What does it mean if companies declare that they are committed to the energy transition including committing resources towards it, and massive investments, only to make a U-turn when oil & gas turns out to be way more profitable? It tells you that it had always been about the money it makes rather than the transition. Never mind that the fossil fuels continue to drive up carbon emissions and hurting the climate. In fact, maybe climate change would drive up demand for energy – especially in terms of heating or cooling, or requiring more activities in the economy to deal with and mitigate the impacts.
Can the work of accelerating the energy transition be left to the markets? Can profits really motivate companies to support the transition and reduce carbon emissions? Does the market demand understand, appreciate and would be willing to drive and pay for the transition? I don’t think so. Absent regulation, it is unlikely for the markets to drive the emergence of the solution. It is as if we want seat belt manufacturers to drive the messaging around safety and benefits of having seat belts rather than legislate it as a requirement in cars. Or just waiting around for cars to adopt them as the standard feature in a car.
We probably don’t have enough time for all that to make an impact on mitigating climate change. Regulations will be required. To put a price for carbon on the market, to push technologies and options in the market that will reduce emissions. We must also evolve and steer the regulation as our understanding of the technologies and impact on environment advances. We don’t have to get everything right on the first try but we do need to be trying.
The former China CEO of McDonald’s Kenneth Chan penned a recent opinion piece in Channel News Asia about Singaporeans not taking on leaderships in global companies. It was written in the “practical” Singaporean way that focused on the steps towards being ‘next-level’ and being ‘bold’ to be a leader. He described personal insecurities and his experiences on the ground to rise up.
Personally, I’ve had a host of regional experience within China, South Asia and Southeast Asia during my time with the Singapore government. At International Enterprise Singapore (IE Singapore, now Enterprise Singapore), I had the chance to work with Singapore companies on their internationalisation plans and follow them to markets you would not even think about as a man-on-the-street. Subsequently, I was in the pioneer team of Infrastructure Asia, engaging regional government bodies on infrastructure projects. That gives me the exposure, the open-mind and also the skills to communicate and manage cross-culturally.
As a Manager at the Sydney office of Blunomy today, I am leading teams of consultants across our Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne offices. I often have to facilitate exchanges with our European offices as well. Insecurities or perceived inadequacies may hold me back but ultimately, it cannot be the fear of me losing my edge or competitiveness that drives me forward.
And that’s the issue I have with the way the article was framed. The opinions expressed in the article reeks of the same old fear-mongering about Singaporeans being comfortable and losing out. I’m not sure if this works for the new generations of Singaporeans nor if that is the right motivation to begin with. The challenge for Singaporeans is not so much the desire for comfort but the lack of worthwhile aspirations. It used to be that rising up to be a ‘GM’ or a ‘CEO’ was something worth aspiring towards. But that simply isn’t the case today with the new generation.
The ‘boomer’ aspirations are simply not worth fighting for. It is in dealing with the ‘why’ that we find our fuel to move forward. “Success” as is constructed in past generations might not work anymore. Instead of aspiring towards “senior leadership” of global corporations, Singaporeans should be desiring to lead the charge of changing the world. Leading global organisations are means to do this. And then it is no longer about remuneration and the practical barriers of relocation and incentives. Monetary incentives should not be the reason for taking up these positions because they are challenging, stressful and hard. There is only so much money can drive that sort of sacrifice. It is the inspiration and influence that counts.
Think about Kenneth Chan leading McDonald’s – you’ve the chance to change the diets of millions of people by making decisions on the menus of your outlets. By thinking more deeply about the toys and promotions on Happy Meal, you get to reshape the aspirations and fancies of a generation of children. That is why it is worth being the leader of a global company – not because of the recognition or being labeled a ‘talent’.
Likewise, if you’re heading up a technology company, it shouldn’t be about maximising shareholder value or aiming to enable investors to make more money. Those elements are important only to the extent they allow businesses to continue making a difference. It is the ability for the technology to grow, benefit people and shape the future into one that we want their children to be part of. That can tip the scale of our motivation no monetary incentives can.
