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


Wedko said...

A brave new world!

I like your chat up line, it made me curious.

For the first few seconds, I was wondering what was the point of starting with all the dialogue, was it a drama or sketch related blog?

Well say, Maxforce. I admire your 'speak out for yourself' spirit.

I have no comment on the organisational culture as I neither worked in a large organisation before nor in Malaysia long enough (about 1 year) to continue the debate.

Nevertheless, what I want to see in Malaysians is to have big dreams, dream of being the head of your organisation (even it is a multnational companies), not only in Malaysia but globally. Please don't think in the way that 'ah, I am a Malaysian, I will never ever get the post'. Change your mentality, then you will be closer to your dream. God is great and fair, everyone has same brain, it is depending on how you are going use your brain.

Maxforce said...

Thanks man. I was afraid I look too self absorbed, but I needed to give an example which I could really relate to, and whats better than our own experience?

I agree with you about the thinking big mentality. It seems that many Malaysians simply just admit defeat before competing. Anything foreign is good. Anything local is bad. *Sigh*

Anyway, I started with talking about being candid to stress one point. You would never know what results it could bring! But it is the fundamental cornerstone of any success or any character building. Before we could really talk about World Class Mentality, we would need the culture of being candid. It is not an audacious act, merely what is necessary. An organisation cannot improve if the people are not candid. The management would never be 100% right and they would screw up every now and then. It would be up to the members of the organisation to highlight the problems and screw-ups. The same principle applies to individuals.

I used to be very sensitive to criticisms. I just couldnt accept any negative comments. But it wasnt that the comments were negative, it was the manner I perceive it. Today I try my level best to view it positively - ie as an opportunity to listen to views and a possibility of me becoming a better man.

In our local front today, we have sad ministers like Samy Vellu who attacked the media and accused them of having an agenda when all the media did was highlighting what needs to be done! Yeah, no doubt it highlighted what Samy screwed up and reflected badly on him, but by making such statements would only further dent his whatever reputation left.
Things were not done. There were many screw ups. Media merely highlighted them. Samy should have thanked the media for bringing the issues to his attention and take the opportunity to make things right! The nation knows that one man cannot look after so many things. We would understand if certain things were overlooked. However, when someone highlights the issues, please be thankful that someone is helping you with your job!

David said...

What lar no more updates liaw ar, why so inconsistent wan?

But on your example about Samy Vellu being attacked by the media. He would not be attacked in the media if the powers to be did not as it is controlled by the MCA and their taiko our beloved UMNO ministers and the PM. Just a thought, could it be because they would prefer that he steps down, away and be gone?

Maxforce said...

Glad you were a reader of this blog. Sorry for the "inconsistent update" as currently I am working almost 24 hours a day!!! Budgeting period and two of my senior managers has left the company. Really short of manpower. I ve got a new hire under me, which seems to be quite bright, but as she is new, that would mean that I would need to spend more time training her.
Shall be updating some time this week.

By the way, regarding Samy Vellu, it really does not matter why he was attacked actually. What matters is how he responded. By virtue that he is a veteren polician, he should be expect to be attacked, criticised every now and then.
Furthermore, if really "they" prefer him to step down, it is even more crucial that he respond positively as not to tarnish further his what-is-left reputation and to garner support.

David said...

Girl? Hmm...:)

Wedko said...

It is the same here. Since I came back from Germany, there are endless things pop up and many unresolved problems waiting for me to close the file.

Quite regret of going to the World Cup.

Now my wife starts to suspect that I am having an affair as I go out early in the morning and work late.

Maxforce said...

Just came back from work.
Major problem with our multi billion dollar software - none other than the world premier software system - SAP. For the record, its 12.06 am local time.
Big bosses wants to see preliminary figures tomorrow. Damn, really short of time.
Btw, Dave, we re professionals, with colleagues its only work :)