Posts by Derek Toh

Founder of WOBB.co. We partner with Linkedin to help employers hire the best talent. Recruiter. Family man.
good boss

What’s a good boss? No, it’s not the nice ones.

“Derek, how do I know if someone is a good boss during an interview?”

A young, eager graduate asked me this question during one of my talks.

“What do you mean by a good boss?”, I replied.

“Well, I want to avoid those horrible bosses I read about where they are always unreasonable and don’t care about their employees. I want a kind boss that can be my mentor.”

I paused for a moment.

This made me think about all the thousands of articles I have read about “leadership”, which paints the ideal boss as a kind, inspiring mentor, that will empower and trust their people. And I imagine this young graduate asking me this question is conflicted between how these articles describe a good boss, with the actual bosses that are out there.

It’s a valid concern because choosing the wrong boss can be damaging to your career, sometimes permanently.

So I started thinking about all my previous bosses that actually made a positive impact on who I am today. To my surprise, none of my previous bosses were one of these “good bosses” that those articles described.

My first boss was horrible but I owe him my career

“Derek, I want a cup of coffee on my desk every morning, black with no sugar.”

Michael drinks too much coffee. I probably make him at least five cups a day. He runs an accounting firm in London, and he decided to hire me to be a junior accountant which was great because I needed some income while I did my professional accounting papers.

He was one of these “horrible bosses” described by these leadership articles today.

“Why is this taking so long Derek? It’s already the second day I don’t see much work done. Were you doing any work yesterday?”, Michael said sarcastically.

“I have been working hard on this. It took five days last year and now you only gave me three days, there’s not enough time”, I complained meekly.

None of my previous bosses were one of these “good bosses” that these articles described

Michael had a bad temper, and even though I felt it was unfair, I tried my best to control my emotions because I really needed this job.

“The client is pressuring us on fees, so you will do the same work in less time. If I don’t see it completed by tomorrow morning, I am going to be very disappointed”, Michael replied.

Michael never bothered to sit down with me to explain how I can work faster and better. No “mentoring” the way these leadership articles say a mentor was supposed to be. He just let me figure it out myself, and at the end of every assignment, he would be sure I would receive the criticism I deserved.

I don’t think I’ve worked so efficiently before this. I was always kind of relaxed during university but the real world felt harsh. Nevertheless, despite what I felt was unfair, I worked really hard and completed the work the next morning.

good boss

Michael looked my work, and as he was going through each page, his ears started to turn red and I knew this was not a good sign. He looked up, and instead of praising me for being so efficient, he started berating me for all the mistakes I made in my work.

“I expected more from you Derek! These mistakes shouldn’t be made by you!”

Doesn’t matter if I had to work tirelessly to complete the work in record time. Michael will never allow me to have a single excuse for producing mediocre work.

This was just one of many similar experiences I had working with Michael.

I believe many people today visualise a mentor as someone that patiently guides them through your work, almost spoon-fed like they’re in a class. But I learned a lot from Michael not because of any “mentoring”, but through all this direct, transparent criticism I get from him every time I made a mistake.

And I got better and better at my work, and always held myself to high standards, because I knew if I didn’t, Michael would not hesitate to remind me of my shortcomings.

The Right Intentions

After many months working for Michael, one day, something unexpected happened.

“Derek, I know you think I’m being horrible to you, but this is the only way you’re going to learn fast. I want you to know that I will always hold you accountable to a high standard even though you are only a junior accountant. This is how my first boss coached me, and this is how I am coaching you.”

He said this in such a calm manner, and it took me by surprise. I felt his sincerity in his words and intention to teach and help me grow. Don’t think it ever crossed my mind that he was trying to coach me.

While I don’t agree with him on his style completely, I feel fortunate that he set such a high bar for me as my first boss.

He was never an “understanding boss” and his uncompromising attitude made me into a professional with high standards and strong work ethics. A attitude that I carry with me today as a business owner.

The “nice boss” will hurt your career

“Does Alex know that he shouldn’t be doing that again?” I asked one of our senior team.

“Yes, I mentioned it to him a few months ago”, said John.

“But why is he still doing it?”

“I wasn’t too direct, I kind of said it my way, in a better way so as to not sound too harsh.”

“It’s clear the message didn’t get through to him because he has not changed. It’s been a few months, and now when this person is not performing, you’re telling me that you sugarcoated the message and haven’t made it clear to him that this a serious problem?”

This is a typical conversation I have with a “nice boss”, who struggle to clearly criticize the work of their team because either:

  1. They misunderstand being a good boss as being an understanding boss
  2. They don’t like conflict
  3. They are vain and care too much about what other people think about them and want to be seen as a “good boss”
  4. They are afraid that their staff will leave them so they are nice, but realise that they are only thinking about themselves and not you

A clip about Jony Ive describing why Steve Jobs is so direct with his criticism

If you report to a nice boss like this, unfortunately you’re never going to grow.

