I’m closing down this URL. The new blog is located at SureshGnasegarah.com.
“The boss is always right,” said the guy sitting behind me in my Project Management MBA class. He was some senior executive in a listed company that made a whole lot more money than I did.
“You shouldn’t question your boss too much and you should just go ahead and get the work done, even if you feel that the job is going to be an utter waste of time. Know who signs your cheques.” he continued.
I looked at him and thought to myself that the statement was one of the most idiotic statements I’ve ever heard in a long long time. I then just shook my head because I realised that his statement, while stupid, was a fact of life in many organizations around the world. Malaysian organizations tend to have this culture of “respecting” the boss embedded in their corporate culture under the guise of “Asian Values“. You will note that I added quotation marks around the two key phrases in the previous sentences. The reason is simple – it’s utter bollocks.
The reality is that many Malaysian organizations create an environment of fear that permeates around a boss that is seen as almighty. I find that rather stupid, not because I’m a pretentious 27 year old manager who thinks I know better, but because people should be evaluated on their ideas not their statuses.
Ideas are like raindrops. Too little, and you get a drought. Too much, and you get flooding. Traditional managers tend to treat this flooding as problematic and a threat to their positions. Ideas are a fountain of wealth. You just need to know how to control it and manipulate it – just like how the Three Gorges Dam taps the strength of the raindrops flowing into the Yangtze River and manipulates it into hydro-electric power.
For the average manager, the “Three Gorges Dam” equivalent to idea damming is to create an environment where people can openly challenge your ideas. This is not easy. If somebody comes up to me and tells me that my ideas are weak, it does hit my ego. Saying that it does not hurt would be lying. But what I’ve come to learn over the years, is that a hit on an idea is not equivalent as a hit on an individual. Attacking ideas is necessary in order to make it stronger. It will also enable management teams to evaluate the potential weaknesses of the concept and prepare a plan that looks at both the strength and the weaknesses of it.
The Practical Ideas To Facilitate Truth Telling
Technically, everybody who was attacking my ideas, was a powerful ally to have around. It meant that they cared. It means that they were truthful enough to stand up and defend status quo because they had a genuine concern that changing it would mean disaster. Because more debates are happening and people are telling the truth rather than sucking up to the boss, the business as a whole benefits because better decisions can be made. The question that I get asked when I’m on my mentoring circles is usually what I have done to facilitate truth telling by employees. The few things that I have done is as follows:
- I’ve created an environment where my leadership teams have a vested interest to take care of their people. Because every general is as good as his soldiers, ensuring that my team leaders must look out for their people in order to look out for themselves is an important component of this program. When employees start realising that their leadership teams have a vested interest to take care of their needs, then they will tend to be more open.
- I’ve created staff focus networks, with volunteers who feel that they are vocal enough to voice things out to me. They get feedback from the staff and come back to me with the plain truth. The staff are protected and focus networks know that they are only the messengers. What’s interesting about these networks is that they are also a very important tool to for me to test my new ideas or initiatives. If I have an idea or a problem I need help with, I go to the staff networks and ask them for thoughts. I’ve been impressed more than once with their suggestions.
- I make it okay for people to disagree with me as long as they have the facts to back themselves up AND I do not hold grudges over business disputes. What happens in the meeting room or work is what happens in the meeting room or work. It’s irrelevant to the external context as far as I’m concerned. I am also not adverse to saying that my ideas are not working when they fail, and adopt a fast start, fast fail policy. It might bruise the ego a little bit, but it helps keep everybody happy and the business running.
- I have made monthly 1-2-1s with staff mandatory. Yes, all managers must build a relationship with their immediate direct reports and must give their employees unfettered access to them if they need to talk about anything. I’m quite surprised how in many organizations people don’t tend to have this relationships with their employees. This works because not only does it build relationships between people in the organization, it also helps create an environment where people get “access” to their leaders. For example in my organization, any employee, no matter how new/low to/in the organization gets to have a 1-2-1 with their line managers and will be able to pull me aside to ask me anything at any time. It’s personally helped me understand my people a whole lot better and helped my team managers get a better feel of the pulse on the ground.