Are we equipping Singaporeans with the right aspirations? It’s not about skills and all that jazz about leadership. Those are important. And yes, government incentives with relocation or settling back in Singapore after stints overseas can help. But what is it that is worth Singaporeans developing that leadership for? That’s what we should be developing.
There are imposters around us; they pretend to be doing their work but are actually creating problems for their coworkers to solve. They are starting fires around workplaces that we all have to put out. The only issue is that companies are trying to get people to practise teamwork and they are not trying to sniff out imposters who are just pretending to be teammates. Unless you start playing office politics and all that.
What this means is that if you have been doing well, and keep doing well even though you didn’t seem to have previous experience or built any credentials around it, you’ve already proven yourself. What this means is that if you have some suspicion about yourself as an imposter, consider your intentions rather than your qualifications. What makes you an imposter is when you have drastically different intentions from the rest of the team.
It’s not just your qualifications that gets you there. It’s your intentions as well.
Our convenience in this day and age is built upon waste. Lots of it. When we order delivery, we compel an additional person in the society to actually go to the shop to fetch the food for us, bringing it to us before going about his or her way. This creates 3-4 journeys instead of two. It generates more packaging waste and potentially more transactions: between you and the platform, the platform and the deliveryman as well as the platform and the food outlet.
Yet our economy is built upon such foundations, that we generate more activities, monetise and measure it, and consider that an uptick in our growth and economy. Sure, maybe the ability to pay for the service and choice to take it up means you are able to spend that time more productively, at something where you can make a higher level of contribution to society. Indeed, if that is the case and the basic parameter of decision-making, then the economy and society becomes more efficient, not more wasteful. But that is unlikely to be a real decision parameter.
Convenience is something more about psychology, behaviours and motivation than with the cold-calculus of cost and benefits. Besides, the weighting of cost-benefit across time is not as simple as imputing an interest rate or discount factor the way we analyse it in economics. The discount factor adjusts due to the manner our psyche responds to context and situations.
The question then is whether we want to make that short term gain in our economy, giving in to our impulses or to generate the long term sustainability in our world and fulfill a greater meaning for our lives on earth?
As organisations grow, there’s inevitably a lot of time caught up in meetings and processes to keep people informed, to synchronise and align things. During my time in government I probably spend more than 40% of my week in large team meetings that quickly consume 5-8 man-hours just trying to coordinate activities or update bosses.
I experience that process of bloating as I journey with growing organisations I’ve been with. And I often feel helpless about it. It seemed to me as though the bureaucracy inevitably comes no matter how much we are able to delay it. Technology tools can help to a certain extent but it also creates the convenience and reduce the excuse of coordinating more frequently.
In my perspective, there is this continued struggle between coordination, management and actually getting things done. The bigger and more complex a project is, the more time and resources gets devoted to such work. The question is, what are big projects and such grand scale for? Why do we always focus on scale economies without recognising the downside it has on productivity of our people? Is scale really to capture economies or to feed egos.
What do you view your salary as? Is that a measure of your earning power? Or the return on your education and preparation? The cashflow returns on the asset of your human capital (there’s further capital accumulation through learning on the job). Is it always about trying to increase this return? Or is there anything about getting more days of leave each year? And more benefits?
And do you think you can ask for more? Who is in the market for your labour? And who are you competing? If you consider that your employer is merely paying an ongoing subscription on your full time services as an employee, would that help you think about how much you’re going to ask for?
Why does it seem that the work you do to earn that salary also matters a lot? What actually drives that perception? If you earn $6000-$8000 a month as a construction worker, would you take it up? Assuming you’d be trained from scratch. What kind of work gives you the sense of balance between your salary and the output being produced? How are they shaped by your own thoughts and the people around you?
Many questions and it takes a lot of adulting to answer them. Some of us might never even come to arrive at the answers despite a lifetime of work.
There was a time when I gave very indirect feedback. Especially when it comes to negative feedback. It was probably an artifact of my work in the government where people are just way too afraid to offend. And often, the boss could be the one making a mistake and no one wants to embarrass him/her. So it was perhaps a big change for me when I joined a French firm. The french were known to disagree passionately about things; and also give pretty direct negative feedback.
