5 Leadership Lessons from a First-time Startup Founder (2017)

As we look forward to the new year, I have been pondering what are some of the biggest leadership lessons I’ve learned this year. WOBB has gone through significant growth, starting from just me (one person sitting at home in my pyjamas), to a 25 person team, with some of the most talented employees in the business.

I’ve definitely made many mistakes and learned a lot from them. But here are my personal top 5 leadership lessons from 2017.

1) The team doesn’t live inside your head

I’ve met founders who said that they were frustrated when the team doesn’t seem to be able to deliver exactly what they’d would hope for. “Sometimes if you want to get something done right, you have to do it yourself.” Admittedly I’ve had this thought myself too.

But what I’ve learned over time is that poor communication from the leader can cause a lot of these problems. When leaders don’t communicate with clear instructions and specific expectations, it causes the team to try to figure out what they think you are looking for, based on that they know, and of course, they are not going to get it right. Because they are not mind readers, they don’t live inside your head.

I always try to remind myself that as the founder of the company, I have access to information from other founders, investors, clients and competitors etc. I’ve been in the company since the beginning, and have clear context of everything that is going on in the company, because every team reports to me.

I can see the full picture. The full picture that individuals in the company do not have access to.

It is therefore our responsibility as leaders who have all the information, to see that your team can’t see everything you see, unless you make that effort to show them clearly what you need, or give them access to the information that will help them. Be clear and specific about your expectations.

Because if you don’t make that effort and just expect them “to know”, it’s your fault that they are not delivering good work, not theirs.

2) Be quick to weed out the “show horse”

(To be kind, I have changed some details of the following story to keep the person anonymous, but the essence of the story is here.)

Jim joined our company full of enthusiasm. Every time I spoke to him, he was incredibility helpful, looks so engaged and was always willing to do everything that I asked. He was also a very bright kid, someone I could ask a question to, and he’ll somehow find an answer.

I really liked Jim, and was thinking of promoting him.

Then one day, someone came to me and started sharing his concern that he caught Jim spending his time watching Youtube during working hours, and sometimes even during meetings, when I’m speaking at the front, he would be watching a video on his laptop instead of paying attention to the meeting.

I was surprised to hear that. There’s no way Jim would do that. Not the enthusiastic Jim that I know.

Then over time, I started hearing other concerns from other people in the company. Uncollaborated, totally independent stories.

“Jim doesn’t go for any client meetings, his calendar is always empty. He spends more time trying to talk to you than get any meaningful work done.”

“Jim is rude to me and doesn’t take feedback well when the team asked him to work harder.”

I started to wonder… wait, is Jim behaving differently in front me because I’m the boss? I paid more attention to his actual work and how he spends his time in the office.

And it turned out to be true. Jim spent most of his energy trying to appear to be doing a great job rather than actually doing it. He had the lowest activities, and delivered the least results. Everything that he touched either stagnated or became worse.

Jim spent most of his energy trying to appear to be doing a great job rather than actually doing it.

It was so easy to be blinded by this “showhorse” had I not made the decision to be unemotional about this and looked at it objectively without any biases.

Suffice to say, Jim didn’t stay long in the company after I started paying more attention to his actual performance rather than appearances.

Remember to watch out for the showhorse.

3) Embrace your “followers” as equals because they make you a leader

As single founder, people always ask me whether it feels lonely not having a co-founder I can share my worries with, or to bounce off ideas. And when I tell them that I can do all these with my core team, it always surprises them that our team is so engaged.

In fact, the team is so passionate about the performance of our business, that I often find them seeking out to do more for the company, seeing problems that worry them and proactively figuring out how to fix these problems, and sharing a lot of the stress that I share as a founder.

But what’s the secret? There no big secret. Just pull them into your world as an equal. As someone that you genuinely value, with opinions that you value, with actions that you trust.

Of course, some of you are now thinking “but not everyone in my team is at the level where I can trust and empower them in such a way”. In which case I would ask you to either:

  • Try anyway, because are you sure you can’t empower them? Or is it because you don’t have the courage to let go?
  • Start thinking about your talent attraction / employer branding strategy so you hire better people

Either way, this video from Derek Sivers reminds me all the time how your followers make you a leader.

4) You dictate the culture of your company

Leaders play a critical role in influencing the culture of their teams. After all, you decide that is acceptable behaviour and what is not. You decide what behaviours get rewarded, and what gets punished.