Your the boss, start telling the truth
But does telling the truth just stop with employees? Many management teams fail to tell their people the truth. Telling the truth is a two way process. If employers want employees to be open, management teams have to be open and honest themselves.
It boggles me when I read about how management teams in many cultures prefer to hide problems rather than deal with it head on with their staff. They use the guise of standardization and business continuity in the name of stability. They don’t treat their people as people and hope that the business will prosper. People.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting down in a mentoring session and a the person I was mentoring asked me a key question. “
Would you tell people the truth if it hurt your organization and you knew you were going to impacted by it personally because your goals won’t be met?” .
Without hesitation, I answered “Yes”.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no saint. But I am a very logical person. Whenever people ask me questions on how I would deal with a particular people issue, the first thing I do is put myself in the position of people who are going to be impacted by the question. When I do that, I then start to see a different perspective. After that I try to think what the person who will be impacted by this would want to know. On the assumption that everybody would want an answer that is logical, I do what I think is right. It’s harder to do what’s right and tell the truth than to take the easy way out and hide under the mask of business continuity.
“Yes Suresh, don’t take the high ground. How are you going to respond with the problems that are created after that? Your people would love you but your bosses will kill you and you’ll probably lose all credibility among senior managers.”
What he said made me smile.
“What did you say in the last 5 seconds that made any mention at all about the people who were going to be impacted?”
I gave him that “aha” moment, and the mentoring session ended.
So what’s in it for the boss?
Why should bosses tell the truth. Simple, because it builds credibility, empowers your people and is just a whole lot less work. Really, just blatently telling people the truth works and people like it when their boss is honest. In today’s world where the competition for talent is getting even more intense, that’s a competitive advantage that is HUGE!
Secondly, it crushes the validity of rumour networks. Rumours are rumours because people have no authoritative source to go to for information. When management teams start becoming the authoritative source, the rumour networks start losing credibility and you can spend time doing other things. That’s another great benefit.
And really, bosses should start being more real. Let’s all just get off our asses and treat people like people. That’s the ultimate management differentiator.
Saturday, 21st June 2008, was an extremely cool night. I was standing there in front of the stage in my company’s appreciation night and I gave what I would personally classify as one of my best speeches ever. The crowd rallied, my spirits were up and we had a great after party that followed. It was a speech for my people. The people who had worked so hard for me and who I truly honestly think is the most amazing team I’ve worked with in a good while. The party, was my way of ensuring that these guys were celebrated.
Life on top
Life on top is not all that breezy. Social relationships and constructs of the employer-employee relationships guarantee that things will change no matter how you separate the work life barrier. People listen to me when they don’t have to because I’m their boss. That freaks me out. I’ve framed my life around the fact that the man and the actions or ideas is separate. Hence, outside of work, I’m an ordinary person, not a boss. It’s a concept that not many people can grasp.
But more importantly, when I was sitting by the pool that night during the after party, I looked at the people who were around me. They were all my people. My friends. My staff. They were all imperfect. Heck, I was imperfect. Yet, in my drunken haziness, an epiphany struck me. These were the people, who, no matter how imperfect they were, were perfect as an organizational unit.
The people in the organization I work with are nothing short of impressive. I don’t say it enough, but I truly believe it. I paid a visit to another site office the other day and there were some people talking about the service they were getting from my unit. Sure, it was a small service, but they were saying how professional the people were and were raving about it. I listened, smiled to myself, and got off in the next floor. I never saw them again.
Many Malaysian companies fail to realise that the average Malaysian organization has an advantage that most European and American organizations never have – sheer diversity. It’s an advantage that Malaysians tend to forget simply because we’ve been conditioned to differentiating ourselves and not exploiting the diversity in every aspect of our working life. In reality, the more “campur” (mixed) an organization is, the better it’s chances of surviving in the real world. I really like my team because I see this diversity in the organizational unit and it’s something that I treasure greatly. But I digress…
The Last Hurrah
Monday, 30th June 2008, will be my last day with Shell IT International. I fondly remember the first day I joined the group. On that day in December 2005, I had signed up for a job which I had no clue about – a Helpdesk Analyst. I had been working in Malacca for two years and missed the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur. Fast forward to 2008, I currently lead a team with 91 people. It’s an organization that has thought me a lot and an organization that I will forever cherish as the place where I truly grew up. So there is a little bit of sadness due to nostalgia in me as I leave this place.
