18 Jan 2017 was an evening of inspiration. We had the honor of having Mr Francis Yuen, Senior Advisor of Singapore Power International, Former CEO Hong Leong Asia and Former President Honeywell, Trane Commercial Systems and Ingersoll Rand, share the evening with us at Growthbean’s Coaching Circle. By the end of the session and after Francis’s sharing of his experience and insights, we each took away nuggets of important information and advice to help us grow in our career. The following are some key takeaways. Enjoy!
Three pillars of work that every CEO engages in
As a CEO, you have to be able to articulate your vision, the progress of the business and what you want to do. You need to make sure you are prepared and on top of things. There are three key areas that a CEO needs to be involved in:
1. Develop the Strategic plan
Review and evaluate the company’s portfolio and ensure it is growing and sustainable. Consider also the company’s strength and focus in research and development vis a vis that of competitors. Then, build a strategy to move the company forward, either through new markets, products or strategic thrusts. This could involve a brainstorming session among senior executives to tear down the usual practice, to unlearn and re-learn, or to establish an improvement team that will constantly look for ways to improve things. This could even be having a task team to wreck your business, just so you know how to deal with competitors. Francis recommended the book Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, and encouraged the audience to constantly question the status quo and find new and different ways of re-packaging or doing with the same set of resources, skills and technology. This would give your company a competitive and first mover advantage. Francis emphasized that innovation is not just about the technology but also the business model, and considering what the customer wants. What delivers most efficiently or cost-efficiently wins.
2. Develop the Annual Operating Plan (budget) This outlines the key areas and plan of what needs to be achieved in a three-year period with rolling horizon. It is important to map out a plan on how to get there. Francis recommended another book, Execution by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan.
3. Have a HR plan People are key to the company and every organization needs to focus on how to recruit them, develop them, groom and retain them. Succession planning and having a system of rewards is important. It is important to also ensure that you have the right people in the right team who work well together.
With the strategy and plans in place, there needs to be the discipline to ensure that everything is going as per planned. Objectives and milestones need to be set and reviewed at intervals. Budget Reviews should take place every quarter and the Strategic Plan and HR review should be reviewed every six months.
Does one deliberately plan to be CEO?
No. We can only make career choices for ourselves at each stage of our lives, and ensure that we continue to build up our portfolio. If possible, don’t engage in the same type of work. Do something related but not the same. Do not be afraid to try new things or get out of one’s comfort zone. Meet new people and face new challenges. It’d be a good chance to prove to yourself that you can do it. At every step of the way, remember to consider your learning, development, and enrichment. As you climb up the corporate ladder, it is about becoming a business leader, someone who can organize things, assemble a team and help to grow the business.
Having said that, the path to being a CEO requires a lot of on the job training. Business qualifications, a MBA or executive MBA does not qualify anyone to be a CEO. These are just training to exercise the mind. Experience is important – meeting customers and people, and learning to look at things from different perspectives. However, not everyone is cut out to be CEO, but everyone can contribute in different ways.
How does one’s potential get noticed?
People in senior positions assess people all the time. They gauge how excited or passionate individuals are about their work, if they are innovative or a quick thinker. They also tend to ask tough questions, out of their own curiosity and also as a means to assess you. These questions can be about the business, people, the newcomer, or even yesterday’s presentation. Your answer reflects the way you think, and you’d want to be able to answer quickly and sensibly. Seize every opportunity to be seen and seize opportunities in the presence of your boss.
Like in any hiring process, employers do not just look at the individual’s experience. Their skill set and passion, their fire and drive are just as, if not more, important. It is akin to startup investors who are considering which startups to fund. It is not really the plan or the flowery numbers that the investor is concerned with. Rather, it is about the person behind the plan - his passion and commitment, as well as whether he or she knows what to do with the plan or have contingency plans if things do not work out. Things do not usually go as planned, even in big companies. Hence it’s also about how one is able to drive the plan as much as possible.
Managing a Team
There is no one size fits all management leadership style, and one will have to adopt contingency leadership. When working with others, in particular difficult people, always be the one to try to make things work. People want to be respected and know that they are cared for.
If you are taking over a new team, be humble and tell them that you are here to learn and you need their support. Do not try to change everything or fire everyone and assemble your own team. Look out for the individuals who are willing subordinates, leaders and team mates. Work with them to understand the business and then make improvements.
If you have an idea to implement, it is important to convince the team and get their buy-in. If the team gives you their views and well thought through rationale for not implementing it, do take time to assess their points and re-examine and re-evaluate things. You have to get their buy-in or you may have to abandon the idea if necessary. At all times, be prepared to sacrifice, adopt the can-do attitude and show your team your commitment and passion.
Any advice for people who want to start their own business?
Start a company only because there is a need, you have a solution that satisfies the need and it is sustainable with the right people to manage it. Do not start a company just because you want to be CEO.
Secondly, if you have no working experience, do not rush into starting a business unless you see an opportunity that is time sensitive. If people have already done it but you think you can do it better, then you might want to consider working in corporations first to get work and overseas experience. Business school will never prepare you for the real thing.
The biggest test of how committed you are to starting your own business is when you can walk away from a high paying job. Commitment and a belief in the idea would spur you to find ways to push through challenges. However, if you start to have doubts or cannot find like-minded committed people, then don’t start. If the time is not right, or there is no right people to make it successful, it’s better to put it on the backburner.
Thirdly, have an overall game plan. What do you want the company to grow into? Is there an exit plan? Are you in it to see it grow big and look at it with pride or are you in it with the objective of cashing out? Are you able to create value so that people will pay you to buy it over? Are you able to grow it in size? Everyone has different visions and aspirations and you need to know what yours is. Also, remember that it is okay to change plans but not the mission. Plans change as things change and previous ideas may not be relevant anymore.
Views on Failure
Do not get bogged down by failure. Always look forward, not backwards. We all make mistakes, and we just have to reflect on it and learn how to make or do things better. As a CEO, one should also learn to celebrate failure some times. If your staff embodied the values of constant improvement and innovation and attempted to create something which eventually failed, they should be recognized for their passion and commitment. Punishing them would only smother or slaughter motivation and innovation. Then, people would no longer dare to stick their neck out to try and improve things for your organization.
What are your most endearing qualities?
As we can only see ourselves through people’s eyes, Francis saw himself through the good reputation he has in the industry. People see him as a humble, perseverant and people-oriented person with passion to get things done. He is also customer focused and someone who would reach out to all customers to find out their needs and wants, and a team player who would help and support his team.
There are no two CEOs who are alike. Every CEO has different strengths and every individual has to learn, assess their own weakness and find people to complement them.
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by Shane Yan Shiyan & Shamantha Yan Shiya
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