So if you’re ever in a situation where you’re frustrated that your team is “lazy”, or always late, or don’t openly share their ideas, very often you’ll find that it’s you (the leader) that made the culture what it is.

Whether it’s because of your decisions to hire the wrong people (that ultimately influenced your team’s culture), your inability to publicly reward the right behaviours or punish the wrong ones, or because you do not lead by example, it really all comes down to you to dictate the culture of the company.

Your inability to publicly reward the right behaviours or punish the wrong ones… it all comes down to you to dictate culture

If you don’t want others to be late, then you shouldn’t walk in late just because you’re the boss. If you want your team to share ideas and act proactively, then don’t get annoyed whenever you hear an idea you don’t like (how are they supposed to know what ideas you don’t like, over time they will just learn to speak less).

At WOBB, we even went as far of building our own 9 core values that are specific and actionable to give the team clear guidelines on what is expected behaviour. We obsess about these values, and it’s what drives a lot of our business decisions.

WOBB’s Wall of Values is situated in the middle of the office and takes up an entire wall, as a clear visible reminder to the team about expected behaviour in the company.

5) You should pay more attention to your star players, not less

A common mistake I find many leaders make is that they tend to leave their best people alone, get out of their way. In their mind, if they have a star player that has earned their trust, they should leave their star alone. That’s called “empowerment”.

These leaders then tend to focus their time and energy on their weakest players in their team, which they believe needs “fixing”.

I believe that’s not a great strategy. Because not only will you find that spending time with your weak players doesn’t guarantee they will perform better, you will also soon discover that your star players will also start to get demotivated.

Your star players will soon feel that they are no longer growing in their role, or no longer getting a lot of recognition for their achievements. After all, they are star players, they are always expected to perform and deliver, and over time, it just becomes “normal” and no longer celebrated.

They are no longer coached, because how do you coach someone that is already at the top of their game? And this adds on to your star players feeling stagnated.

I’ve always believed that a better strategy would be to focus your time and energy on your star players instead. These are your best people. They are the most engaged. They have high will. They want to keep growing and they care deeply about their performance and your business.

Give them recognition for their achievements, no matter how many times they keep hitting their goals (that’s a good thing right? Celebrate!). Spend time strategising with them, supporting them, working on making them better.

Paying attention to them is not about you not empowering or trusting them. In fact, very often, high achievers want attention, because that’s what drives them, and it’s a mistake to stop doing that.

And how about coaching? How do you coach someone that is already a star? The real question is – why are you making it so easy for them? They are your star players! Give them bigger tasks, challenge them to do more. Make them uncomfortable.

That is your opportunity to coach them so they keep growing and pushing boundaries. Celebrate whenever they raise their standards. And support them when they need help.

And other people in the company will look to them as examples of how to excel in the company.

In short, investing your time building your best people is a much better long term strategy that will produce a high performance team.

 

It’s not about you. It’s never about you.

The phone rang at 6am.

“Your dad has passed away”. I hear the voice of my mother, slightly confused and afraid yet strangely calm.

I will never forget picking up that phone call. Or the image of my father’s pale face sitting still on the sofa.

We were two weeks away from our first child, his first grandchild, and my father left us unexpectedly.

WOBB was going through fundraising at that time. The business was growing, but we were still burning money, and so we needed money to survive.

I remember joking to my team how crazy the timing of our fundraising coincided with my first child. I was expecting an overwhelming time. But nothing like this.

And as I looked at my father, I forgot about me. Forgot about my struggles. I saw only him, at the end of his.

I thought about how I never told him I love him. Or said sorry for all the times I said things that hurt him. I never got to say goodbye.

A few weeks on, I welcomed our daughter Danielle, pushed through a successful fundraise, almost as though nothing sad had happened. I never had time to grieve. Never had time to stop and take a breath to see all the weight I was carrying on my shoulders.

I just pushed on. Pick yourself up. It’s not about you, it’s never about you. No excuses, I said.

“The world doesn’t care about your feelings.”

“Your daughter needs her father. Your wife needs her husband. Your brother needs his brother. Your mother needs her son. Your team needs their CEO. They all need you to be at your 110%.”

And so we carry on. We don’t complain it’s hard. We don’t blame other people for why things are challenging.

So what if it’s tough. Many people have it worse. We just try to focus on what I can do move life forward, one step at a time. We are all climbing our own mountains.