Yet, behind the glassy eyes and the fear at the back of my head, is the excitement of heading to new and unknown territories. I will be joining the Electronic Data Systems Corporation or more popularly known around the world as EDS. Change is always a difficult thing for people. It’s difficult because, you never know what you’re going to get.
But unlike my other big changes in life, this time I have a leverage that I never had before. I have people working for me which I must commit to taking care off. Skilled knowledge workers that are the heartbeat of my organization and that play an extremely important part in my life right now. I have decided that my leadership team will continue to invest in the people that work for me. And it’s an investment that I believe will have big payoffs in time to come. These returns will only be possible if an organization unit makes a concise effort to attract, train and preserve a culture that rewards people for their commitment. My dream is to make an organizational unit where everybody challenges everybody to constantly improve themselves. For me personally, this means making sure I put in the time to make my extended leadership team members better than me. Only then will I have to continuously push the bar higher for myself and reach for the stars.
Which brings me back to the topic at hand. The journey over the next few months is going to be an interesting one. It’s a journey where I will have to deal with the challenges of change and the excitement of new opportunities. I am scared, excited, worried, happy, nervous and exilarated all at the same time. And I know that this only means that I will have to prepare myself for tougher challenges up ahead – which is really cool, because it means that there are plenty of opportunities to learn and provide new learning opportunities.
The 4 Minute Mile
Somebody asked me the other day if I was a mad person for leaving the Oil and Gas industry. After all, with oil prices at USD$143 per barrel, I would be leaving a cushy lifestyle for an extremely competitive environment.
I told that person, that I had this exact same discussion with another individual when I left academia for Shell. I’ve come to realise that the only way you’re going to shine is if you continuously push yourself to do the impossible. What many fail to realise is that if you have the support of your people, even the most impossible tasks, become achievable. For example, when Roger Bannister was the first person to run 1 mile in under 4 minutes in 1954, he had the help of two of his friends Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, both who acted as pacemakers for Bannister. Mind you, at that point in time, everybody said it was impossible to do a four minute mile.
Unlike my previous leap from academia to the oil and gas industry, this time, I will have the force of a whole team to back me up in the pursuit of greatness. The reality is that I won’t have all the answers and I don’t know all the questions that I will have to face over the next few months. But my imperfections disappear because I have a perfect team. The sum of my team’s imperfection is an elegant perfection. Elegant perfection.
And although Malaysians continue to doubt ourselves and our abilities to deliver world class services, I’m convinced that I will be able to do it with my team. We’ll kick ass and show the world that Malaysia Boleh, is not a term that is used for stupid records but also a term that is used when we truly put in effort to become the best. And greatness I will achieve with them.
Onward to EDS!
I wrote this article a few years ago and it was published in the New Straits Times on the 16th of December 2004. I’m reproducing it here for archival purposes.
I was 11 when my English teacher, Peter Siew, coerced me into participating in a debating tournament. He told me he had chosen me simply because I was one of the more talkative students.
Much of the day of the competition is a blur now. But the few things I still can remember are very vivid.
I remember walking up onto the stage, staring at the crowd in front of me, and being consumed with indescribable fear. I was shivering; my heart was pounding; my knees were so weak I thought they would collapse under my tubby body at any moment.
“The school … the whole world, will soon be laughing at me,” I thought then as I pondered on how I would argue a motion effectively so it would not only excite the crowd, but also clinch the debating title for my school. Ten years down the line, I found myself before speakers from all over Asia – the Grand Finals All Asian Debating Tournament 2002 in Bangkok. That year, I won the Best Speaker In Asia award. And there has been no turning back.
