A People-Centric & Can-Do! Leadership Style
Leadership Lessons from
Mr Lim Soon Hock, Founder & Managing Director, PLAN-B ICAG Pte Ltd and Chairman, Halogen Foundation Singapore
@ the Saturday Sharing Session on 17 September 2016
Organised By Institute for Engineering Leadership
Mr Lim explained that his leadership style is a collaborative one. In this “collective leadership model”, everyone in the team shares equal responsibility for decisions and assumes shared accountability and ownership of the business. He quipped: “I can’t do it (achieve success) alone, so I make sure that not only do I have the right management team in place, but that I tap on the collective wisdom of all to make decisions. Businesses do not fail, people do.” He prescribes and subscribes to the philosophy that everyone in his management team is first and foremost a business partner, and then a functional head. He was practising collaborative leadership way before this became a trend recently.
Mr Lim also believes that in today’s volatile, complex and increasingly borderless business environment, which demands teamwork and reliance on others for a successful outcome, a humble CEO might perform better than one who believes he has the answer to everything. Walking the talk, he described his management style as one which “empowers his colleagues”. It is not about irresponsible abdication but responsible delegation. The pragmatic CEO takes responsibility for poor or unsatisfactory outcomes. He opined: “When there is any success, be the last to claim any credit. Be quick to give it to your colleagues. Be generous in recognising them.” Unlike most Asians, who are afraid of losing face, Mr Lim is not afraid of saying “I don’t know”. He is the first to admit that he does not have the solutions to all the problems out there. In confessing that he does not know, often he can rely on his team for solutions and the hard choices which he has to make. He reiterated: “It doesn’t mean that if I’m the boss, I must know everything.” It takes a lot of courage and humility to assume this predisposition.
He practices the ‘One Minute Management’ till this day. He gives compliments almost immediately when they are due. Should someone need to be reprimanded for a wrong doing, he does so quickly and not wait for the performance review, months later. He believes in the recency effect for maximum impact and effectiveness. Mr Lim hates procrastination. Whatever that needs doing must be carried out. The company and the business cannot wait for the CEO to make his decision or to take action.
A hallmark of Mr Lim’s success is his focus on customer service, a point he reiterated throughout the talk. Recounting his experience at Compaq, he spoke of the challenge of selling expensive, high-end personal computers, in a price-sensitive market. But with a relentless emphasis on customer service, Mr Lim found success. For example, he would personally see to complaints (what he terms as a “gift” from the customer) and respond to them timely. He ensured that all his sales and marketing personnel, viz the customer facing staff as well as Compaq’s dealers, who are regarded as an extension of the company’s sales force were well trained on the product features, before they are allowed to sell the expensive PCs. Quality is difficult to sell and service, but when we can delight our customers beyond their expectations, we are often rewarded with more sales subsequently. He said: “The first item in my agenda for my weekly meetings is customer issues and problems, and not revenue. When you get this right, followed by employee satisfaction and proper systems and processes for your employees to deliver customer satisfaction, revenue will happen as a natural outcome.”
Mr Lim adopted the same approach when he joined SITA, the world’s leading air transport IT and communications specialist. At that time, Asia Pacific had the lowest customer satisfaction ratings worldwide. He was recruited to turn the company around on this front. He invested significant time to build relationships with SITA’s customers, who were mostly airports and airlines and to understand the problems that they faced.
Just like at Compaq, he personally saw to problems. “Sometimes it is not about getting the problem solved, but showing the customer that you are dead serious about taking actions to solve the problem”, Mr Lim said. He recounted that he often demonstrated this by making phone calls to his colleagues on the spot in the midst of the meetings with customers to seek a solution. By the time he left SITA, the customer satisfaction rating for Asia Pacific had hit an all-time high. It also set a new record for the entire company.
Many students can definitely relate to the difficulties of working together in a team. Something that students wanted to find out from Mr Lim was on how they could find a balance between getting work done and getting along as a team; i.e. striking a balance between being people-oriented and results-oriented.
Mr Lim felt that there was no contradiction. He once again reiterated people-centricity as the key. “From my experience, when you can achieve team harmony from the start, you don’t have to worry much about work efficiency. Work efficiency follows as a natural outcome. In this scenario, more time is available to tackle the myriad challenges and problems, and for the sharing of collective wisdom to make hard decisions or choices” he said.
Not one to pass up on opportunities, he recalled a visit he made to Tsinghua University when he was at Compaq. He struggled with breaking into the China market in his first two years, almost giving it up. During his tour of the campus, he made the proposal to the President to convert three unused rooms into a training centre, in collaboration with the prestigious university. Fully funded by Compaq and equipped with Compaq PCs at the company’s expense, the Tsinghua-Compaq Training Centre would train students, Compaq dealers and customers on the use of Compaq PCs and related software. Compaq also brought in strategic partners such as Microsoft, Intel, Novel and SCO to participate in the collaboration. It was the biggest collaboration for a Chinese university, then unprecedented. When it was officially opened, it was front page news in all the Chinese newspapers and aired in all the major TV channels. Compaq had nation-wide publicity that was worth many times the investment in the training centre. Within a year, sales of Compaq computers rocketed. He realised that it was not because of the publicity, which certainly helped, or the training which was provided, which was well received, but customers were purchasing Compaq PCs to acquire the training certificates which Tsinghua “conferred” on participants. The certificates with the Tsinghua name was more valuable than the PCs which were purchased! He found out that customers went out of the way to find money to buy Compaq PCs, so as to acquire Tsinghua certificates. For Mr Lim, the success of Compaq in China – the company became number one in China in the 3rd year of operation there – was not by design, but seizing the moment quickly when it presented itself.
An Entrepreneurial Mind-set for Singapore’s Continued Competitiveness & Growth
Mr Lim believes that our fear of the hollowing out of foreign investments will become a reality in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time. This is not because Singapore is politically unstable or not conducive or that we are economically unattractive. By then China would likely be the world’s strongest and biggest economic powerhouse, and MNCs have to be there not to compete with their home country competitors, but driven by business imperatives, there is the strategic need to compete with large and established Chinese companies in the domestic market, many of whom would have evolved to be formidable global players. He said: “But it doesn’t mean the end of the world for Singapore – we need to invest now, while we still have the time, to develop our own companies that will become the MNCs of the future”.
For this to happen, he felt that more can be done to develop a dynamic and sustainable entrepreneurship culture. Singapore must start with our youths to achieve this. In this regard, we should and must invest more in entrepreneurship education for our youths. He hopes that more of our smartest and brightest young Singaporeans will aspire to be entrepreneurs. Even if our youths do not end up as entrepreneurs, hopefully they would have acquired an entrepreneurial mindset – a vital skill needed for the 21st century. When more of our youths are prepared to take risks and to accept failures, we can look forward to local clones of Alibabas or Samsungs. He stressed: “There is no other way for Singapore to produce large global companies. We must have this vibrant and sustainable entrepreneurship culture to nurture and transform more of our youths into world class entrepreneurs, going into the future”