And I hope you find the strength to take one small step everyday to climb yours.

employer brand

How to speak to your CEO about employer brand

I’ve attended so many HR events where HR leaders talk about the importance of building a great employer brand, treating your employees right, and about investing in attracting Gen Y. At the end of the event, everyone feels so inspired, people are patting each others’ backs, telling them what great ideas they have, and what an amazing job they are doing.

And then these HR folks go back to the office, to share some of these ideas with your CEO, and guess what? Their CEO doesn’t care.

To their CEO, all this sounds like HR fluff to them. “Just try to hire the right person with the least costs”. That’s all the CEO cares about.

So while it’s great we are talking about these things at HR events, it’s important to realise that we don’t want to be in this little bubble that we have created for ourselves, talking about the importance of a good employer brand, when their CEOs are not even listening.

Will my CEO care about employer brand?

So now I am going to attempt to answer a question I get asked most commonly – “How do I get my CEO to care?”

As someone who is running his own business, and also passionate about having great talent, I can share with you some ideas on what your CEO might care about and how you can position this in a way that he or she can relate to.

1) Money

How does this help us make or save money?

Let’s face it, the main objective of businesses is to increase revenue and ultimately profit, so let’s start with money. Does building a great employer brand help your business make money?

Well, if the nature of your business requires a strong sales and marketing team, then you could say attracting the best talent in sales and marketing helps the company make money, but that might feel like a bit of stretch for a CEO.

But building a great employer brand would definitely save your business money.

With a clear process and guidelines on who to attract and how to screen for specific talent (not just the best), and also create an environment that these talents will thrive in and be fulfilled, you’ll improve your staff retention significantly.

What happens when staff retention improves? You’ll spend less time and money on recruitment, less money on headhunters, and less on training and onboarding new employees.

And the “returns” you get on your employees will improve immensely the longer they stay with you. Employees that stay long will start to have a sense of belonging, become more dedicated, and their familiarity with the job and the business will mean that they spend less time learning, and more time contributing back to the business.

They spend less time learning, and more time contributing back to the business

2) Competitive advantage

How does this give us an advantage over our competitors?

Some companies greatly rely on the quality of their talent to succeed, and creating a company with great culture will give you such a huge competitive edge. This is especially true in these situations:

  1. When you work in an industry where there are only a handful of key competitors. In situations like this, companies aggressively compete with each other for the best talent, and so it makes sense to build a great culture to attract the best talent.
  2. If you’re in a service based industry, then there is a direct correlation between the quality of your talent and the service your customers receive. This is also an industry where customers don’t choose companies, they choose the people they want to work with. This includes audit firms, law firms, management consulting firms etc.
  3. If you’re in the creative industry where having the best creative talent helps generate great ideas and is key to your company securing customers and projects.
  4. If you’re in innovation and technology, where your products are intangible and you rely on your talent to design, develop and deploy your products. Having the best people will translate directly to the quality and innovation of your products.
  5. If you’re in a heavily regulated industry with complex products, such as financial services, where you need great talent who understand these products and also keep the company compliant.

In many cases, your CEO may be able to relate to how building the right employer brand to attract great talent will give your company a competitive edge.

3) Organisational transformation

How do we get our people to be more productive?

There are also situations where the CEO is frustrated at the productivity of the existing team, and is constantly trying to drive this productivity with the existing workforce, with little results. Some will soon realise that organizational transformation is what is needed, and that will involve flooding rebuilding the team from scratch and hiring the right people, while allowing some of their existing poor performing staff to leave.

For this to succeed, the CEO may realise that having a clear employer brand and building the right culture, is the key ingredient as the company goes through this painful but much needed organisational transformation process.

4) Fear of failure

How do we future-proof our company?

There are many companies out there who have been in business for many years, had a core group of people that successfully built the business with them. They never used to have talent issues, but for some reason, are noticing that they struggle to attract and retain new younger talent.

And this is a huge concern for some CEOs because they are starting to notice their aging workforce and realise they need fresh blood to keep their company going and that business will fail if they do not resolve this soon.

This is a huge concern for some CEOs because they start to notice their aging workforce and realise they need fresh blood

Not every CEO can relate to this, perhaps largely because they themselves are a lot older now, are just thinking about stability and keeping things as they are. This is clearly a mistake though.

Some of these companies are run as family businesses, and when their next generation start getting involved, typically they know that the business has no future if they can’t bring in new talent. So if you’re a HR person, perhaps you can engage in this next generation of the company’s leaders.

What you can do now

Often, because these CEOs or business owners achieved their success without having to think about talent too much in the past, some may not understand why this is important now.