How did I do it? With my five-point strategy.
Become your own superhero
They say 99 per cent of public speaking-related problems can be solved if you are confident. A lot of the fear is self-induced. I made myself overcome much of my fear by invoking an “alternate” speaker.
When I’m on stage, I’m not Suresh Gnasegarah, an ordinary Malaysian from Petaling Jaya. When I’m on stage, I’m Tubby Gnasegarah – invisible, charming, spectacular, and ready to take on the world. I am my own superhero on stage.
Become one with your environment
If you’re going to be giving a presentation to a group of people, make sure you arrive early. Get used to your surroundings. Walk around the room in which you’ll be presenting in. The more things you are comfortable with, the better you will feel and the easier it will be to speak.
Look, stare and embrace
Speakers who bury their faces in their script will never be good speakers. If you’re unable to look at people, try looking at the four corners of the room. This method also helps speakers who are nervous and creates the illusion that you’re engaging with the crowd. When the audience feels they are being “watched”, they will pay attention to what you are saying, and your confidence will rise.
Prepare, prepare and then prepare
Not many people have the ability to speak off-the-cuff. Having trained many people throughout my career as a debater, I realise that many people feel preparation is not important.
Again, preparation here doesn’t mean the process of memorising a particular speech, but researching your subject matter and ensuring that you know the material you are going to present. Nothing turns an audience off more than listening to an unprepared speaker.
Relax and enjoy yourself
Crowds love speakers who are having fun themselves!
These five golden rules have been the pillars to my various public speaking experiences. Hopefully, they’ll help you too.
* The writer is an information technology lecturer in the Multimedia University.
The hardest thing about doing an MBA is not actually doing the MBA. It’s the studying bit.
Must maintain concentration.
About two years ago, I purchased a high end Dell Dimension system for a tidy sum of money. At that time, I was contemplating whether or not I should purchase the three year warranty and decided to invest on it. Not thinking any further, two years later, for some reason or another, my Dell machine’s network card suddenly failed. The bad thing about it all is that it failed on the Friday just before Hari Raya and by the time I had got back from my vacation, the Dell office was closed.
The next working Tuesday, I called up the Dell support center and reported my problem. Twenty minutes later, it was determined that my network card was dead. Immediately, the really professional guy on the phone said that he would dispatch an engineer to my house. My contract meant that the Dell service personnel was to come and visit me the very next day, but I was not free and requested for the technician to show up on Saturday. The parts were delivered to me on Wednesday and on Friday morning the engineer, Tri, called to confirm the appointment for the next day.
Tri’s professionalism blew me away. He arrived on time on Saturday and immediately started working on my computer. He was very polite and very friendly. Although he didn’t really have to (I am assuming this is so), he asked for my vacuum cleaner. Then, he patiently cleaned up my system and fixed everything that needed fixing. When the computer rebooted, he went on to check my virus pattern updates, got it all updated, played some sounds and tested everything. I was extremely happy with the service rendered.
Michael Dell probably won’t read this blog page, but my next purchase 2 years from now, will definitely be a Dell machine. Paying that little bit more for the support was worth every penny.
Benjamin Franklin was wrong when he said that the only things certain in life are death and taxes. Here’s why.
One of the scariest things that one can undergo is involuntary changes that require you to get out of your comfort zone. Comfort zones are great things to have. You know exactly how everything is operating. You have a sense of direction and a sense of what is both right and wrong. Conditions are stable. In many case, the predictability of things makes you perform at your utmost best and you will be able to shine in your own stated objectives. Such is the oddity of human nature and their comfort zones that it is not unheard of to hear prisoners on life terms (which in some countries equates to 20 years in jail) struggling to adapt to the realities of the real world, when released. In an ideal world, everybody would be in their comfort zones. The reality is that this is not an ideal world and comfort zones are a scarce commodity.
“How do you deal with change Suresh?”, “Why are you so calm?”, “Why aren’t your worried about the same things as I am?”