Fast forward 2.5 years at the firm. I got feedback from fellow countrymen that I was too direct in giving negative feedback. Upon reflecting and scrutinising the way I gave feedback, I think it wasn’t so much an issue with the directness but how far I was criticising the work rather than the worker. I might not have been delicate enough to recognise this. Going forward, I’d have to pay more attention to structuring these feedback. And there’s a model I came up with which I’d like to share. It follows this framework:
Start by discussing expectations and standards
Then bring up observations on the work done. Note, it is the work and not the ‘performance’ of the individual
Get the individual to compare and share what they think are the gaps
Discuss how you can help them with the gap
It is not easy to follow this framework. Because we are quick to start sharing our observations and how things can be better. What is missing is the point about standards and expectations. Even if those are implied and not made explicit, there has to be some way of aligning it.
In a previous workplace of mine, there were a lot of strong, capable people who were good at problem solving and very oriented to that. However, they were not always good at identifying the right problems to deal with nor defined the problems well. So they went on and hack away at problems that were poorly defined and ended up not solving much. A lot of resources, energy and efforts were squandered on poorly defined problems.
To give an example, we could think about it from the perspective of an observation first. Say, there is a cat which is on a tree and meowing. Objectively speaking, it is not clear if there was a problem. It might be a problem to the flat owner on the second storey who is annoyed by the noises made by the cat. A cat lover might think the cat is stuck on the tree and unable to get down. The one who planted the tree and lives on the ground floor might think that the problem is that the cat might scratch and damage the tree. Now if you want to help, you need to define the problem in the context of someone’s perspective.
While there seem like a ‘straight-forward’ solution which is to remove the cat from the tree, if none of those people I mentioned saw it as a problem, then it would not have been considered a solution to begin with. If we contextualise the problem as the meowing, then the solution could just be to get the flat-owner to put on earplugs or insulate his flat from external noises better. Without the other stakeholders in the room, the solution set actually expands.
Problem solving is just the last stage of a repertoire of skills we need in the modern workplace. Being able to identify, define and contextualise problems can be just as, if not more important.
Probably for the first time in the history of my personal blogging, I’ve brought together all my writings under a single site. Since migrating kevlow.com to a self-hosted platform (though you probably won’t be able to tell), I’ve pulled in some of the even older pieces of writing I’ve put out on the internet. This includes blog entries written from as far back as 2005.
Looking through my entries, there was the period of 2011-2013 when I wasn’t so active probably because I was busy in LSE. It was probably a bit of a shame because those were some really formative years as well in terms of the development of my academic thinking and also integration of my faith into my intellectual identity. Perhaps I had wanted to keep things a bit more private. I would like to point out that those were also years when Tim Keller’s writings engaged my mind so much more.
The focus of my writings has certainly evolved significantly especially with the addition of topics around energy and climate. My passion for education and learning was more dominant earlier in my writing though I wouldn’t consider it to have died down from then. My interest in other topics had expanded.
I could have continued to keep my writings in different niches and have them separate but I realised that in some sense, they were reinforcing one another and were all products of my principles and conviction that drove me. After years of refinement, my conviction is still towards this broader theme of trying to create a future that we all want to live in. Whether it’s energy, education, sustainability or economic development, I am future-oriented and all for investing in what is to come.
Ordered something and there was something wrong in the order? Delivery delayed? Put in a complaint and got a voucher code? What was the promise from the company when you first made an order? Was that promise broken?
Service promises have been escalating under the competitive pressure in the consumer markets. But these promises are increasingly costly to deliver consistently and cheaper to break.
Think about these platforms – they probably make about 10-20% margins so giving you a $5 voucher might cost them only $4 but you will end up spending $10 more potentially which allows them to cover another $2 and end up costing only $2 for the broken promise rather than having to invest in better systems or pay their service staff more to serve you better.
In long run, it does mean you pay higher prices, continue to get poor services and allow these business to remain in that bad cycle.
If we start taking promises by businesses more seriously, be less tolerant of poor delivery of service promises, we might just be able to create a better culture for business and for our future generations.