So I hope this post can help make your job easier, by giving you ideas about what your CEO cares about the most, and how you can relate this back to the importance of investing in employer brand and work culture, which will ultimately help you attract and retain the best talent.

Interview Questions I Ask Every Candidate

After speaking to many SMEs in Malaysia, I’ve found that SMEs don’t have access to good interview training, because with limited resources and infrequent hiring, this seems like a low priority for them. Yet, in small teams, reducing the amount of bad hires is critical to the success of an SME.

Many large corporations, who are already advantaged by having a bigger brand, have excellent interview training programs to help them screen candidates that are interested to join them.

So I thought I would write down a list of some of the most important interview questions every company should ask a candidate that is interviewing with them. I would like to emphasise that these questions are based on my style of interviewing, but built across many years of interviewing top professionals in the industry combined with international standards of interview training.

You should ask additional questions depending on how the interview goes, but to have a fair and consistent assessment of every candidate, you will need to have a standardised interview question list as a base.

You can decide to word these differently, or to take less direct approaches to finding the answers to these questions, but I believe it’s important to ask them.

But first, understand the candidates’ interview mindset

One thing to understand when going into these interviews is to assume that the candidate will be trained to be their best self during the interview. This means that they will already know how to sell themselves well, and perhaps hide any weaknesses they may have. This is okay. In fact, it’s good.

What if it was the reverse, and the candidate didn’t bother preparing their best self for the interview? That is also a sign of how they will approach their work – lazy, unprepared and not in their best self.

Therefore, don’t have issues that candidates will prepare for their interviews and will have answers planned. What you do need, however, is to learn how to uncover the “real” them, to uncover the real reasons why they made certain decisions in their career, so you can assess if they are the right hire for you.

“A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.”
J P Morgan

What follows are the questions I typically ask every candidate, along with what goes through my mind as I ask them. And here’s the first question I use to kickstart almost every interview:

1) Tell me your story, from your education until where you are today

While many employers prefer a more general “Tell me about yourself” question, I find that question to be a bit too open, and often an unfair way to assess a candidate. Some have trained well to give a concise, work related answer, and many often do not. Asking this question would favour those that have prepared for this question well, yet it doesn’t help you uncover whether they are the best person to perform the job.

I believe a better question is to follow through what’s on their CV, right from the beginning, which is their education. I typically start at university level, which can give you some insights on someone’s personality.

2) Why did you choose to major in this degree?

Whether you ask this question depends on the seniority of the candidate. You may not want to ask someone interviewing for a VP role why they decided to study Business 20 years ago (then again, that’s up to you). But typically for junior talent, this question is very relevant.

Assuming you ask this question, you can get insights on a candidate’s decision making process. Did they choose something because their parents told them to? Did they choose it out of passion? And if they could choose again, would they have chosen the same subject?

3) Why did you choose to join this company?

For every job that they choose to join, ask them why. This again, gives you insights about what motivates the candidate, and their thought process. At the same time, you can also pick up any red flags about a candidate’s personality through this question.

Weak answers may include:

“I joined because I was headhunted to join them”

Yes, but why? Just because you were headhunted doesn’t mean you have to join them. Dig deeper.

“I just wanted to try something new”

This is a potential sign that this candidate lacks drive and focus. You will rarely find an ambitious person choosing a new job (which impacts their long term career) as though they were choosing a weekend activity.

“They offered me more money”

This may or may not be a weak answer, because we all have to accept that people work for money, bills need to be paid too. If they say they joined for a higher salary, the next question you should ask is what was their previous salary, and what is their new one. If you find the increment to be significant (what you consider significant is up to you) and can understand why a candidate would move for such an increment, that’s acceptable. However, if you find the amount to be insignificant (say 10% higher), you would have to worry that this candidate would leave you for very little money in future.

Also, if you’re interviewing for a sales role, hiring someone that is driven by money may be a good thing. Just make sure they play well in a team.

4) Why did you leave the previous company

For every new job, ask them why they left their previous one. Again, here you are looking for clues about their decision making process and what motivates them. Their answers to this question also gives you some insight on whether they will be difficult to manage.

As a rule of thumb, if they consistently complain about or blame every employer they leave, this person is likely to have an attitude problem. Similar to question 3 above, test to see if you find the answers to be weak, and then dig deeper to uncover their true reasons.

5) Tell me about your work here at X company

This open question will give you an indication of whether they have the skills required to fill your position.