I am not a super human. Change scares me as much as it does anybody else, but I’ve learnt to respond to it quite differently. I have in the past talked about how my job is constantly under threat from individuals in cost advantaged regions. Ironically, I’m an individual that’s currently living in a cost advantaged region. Shouldn’t this be the least of my concerns? The answer is no. Because I’m driving the bus.
Source : The Economist
The table above ranks the most attractive offshoring locations in the world. I know that emerging players in the services offshoring / outsourcing industry (in the red box I’ve highlighted above), will slowly start climbing the ranks of today’s cost advantaged region. That means Malaysia will be under threat in couple of years. But it also means that there is an opportunity to use the lessons learnt in the present industry state to move up the value chain. One comment I usually get from my views is that Europeans and Americans don’t share my sentiments because Asia is a growing region for IT and theirs is not. This is a view I disagree with.
The ability to think globally and act locally is a paradigm that is now becoming more apparent. Sure, work might be moving away from Western Europe but that doesn’t mean India and Malaysia are the right destinations. We’ve all heard of the Bangalore horror stories and seen how they’ve failed when they tried to pretend to be who they are not. Glocalization applies to both the customer being served as well as the server.
In fact, the expansion of the European Union and the pervasiveness of cut price budget airlines like Ryan Air, provides an amazing opportunity for work to move to Eastern Europe. I believe this definitely makes more sense, since the cultural gap among the two worlds (Eastern and Western Europe) is certainly less than moving work to Asia. Bulgaria, who joined the EU club in January, is moving up the ranks to fill this niche market. This means IT workers will have tonnes of opportunities just a stones throw away, in a single European nation. As for the US, Mexico is certainly an option that is thriving, and hence also opens up opportunities for both parties to flourish.
A bus is a very interesting analogy to use in the outsourcing / off-shoring debate. For many workers in companies that are partaking in an outsourcing initiative, there really is nothing much you can do to change the direction of the company. This is particularly so if the company is a large multinational corporation, where decision are usually made by individuals in far off lands. To use a parallel analogy, a bus, like a company, usually has predefined route. The route is generally unchangeable, and like the company, is usually determined by its economic feasibility. In general, people usually say that you have two options :
- Ride on the current bus, or
- Use another alternative means of transportations – like the LRT (or metro).
But I believe in a whole new dimension. I choose to drive the bus.
Take control. Seize the moment. Embrace the uncertainty.
Empowerment is a huge first step towards this sense of independence. This can only come with the realization the days of lifelong employment and fat retirement cheques are now over. It’s everybody for himself, both from the perspective of organizations and individuals. In the past, employees could rely on employers to protect their employment status. Similarly, employers in the past didn’t have to deal with attrition as much employees today have to. The trick to managing this is two folds:
From an employee’s perspective
As an employee, one must realise that organizations generally are loyal to their shareholders, and I must state that there is nothing wrong with this. After all, who can deny the importance of a return on investment or for a company to continue to be profitable. Nobody is obliged to be charitable and one has to acknowledge that the carrot for enterprises to risk their investments and expand relies on good profitability. If you can accept this statement, then you also must realise that the people are the lifeline of any organization. Many IT workers forget that as you move up the value chain, there is only so many things that can be automated. Hence, as an individual, one must be prepared to constantly upgrade themselves to ensure that you continue to add the requisite value points to your individual scorecard. While many people prefer to bandy about the phrase Employee Value Proposition (EVP), I personally believe that individuals are just as responsible to ensure they bring value to the organization.
From an employer’s perspective
Employers must realise that they must continue to empower their workers to make choices. Firstly, because it’s good for business as the best talents usually want to work for a good employer. But more importantly, it also ensures that the organization gets the best value of it’s money. Attrition, which is the scourge of many companies is usually why organizations in Asia generally refuse to train people. But my perspective is vastly different.
Firstly, I believe that by empowering people, the business gets better decisions made and operates with even greater efficiency and effectiveness. If you have the best people, you should, theoretically, make more profits. And I’ll admit, I’m not the first to realise this. Google, has for many years attracted the top talent, and allowed them to nuture their skills by providing programs like the do-what-you-want-1-day-a-week-program. Talent and talent exploitation will be key assets to every organization.
