Sunday, June 18, 2006

To be or not to be - Candid

Finance Director (Asia Pacific Region) : “Max, basically I want a staff who is proactive and takes initiative in everything that he does. We have a lot of staff who is only concerned with routine jobs, making sure work is done without adding value to the company.”

Maxforce : Boss, I understand what kind of person that you want. However, our culture here, (pause), and I do not mean Asian culture, (pause), I am also not referring to the factory’s culture, (pause), but more like, our department’s culture, does not encourage people to be what you want them to be.


The above is based on a true story in a Multi-National Company (MNC) in Malaysia. The year was 2005. The exchange was between a three months old, lowly staff member of a finance function with one of the most influential high ranking executive in the Asia Pacific Region.

Let’s go back to the above scenario. Many would imagine, being in a multi national company, we would be practicing World Class Mentality. Unfortunately, in Malaysia, I have yet to see that happening. Maybe it is due to my limited working experience but I have worked in two multinational companies so far, and it has yet to change my perception.

Jack Welch of General Electric fame (and also notorious for his extra marital affair, but we shall separate the CEO from the man), stresses the importance of being candid. Now, how many of you would do what I have done?

Some may find it appalling – it challenges status quo and may sound disrespectful to some.
Some may find it amusing but will never do it themselves for fear of repercussions.
Some will do exactly what I did.
Of course, some would have gone overboard (hehe, I used to fall under this category).

Most people will fall under category 1 and 2. Why? Basic reasons are as follows:

We are raised to respect elders too much. Even if they are wrong, we must listen and never object.
We are often told that we are still new, young and do not understand how things are done.
If we come up with an ingenious idea, we would be challenged, “If the idea is so good, why didn’t the previous guy thought about it” (Because the predecessor was an idiot?)
After a while, our initiative is killed. We only want to be safe in our comfort zone. “Why fix it when it ain’t broken?”
We dislike taking risks. If the project works, we get a few lousy praises and there is always a possibility that the boss may take all the credit. If it fails, it would look really bad on us and we would get a bunch of I-told-you-so.
Then, we would reach this stage that we are beyond caring. We get these sorts of comment and practice to make such comments as well:
“Why are you so hardworking? Spoiling the marketlar bradder!”
“Eh, I didn’t know we have a new shareholder”
“As long as every month I get my paycheck”
*Shrugs* “I am just following orders”

What’s the impact on the organization?
The organization will lose out if no one dares to speak up. Ideas that may yield competitive advantage dismissed. For example, Sam Walton, founder of Wal-mart, spends time discussing and chatting with his delivery men. Ideas were highlighted. Observations made by the drivers were not lost to the organization.

Such culture would not encourage people to own up their own mistakes and learn from it. It merely encourages people to hide their mistakes and blame other. For example

Coca Cola’s problem in Belgium
When reports were received that Belgian school children gotten sick after drinking the cola, Coca Cola’s local managers reaction were to deny that the drink were responsible. Liability lawyers hired by the company then made a press release statements. No one in the senior management were notified until ten days later. By then, a small local problem had turned into an international crisis.

Ulu Kelang disaster
Back to our local scenes. Our dear MB’s reaction was that to blame everything to the contractor. Supposingly, letters were issued one year earlier requesting the contractor to build a suitable retainer wall to prevent landslides. Now, if the authorities had indeed issued such a letter and the contractor did not comply, should the government do nothing? Shouldn’t the authorities ensure that the contractor does their part, failing which fines and penalties come into play? And most importantly, build the retainer wall and bill the contractor via fines? Instead, our government chose to play “tai chi” and “CYA”.
View Patrick Teoh’s Blog on this issue at

Numbers game – New employees were hired to change the culture of the company. Supposingly, the new hires would be able to inject few approaches. Instead more often than not, the new employees get sucked into old culture of not speaking up after being influenced by the old employees. As the number of 3rd class mentality grows, a stronger “keep-your-mouth-shut” culture is ingrained in the organization. New employees either stayed on as a demotivated yes-man staff or leave for greener pastures.

So, why did I do what I did? Certainly I could have just keep quiet and be safe. Why take the risk?
Firstly, it is who I am. I just can’t keep my bloody mouth shut. I cannot imagine working in an environment where I am just the order taker, being a bootlicker or simply a yes-man.
I was also “testing water”. I needed to know if this is where I want to be. As at that date, I was still in my probationary period, meaning, shorter resignation notice. If it turns out that I was working for an idiot, I would leave the company. (My opinion is that an employment is basically an agreement between the employer and the employee. Both has equal rights and stand to gain or lose together. If our objectives are not the same, why torture ourselves?)
I have been accused of being different and unorthodox, because of my attitude to challenge the status quo. I am proud to say that I am guilty. And so it happens, this attitude is my competitive advantage over others who chooses to hide behind the status quo. By engaging in such a conversation with my boss, I have branded myself as a person who dares to speak up. It’s a gamble but if it works, I would be highly valued.

My boss reaction:
After 5 seconds of silence (which seemed like an eternity), he admitted that the culture of the department is as I mentioned. He added a few valuable comments, of which I have listed above. He also mentioned that he has to take responsibility for what has happened. Then, he asked me to be patient while changes are taking place and to continue to give him my insights and my utmost.
That moment I know I will be staying in the company for a while. I was surprised at his reaction as I was expecting the worst possible outcome (where I will just shut up and walk out of his room) but at the same time, I was extremely elated that my views were appreciated (finally?).

My conclusion:

A ship is safe in the harbour, but that is not what a ship is built for. Take risks. You may well be rewarded. Besides, if the outcome is unfavourable, then I would have known that the company is not where I belong. It is not a place I want to be anyway.

Take control – do not be dependent. Do not compromise your position. Firstly, acquire all necessary skills and knowledge. Make yourself marketable. If you are not dependant on your job, you’ll be less inclined to compromise your position. Know that if you have the substance, you need not worry about finding another job.

Spread and nurture a World Class Mentality. The world is a lonely place without a competitor. Competition will only make us stronger. E.g. Proton has been sheltered from competition via excessive import duty on foreign cars. Proton took it for granted and did not improve its efficiency and competitiveness. Just ask any Proton drivers and they will tell you what sort of quality we are getting. Proton still has a foothold locally because of the import duty. However, they have not done well in foreign countries like United Kingdom and Australia. Throughout my whole trip to Australia last year, I have only seen one Satria and one Waja. Yeah, just one of each. Why? They do not have the tariff protection overseas. Competition is based on cost efficiency and product quality.

Have an honest, open, candid relationship with your boss, co-workers and your subordinates.


This blog is inspired both by an internet friend of mine – Wedko and Mr Patrick Teoh.
I met Wedko at a forum called Recom where he has this vision to setup a virtual institution to teach, spread and instill a World Class Mentality.
I also have been following Patrick Teoh’s Blog for sometime now and he is by far the most assertive Malaysian I have ever met. Kudos Mr Patrick Teoh, we’re proud to have a fellow Malaysian like yourself! So when are you gonna run for MP? Seriously, you have my vote!

– Maxforce