Some candidates avoid specifics by focusing on general results, such “My job is to sell XXX products to our clients. Our clients include company A, B, C, D etc”. This doesn’t really help you understand if they have the right skills for the job. How do they sell? Are they cold calling (therefore are skilled in phone sales)? Do they just respond to customer inquiries (therefore more customer service style of sales)?

If they avoid specifics, ask them to describe what their typical day is like, from the time they enter the office, until the time they leave it. Understanding what a candidate is actually doing on a daily basis will help you assess their actual skills

On a side note, I generally recommend giving a written case study instead that is relevant to the role the candidate is applying for. Present a common problem that the person in the role will typically have to face, and then ask the candidate how they would solve it. Give them a couple of days to complete the case study. This is a much better way to assess skill, but is also a great way to test how interested the candidate is in joining your company. After all, if they are not that keen, they either won’t complete the case study, or do a poor job completing it. Don’t waste time on candidates like this.

6) If we decide to organise training for our employees, what training would you like to have?

Not suggesting you have training, but isn’t this such a clever question to learn about a candidate’s weakness?

Every candidate will have a ready answer prepared for the over-used question “Tell me about your weaknesses”. But this indirect question lets you learn more about what they wish they can improve, and it focuses on their work skills, rather than personality.

And just because they have indirectly revealed their “weakness” to you, it does not have to be a problem. Just fairly consider if this weakness is something acceptable to you for the role they are interviewing for.

7) What brings you here today, why are you looking to move on from your current job?

Here’s where you bring it all together. After asking them why they left and join every previous job that they’ve had, you already have built an image of what motivates this person and their decision making process.

Now see if their answer to this question is consistent with that image that you’ve build in your mind.

Weak answers would include:

“I’m just exploring”(What goes through my mind) Sure, but what triggered you to want to explore?

“It’s been X amount of time, I think it’s time for me to look out”(What goes through my mind) Sure, but if you’re happy and progressing, why move for the sake of moving? What’s the underlying reason? Also, if you join us, will you be leaving us “just because it’s time”? This makes it hard for me to invest in developing you and building your career.

8) Apart from this job that you are currently interviewing for, what are you looking for generally as a next job?

I love this question as it almost always catches candidates slightly off-guard, as they are now put in a position to reveal what other jobs they are currently interviewing for and also surprised at how you can accept that they are interviewing elsewhere (some employers still have the mentality that if you want a job in my company, you should only be interviewing with me, and we all know that is actually very unrealistic).

Here you will learn if they are truly focused on a particular job or whether they are exploring very broadly. I have interviewed candidates who have admitted to me that they are interviewing for sales roles, marketing roles, admin roles or pretty much any role they can land an interview with. Whether or not you find this acceptable depends largely on the candidate’s experience level (if they are a fresh graduate, I suppose it’s common to explore), and whether this matters to you.

Conclusion

This is not an exhaustive list of questions, and often, depending on the answers the candidate gives, I frequently tend to focus on certain aspects of their career. And you may feel you have better questions that are more relevant to your style of interview.

Some will also notice that many of the interview questions I like to ask seems to focus on a candidates’ motivation and decision making process, and this relates back to my personal belief that a candidates’ attitude is what matters. Understanding what they care about also helps me understand how I can attract them to join the company if I find them to be the right candidate. This may not be your own belief, and you may want to focus your interview questions on other aspects of the candidate.

I recommend employers personalise the interview questions they prefer asking during an interview.

But what is most important is for employers to ensure that every interviewer is given and trained to ask a standardised set of interview questions you believe is important, with some sense of what good and bad answers are, to ensure consistency in screening talent.

Birth of Danielle Toh An Ya

The doctor arrived exactly at 6am. This is our first child. How will the delivery go? Will my wife be in a lot of pain?

“Alright, push”, the doctor calmly said, “just one more push!”. I was nervous. Is there something I can do?

“What time is it?”, asked the doctor.

“It’s 6.03am”, said the nurse.

Then suddenly we heard crying. The cries of a baby. Our baby Danielle was here! Wait, what? 3 minutes?

She only cried for a short while, and as they cleaned and wrapped her up, I stood there beside her, looking at her. She looked calm, curious and probably wondering what is going on. And then something magical happened.

She looked at me and smiled.

We are blessed to welcome Danielle Toh An Ya to this world and into our hearts.