But the dimensions to this take a second twist. I believe that by empowering people, we create a realm of “good attrition”. Historical definitions of attrition generally takes a negative twist. The need and the cost associated with attrition generally has painted attrition as a negative element. There will always be cost associated with attrition but I believe that the attrition dimension takes a different spin when dealing with knowledge workers. Here’s why.
Assuming you have a worker called Anthony. Anthony is a top performer and an invaluable asset to the company. As a modern employer, I would ensure that I adequately develop and train Anthony although I know that he might take away my training and potentially someday even set up his own venture. But why? What’s in it for me as an employer? The answer to this is that if Anthony leaves, 5 other people from other companies or organizations who know Anthony either directly or indirectly will say – “that’s a great place to work, look what happened to Anthony!”. What’s more, the 5 people then tell another 5 people who go on to tell another 5 people. In marketing, nothing beats advertising like hard core advocates and fan-boys. I couldn’t agree more. Letting Anthony or any other typical worker drive the bus, ensures that all parties benefit.
Steps to empowerment
One of the questions I commonly get from the many people I work with is how I maintain my positive outlook in these tumulus and uncertain times. It’s split into a couple of dimensions.
Think World Class
Firstly, I’ve come to accept that nobody owes me anything. Not my present employer, not my future employer. And this has a lot to do with the fact that I grew up in a country with a slightly twisted, but necessary at that time, affirmative action policy. But this fact has nothing to do with what I am. For many years, I’ve always believed that the only way to succeed is to strive for world class quality. In my debating career for example, I moved from being a nobody in 1999 when I attended my first Asian Debate Championship to becoming the Best Speaker in Asia in 2002. When I moved into coaching, I developed and set the foundations for the team that nobody knew had the chance to become world beaters. I took a slightly challenged team, moulded them, inspired them and set the foundations right for them to grow. When I left the team to explore new options in my life, I had already ensured that they were among the top 4 teams in Asia. All of this in a span of just 1 year.
I continue to push myself even today when I believe that everything I do, must be world class. I will continue to benchmark myself against ordinary people who become world beaters like Tony Fernandes, of AirAsia fame, and JK Rowling, of the Harry Potter fame. Remember, do, then apologise if you have to. Think world class means acting world class and that means taking risks.
Secondly, never stop enriching yourself with knowledge. Last year, I signed up for an MBA. It’s a tough thing to do. After all, it seems to me like every time I have to complete an assignment, my friends are going out on a party. It seems to me like every time I have to complete an assignment, there’s something on television that I really like. Every time I have to complete an assignment, another more fun thing pops up. It’s really hard. Sometimes I don’t really know how I juggle it. And then I remember, I need to drive the bus. I smile and then move on. Still, having fun is more fun and when you’re my age, and it’s not too good for the dating life either. 😉
But do I have to sign up for a course?
It’s one of the ways, yes, but not the only way. Enrichment can also come in the form of knowledge acquisition. Whether it’s reading my favourite magazine the Economist, or using Google news alert to get a summary of the latest summary of what’s happening, KNOWLEDGE IS POWER! Do what works for you.
Lastly, always welcome constructive feedback. I’m young, hard headed and many a times an idiot when it comes to handling people because I’m inexperienced. I also have a male ego. Let’s face it, at 26, there’s only so much of the world I’ve seen. But this is where I really began to realise the importance of accepting feedback. There’s a wealth of information out there and because of societal pressure or the need to be politically correct, people refrain from giving feedback. As an individual, one is responsible for ensuring that there is an adequate environment for feedback to occur. Never piss on somebody because they are providing negative feedback directly to you. These people are invaluable assets that you must nurture. After all, if you’re driving the bus, the the alignment does run every now and then. The trick is to take it to the shop when somebody tells you about it and thank him greatly.
Have you ripped your ticket?
Benjamin Franklin would have been right if he said that the only things certain is death, taxes and change. I’m driving the bus. Are you?