overwhelming shopping experience into something bite-sized. When combined with the sheer variety of goods all around you, there is this sense that something around here must fit you; that you should be getting something!

To that extent, the magic of physical retail would remain for decades to come even as online retail comes to take over more of the purchase of more mundane stuff.

Just looking down

I finally watched ‘Don’t look up’ – which itself is a great piece of satirical artwork. The themes are much deeper than what the movie initially set out to do; it reflects troubles with the culture that we have in the way science, politics, media and citizen actions interact, especially to deal with somewhat distant-seeming troubles that do not have immediate next-moment implications on us.

The film turned out to be really more than just a critique of our response to climate change but how the abuses of attention by politics, social media and mainstream media including pop culture has done to us. The ineptitude extends beyond management of a crisis; it is also problematic in the manner one responds humanly towards the crisis.

The character Kate, portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence was vilified for displaying her alarm towards the issue discovered. The appropriate response is being shamed and threatened out of existence. In the film, leaders were also seen as being highly opportunistic and acting almost purely and solely in self-interest. In all that sense, it may seem unreal but perhaps the fact is closer to this fiction than we think.

Cashless society

In the recent visit to London I was quite surprised by the extent the city has gone cashless. Many restaurants and outlets were no longer accepting cash and donation boxes in public charities have been replaced by just a single gadget that says tap to donate (usually a fixed sum for each tap).

Even buskers along some tube are putting up similar gadgets for cashless giving which I thought was interesting. But it is also clear that the buskers who have no access to the technology, the homeless people would soon be facing even less giving from the public.

There are some avenues to deal with this. For the homeless, quite often they should not be getting cash but more direct help such as hot food and shelter. Street begging for cash as a waning solution should be kept up with efforts both by organisations and the public to help in kind. Cash was a shortcut that may or may not help (they may buy cigarettes or alcohol instead of food); so might as well leverage on the trend for good.

For buskers, the payment gadgets becomes a startup cost together with the operating cost of the financial tech players collecting a cut on stream of payments. My suggestion is for fintech firms to use this opportunity to first propagate their gadgets and services – offer free device upfront for the small fees on payments collected. They might want to target buskers in more crowded, central location of course.

Opportunistic leadership

Leaders of today are mostly driven by being able to identify opportunities to exploit, rather than solving problems present. Take for example the public federal debt of USA – no government really bothered too much about the size of the debt in absolute terms because as the economy grows, the debt to GDP ratio shrinks, unless of course they took on more debt, which they kind of did. Sure, there were times when it seemed a crisis was coming but just change the rules and things seem to go on fine.

There were many of such things that happened during the period of the reign of the boomers. A lot of boundaries that were thoughtlessly set were tested, and then extended. As culture shift, people tried to stretch things: when we moved from little villages in Singapore to high-rise public housing, the high-rise was around 12- to 13-storey; others were mostly four-storey high. Then we started building 20- to 25-storey buildings for public housing, and now 40, even 50. The buildings became built even more closely. The leadership focused on opportunities to keep optimising things and turn people’s attention such that they can define what is ‘better’.

But better also requires actual problem-solving. And often times, that meant confronting the problems that we ourselves created when seeking out or exploiting opportunities. For example, as we exploit high-rise and high-density, our urban heat island effect increases; our living conditions from an environmental, climate and weather perspective goes down even as it appears materially better. People just accept that is a price to pay for ‘development’ – but there has got to be more efforts to figure a third way out.

Singapore’s dependence on foreign labour presents the same challenge. We know that foreign manpower has been integral in our economic development. But we also simultaneously recognise that getting international companies to localise their labour and employment in Singapore can make a big difference to the socio-economic outcomes of locals. Nevertheless, the potential social fissures and inequalities on both ends of the labour spectrum (extremely high paid expats, and low-paid labour in the construction industry that may not have the best welfare and environment) seems to be just accepted as price to pay.

I think leaders need the time and space to prove themselves, make better decisions and serve the people. And while we practice questioning leadership and some of our basic social compact principles, we should also be patient, and mindful that changes will take time. Helping to turn our attention into problems that should not be just accepted as necessary evil or the cost of good outcomes is just the first step. We need to jointly figure out the third way. It is not necessarily one that do not involve trade-offs (that’s probably fantasy), but one that allows us to be conscious about the point where we want our trade-off to be.