 

toh chun ho

In Loving Memory of Toh Chun Ho, 1955 to 2017

Every man’s story is different, and this is a story about a boy from Muar who started with a simple life and went on the have an adventure of a lifetime. He was the son of a taxi driver, and spent most of his childhood collecting stamps and reading books. He loved reading stories of big adventures and beautiful journeys. But the boy from Muar wouldn’t have guessed that he would have quite the story of his own.

He landed himself a scholarship to go to Kuala Lumpur to do his degree in Universiti Malaya, and in Kuala Lumpur, he met a girl from Ipoh. They fell in love, got married and started a family with two boys.

He loved his wife, and did everything he could for her, always patient and trying his best to be a good husband. He tried so hard to be a good father to his sons and did what he could to be close to them. His elder son became an Arsenal fan, and suddenly, he was an Arsenal fan. The younger son got into tennis at school, and until today, he has become a big tennis fan too.

When asked what was his advice for raising kids, he would say “I’ll bring them to the playground. Because every child only has a few years when they are truly care-free. Don’t take their childhood away”.

He lived his life giving to his family and taking very little for himself. Because he wanted them to be happy, and to live a better life than perhaps he ever could.

But six years ago, he had a heart attack, and that reminded him of his mortality. So he decided that he should try to see the world more. Together with his wife, they’ve walked the streets of New York, London and Paris. They experienced the snow storms in Japan, bathed in the sun in Maldives, cruised through the seas of Russia. They swam around the islands of Phuket, rode bicycles in Perth and hustled in the night markets of Taipei.

He was happy. In the past few years, not only has he seen the world, he’s watched his sons mature and was very proud of them. The younger son was doing well in his job in Paris, and his elder son had started a business that was getting popular. Whenever he spoke about his family, he spoke with pride.

Sometimes he would remind himself how much time had passed since he had the heart attack, because it always felt like he was on rented time. He knew he would have missed all of this had that heart attack claimed him six years ago.

Then on 28th May 2017, life brings you back full circle. While sitting on his sofa at home, watching his elder son’s favourite team Arsenal win the FA Cup, his story came to an end. As he sat there, he passed away peacefully alone.

What an adventure. An adventure that a simple boy from Muar, sitting there collecting stamps and reading his favourite book, would not have thought he would have. It was a beautiful journey that deserves to be celebrated.

Thank you for everything you have given to us. We always thought that one day we would have the chance to take care of you the way you took care of us, but you probably wanted us to remember you at your best.

We love you papa, with all our hearts.

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

Marcus Aurelius

derek toh politics at work

How to write job descriptions on job portals to attract talent

There’s a bit of confusion about how job descriptions should be written when you are advertising your jobs.

Most employers believe that in order to avoid an irrelevant candidate applying to their jobs, a job description should be an extensive document that captures ALL the roles and responsibilities of the job, along with a detailed list of every experience that the candidate should have before applying.

So if a candidate is irrelevant to the job, they will spend time reading this lengthy, detailed job description, realise they are not suitable, and then decide not the apply. And the candidate that fits the job will read the description and think “this is the perfect job for me!”, and apply to the job. Pretty sound logic right?

Not really.

Lengthy, overly-extensive job descriptions do not prevent a spammer from applying to your jobs (because they don’t really read the job descriptions anyway!), and in fact, causes a potentially good candidate to not apply to your job because of one of the following reasons:

  • The job description was just focused on the job, and didn’t really answer their question “Why should I apply for this job”
  • The job descriptions describes the “perfect” candidate, and a jobseeker spotted something a responsibility that they may not be experienced in doing. It may be only a small part of the job.

This idea leads to many poor decisions on how the job description should be written employers advertise their jobs. It’s the reason why many job advertisements are written badly, and fail to attract the right candidate to apply to their jobs.

It’s an advertisement to help you attract the right candidate to apply to your job. Therefore, stop thinking about this as a job description and start thinking about this as a job “advertisement”.

That’s it. It’s not a contract of responsibilities, you can sign that later when you actually hire the candidate. But when you first post that job vacancy, you need to be SELLING to the candidate, not keeping them out. Don’t think putting a long list of requirements is going to keep the bad candidates out, because the bad candidates probably don’t read your descriptions anyway, so you will get their CV regardless.

