I love this recent article by Toh Yan Yun in Rice Media, it makes an important point about Singaporean’s perspective on inequality and also our perceived sense that our meritocratic system will continue to serve us well. I frequently question this point about how well our meritocratic system is working; but more than that, whether our overemphasis on the workings of the meritocratic system we have is squeezing out room for charity. So much so that government needs to use tax deductions as a means to further incentivize donations. Question then, is whether the tax department is the one being generous or the philanthropist?
In believing that we are entitled to the successes and achievements we receive, and seeing that as a system that works, we are also thinking that those who are down and out deserves to be so. Like what Yan Yun says in the article; the belief implies “So long as you play your cards right, your big break lies around the corner.”
Those who have been in reality will certainly respond, ‘Yea, right’. A society that does not see luck and chance playing a part becomes less forgiving for people’s mistakes and even for failures. And this has become so serious in Singapore that people are struggling even with being average. There is some obvious implication for mental health and our functioning as a society.
There are certainly some positive self-fulfilling prophecies in life, and they represent positive cycles in life that we can do more to encourage and harness. Students who have teachers believing in them tend to end up doing better than if they were left on their own; encouragement matters, and more importantly, the social dimension of love and nurturing has an impact on the learning outcomes of students. That is an input for teachers beyond pedagogy, but are we training teachers to believe in their students?
The industrial system works best when we can identify success factors and then invest in them to keep those positive feedback loops in the system. The tricky part is how the industrial system seeks to interact with that ‘scientific management’ koolaid about measurability and creating metrics and indicators. As a result, some of those success factors that are strictly unmeasurable get left out. After all, how do you make sure that a teacher can ‘believe’ in the students evenly in the class? But that question, which is precisely what standardisation and industrialism are based upon, misses the point.
Some of these unmeasurable success factors can generate power feedback loops. Consider the culture of graciousness in a workplace, gentleness, kindness, patience. Just because we cannot correlate the attributes with outcomes doesn’t mean they do not exist. And we all are worse off because we have allowed measurability and ‘big data’ to take such a dominant position in our systems.
A good coach puts some pressure on you to do better and demonstrates his belief that you can do better in you. But more than that, the coach makes sure that what is expected of you is clearly communicated so that you have a clear vision of yourself accomplishing it. The ‘video’ that can be played in your head is important. If the resolution of this video is poor, then it is harder for the coachee to perform. And putting pressure on the person by reminding him or her of the deadline or final prize is pointless.
A coach doesn’t review a race with the runner telling that him or her that at different point of the race, how far or near he/she is still from the finish line. He tells the runner about his or her gait to improve, the rhythm of breathes. The how is more important than the what; but the why even more so. The good coach then reminds the runner of why he or she is running.
It is not possible for managers to help a team thrive without these coaching capabilities. Most managers would just be churning output without developing the team or sustaining the right motivation for the team to go on. Often this could lead to burn-out and poor morale. This is where a strong individual contributor needs to learn new skills to move into manager position and not thinking that he or she can just keep doing what they are good at.
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.
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.
Do you think that Singapore is governed mainly by fear of sticks and people drawn by carrots? That we have a pragmatic society that is often about dollars and cents? And people are following rules because they are induced by incentives and pushed away by disincentives?
If you look at videos of Lee Kuan Yew’s speeches in the past they were fiery but also inspirational. He does not try to push actions or responsibility on people without giving them a destination that is worth their while. We tend to forget this in public communications.
We tend to tell people that they can’t do this or that because if everyone does it, there will be chaos. Instead, they should be saying that when we disallow people from doing this or that, it makes for a more orderly system or design. And it allows everyone to enjoy the environment better.
Instilling inspiration can be more rewarding than trying to great fear. But we are all too anxious for success, too impatient to do that. We prefer to think the energy to wield a whip is less than providing a carrot. That may not always be true.
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.
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.