With that in mind, here are some guidelines that will have you craft an effective job description:

1) Keep it short

If you can’t capture what the role is about in three or four bullet points, you may not fully understand the job, in which case the candidate isn’t going to either. Less is more. Split it up into clearly identifiable sections, as a suggestion:

– Who we are (maximum 3 sentences, with information on what your business is about , the location and who they will be working with)

– Key responsibilities (maximum 5 bullet points, ideally 4)

– Requirements (maximum 5 bullet points, ideally 4)

2) Write from the jobseekers’ point of view

When describing the job, communicate from a jobseekers’ point of view, focusing on what they will find interesting. For example, if you are hiring an accountant, stating “you will be working closely with and learning from our company’s leaders to achieve our financial goals”, sounds much more interesting than “to submit the annual report by the required deadline, and to demonstrate good stakeholder management skills”.

3) Use simple language

Unless absolutely necessary, you should use simple language to describe what the role is about. Using big words only make the writer feel smart, and in most cases, does not actually help you filter out poor candidates anyway (remember: spammers don’t read job descriptions, you will only end up keeping a good person out). Your goal is to attract as many good applications as possible, even if they are not the perfect fit. So why scare applicants away with complicated language?

4) Inject some personality about your company

Write in a way that showcases who you are as a company. Don’t be boring. Tell a short story about your company and its’ vision, it’s people, or maybe just write the job description in a style that reflects the personality of your company.

I once saw a job description for a sales role that read “Your goal is to make money for the company so we can pay everyone and don’t have to eat maggi goreng everyday”. You could tell immediately that this company has a sense of humour, and may make a connection straight away.

Stuck? Here’s a simple trick

The key thing is stop thinking about a job description which you are posting on a job portal, as a contract of responsibilities. Instead, start thinking of it as a job “advertisement” i.e. you are using this to attract as many good applications as you can (don’t get distracted by the spammers, tell will apply to you job whichever way you write your job description).

If you are stuck in terms of how you would write a job description, try this. Ask the hiring manager “Why would a high quality candidate, that is already be employed elsewhere, be interested in this job?”. Be honest, and once you can answer this question, you can craft your job posting message around the answer.

 

office politics

What to do when there are office politics

Office politics. Too often, people watch others get rewarded due to relationships rather than results, and those that feel they are “real talent” get sidelined because they don’t understand the politics game. It may frustrate you when you feel you or your friends are more deserving of these rewards.

“That guy is such a yes man, always sucking up to the boss.”

“He’s such a politician, never know what he says when talking to management.”

There’s this negative connotation about office politics. If someone is labeled a “politician”, the idea is that this person cannot be trusted. He or she is two-faced. Backstabs. Spends more time on relationships than on actually doing the work.

For people who resent this, they tend to behave in the opposite way, refusing to spend time outside of work with their managers. Believing that the work is enough to get them through. Resenting any form of relationship building with their bosses as a form of “selling out” on their principles. Quietly complaining to their close colleagues about how unfair things are, effectively, making them involved in office politics as well.

People who resent office politics tend to behave in the opposite way, refusing to spend time building relationships, seeing it as a form of “selling out” on their principles

Why office politics exist, and it’s not because there are bad people

But the reality is, in large groups of people, office politics will be there and it will matter.

How do you get buy-in from the team? Not everyone necessarily responds to logic, some value relationships over logic, whether it’s because of their natural personality or because no one is really sure what needs to be done anyway. So it’s a safer bet to take care of everyone’s feelings than risk making others unhappy.

Also, people often have to make decisions based on imperfect information, whether they are your manager or colleague. Because of this, their trust levels with different people in the organisation influence how they make decisions, taking into account the interest of the people in their inner circle. It’s less risky when you can get buy in from your inner circle with so much uncertainty.

Understand that this is the reality. Understand that if you want to progress in your organisation, your ability to work with others is important, and many people rely on their feelings rather than logic when it comes to making decisions. Your brand and relationships with others matter.

And I’m not talking about achieving personal selfish goals. To achieve a business goal, being able to persuade others to make the right decisions and take action is an important skill, and relationships play a role in getting this done.

Wait, so we should have office politics?

Depends on what type of office politics.

People who believe they can get ahead in their careers by using relationships to hurt others are misguided and any competent leader or manager can and should spot such a personality from a mile away.

Even though I’ve talked about how politics will exist when large groups of people are working together towards a goal, the type of politics that is malicious will damage the company’s culture. Passive aggressive personalities that spend more time gossiping within their groups that hurt others. Those that are too afraid to confront, and backstab instead. Or those that focus on trying to get you to do worse, rather than focus on trying to do better themselves to get ahead.

When this becomes the prominent culture in the organisation, good talent start to leave, and poor talent start to get rewarded, ultimately leading to businesses failing in the long run.

This is because good talent will soon realise that getting ahead is all about getting the boss to like you (which is what they don’t waste a lot of time on), rather than delivering results (which is what they are good at). They will get frustrated at the type of decisions being made which appear illogical.

So how do we reduce or eliminate politics at work?

The leaders role in managing office politics

This is where good leadership comes in. It takes a strong leader with the will to look pass their own emotions and relationships with others, and instead assess issues objectively using data and logic.

We all know this is not easy, because leaders are human beings too, capable of making mistakes, not having the confidence to damage important relationships, carry the same insecurities as any normal person, and in some cases, got to where they are because of their own relationships rather than actual results.

Having said that, it’s not an excuse to try to judge others based on perception rather than actual results.

If you’re a leader, whenever you feel positively or negatively about someone in the company, stop and look at their actual performance, rather than how they make you feel. Is your feeling justified and is it fair?

Work hard and deliver results, that’s always the most important thing, but embrace the fact that politics will exist when large groups of people are working together

Creating a culture of openness at work

Google is well-known for it’s culture, but employers often brush this off as an expensive luxury, referring mainly to the perks that Google offers employeees (such as free food) rather than looking at what makes their culture great. These often cost nothing.

For example, in the name of transparency, employees at Google are discouraged from complaining about other employees via email. In a popular book “Work Rules!” by Laszlo Bock, Google’s HR Leader, Bock writes about the first time he experienced Google’s commitment to transparency at work:

“The way we solve the ‘backstabbing’ problem, for example, is that if you write a nasty email about someone, you shouldn’t be surprised if they are added to the email thread… I remember the first time I complained about somebody in an email and my manager promptly copied that person, which forced us to quickly resolve the issue. It was a stark lesson in the importance of having direct conversations with colleagues!”

Even when it comes to sharing of information, the company “defaults to openness” by allowing all employees access to information about what is happening at the company.

This is a stark contrast to what most other companies actually practice, which is to share information only as required, keeping most information at the top, and not bothering to explain decisions by just referring it to a decision made by management. I mean, if you don’t have all the information, you have no choice but to trust management right?

But at the same time, it’s extremely frustrating working in an environment like this, and this lack of transparency and cloak-and-dagger-like culture (“just trust me because you don’t know everything, it’s a management decision”) creates a culture where leaders become lazy at thinking through their decisions. This lack of objectivity and accountability creates an environment where negative forms of politics will thrive.

Let’s stop this negative form of office politics

Work hard and deliver results, that’s always the most important thing. Embrace the fact that office politics will exist when large groups of people are working together, just hope it’s not the malicious or negative type.

If you’re leader, and you sense your subordinate prefers spending time building relationships with you rather than on the actual effort of achieving results, remind them always that they will be measured on their results. If a colleague starts to gossip, show them that you are disinterested. Remember, allowing these things to happen on your watch could be just as bad as participating yourself.

And always encourage everyone to be transparent and speak with candor.

If you’re in an environment where you feel people are using politics for the wrong reasons, and your leadership is not doing anything to discourage this, always politely challenge and ask questions. Ask your leaders why certain decisions were made. Keep everyone accountable, regardless whether they are your leader or your colleague, to make objective decisions based on logic rather than emotions.

And if you risk damaging your career because you might upset your boss… well, do you really want to be in an environment like that anyway?

derek toh malaysian fresh graduate

Malaysian Fresh Graduates Have Attitude Problems?

Here’s an interesting article that’s been going around social media recently about why many Malaysian fresh graduates remain unemployed. It seems, we can all basically sum it up to them having attitude problems. In fact, the article breaks this down into several key reasons:

  • Unrealistic salary expectations – RM3.5k to RM6.5k
  • Poor communications skills
  • Dreaming too big (it seems, if you are from a “small” university you should work with a small company)

Understandably, employers who agree with this are furiously sharing this article on social media, along with expressing their own frustrations with their experience of hiring Malaysian fresh graduates.

But many of the fresh graduates that I have interviewed or hired did not actually show such “bad attitudes”, therefore I am a bit confused. As a startup, our salaries are fairly modest. Yet we’ve hired many quality Malaysian fresh graduates. They are matured and capable. Their communication skills are good, their attitude is decent, and they certainly could work in any multi-national company, yet they are working in a small startup (are they dreaming too small?). Continue reading →