Because you will always think you’re better than you actually are. And when you’re frustrated as to why you’re not growing in your career (the market is never “nice” and will always adjust you to your true value), you’ll be trapped feeling like a victim.

You won’t realise that it was your boss’ unwillingness to clearly and transparently criticize you that made you stuck.

Think about your current boss. Is he or she like this? If they are, I encourage you to have an honest conversation with them and demand for real feedback. Make them feel safe that you can take this feedback.

“Tough” is better than “Nice”

Sometimes I hear people complaining about their bosses not being understanding and have unreasonable expectations of them.

But ultimately, it’s a question of comfort vs growth. If you’re thinking “why can’t growth also be comfortable?” then I would say growth = change and all change is naturally uncomfortable. So if you want a boss that is easy on you, then you’re probably going to to be in your comfort zone and grow slower than those with a tougher boss and higher expectations.

Assuming you’re serious about building a strong foundation for your career, and you had to choose between a nice boss that won’t criticise you and push you out of your comfort zone, and a tough one that can be stressful to work for in the short term, I would ask you to choose this tough boss over the nice boss.

People often don’t reach their full potential without high standards and expectations imposed on them.

Don’t let a nice boss keep you in your comfort zone and hurt your career, with their misguided concept of what a good boss is.

A tough boss is contributing more to your career growth than you realise.

Happiness

Happiness = Reality – Expectation

If reality is worse than your expectation, you’re unhappy. If reality is better than your expectation, you’re happy. And guess what? You can’t control reality but you can control your expectations.

People who are constantly unhappy probably imposed some expectation on themselves or on others that are not aligned with the reality of life.  I always find the easiest way to get through a rough patch is to tell yourself “It’s supposed to be like this, it’s not about easy or hard, it just is like this.”

And you can accept this, find ways to improve and be happy. Or you can constantly fight an emotional battle that you will not win.

Adjusting our expectations changes our emotional state.

It’s not about giving up and not doing anything to make your life better. In fact, it’s the opposite. You can’t improve your life if you’re not seeing clearly and burdened by unhelpful emotions.

How cheating as a student taught me a lesson that I carry with me today

I heard a familiar voice whispering my name. I was in the middle of an exam. And my friend Joe, who was seated behind me, kept trying to get my attention.

“Shhhh… can you pass me your answers?”, said Joe, quietly.

I was a naive, 13 year old student then, not aware of the lesson I was about to be taught. Joe sits beside me in class, and was always chatty and playful. I knew he was not the academic type.

Being a good friend

“What?”, I replied to Joe, even though I knew exactly what he was asking for.

“Help me out man. Look, the teacher isn’t looking now, pass me your answers, quick!” Joe spoke with haste.

Should I give him my answer sheet? That’s cheating, so surely this can’t be the right thing to do. But I didn’t want Joe to fail his exam, perhaps loyalty and friendship was more important.

As our class teacher looked away, without thinking further, I quickly handed my answer sheet to Joe.

I didn’t want Joe to fail his exam, perhaps loyalty and friendship was more important

But what I did not realise, was that my Math teacher, Mrs Nora, was standing right outside our class, silently looking in from the back.

I did not see her when I passed Joe my papers.

I continued working on my exams. Ten minutes later, Joe tried to slip my answer sheet back to me.

As I turned to take my paper back, I caught a glimpse of Mrs Nora, still standing outside the class… and caught her looking right back at me!

My heart dropped. My first thought was that she would walk in screaming and tried to interrupt the exam.

But no. Instead, she gave me a disappointed look, smiled and walked away.

The conversation with Mrs Nora

I didn’t hear from Mrs Nora for the next few days. Maybe I got away with it?

That did not last long, as Mrs Nora walked into my class one day and asked me to follow her to her office. Without Joe.

I thought, “Oh no, what will she do? Will she call my parents? What do I tell them? And…. wait, why didn’t she ask Joe to come along, isn’t he also part of this?”

We stepped into her office, and she looked up at me.

“Derek, I saw you passing your answers to Joe. Why did you do that?” Mrs Nora said. “You’re a good kid. Did you know that you scored an A for this paper?”

I was nervous, and looked at her quietly without a response. I have always been a shy boy, following the rules, and never liked conflict.

“I am going to give you a C to teach you a lesson”, she continued.

Tears started flowing down my face. I felt a deep sense of fear and regret. And before long I started sobbing.

In an introverted fashion, no words would come out of my mouth, but my mind started racing, “WHY? Why are you punishing me? I didn’t cheat, I was only helping out a friend! Why isn’t he also getting punished??”

Almost as though she could hear the voice in my mind, Mrs Nora said “Did you know that Joe failed anyway? Even though he copied some of your answers. In the end, after helping him cheat, you didn’t manage to help him at all, and instead did something that makes me think that you do not have any integrity.”

Mrs Nora said, “Did you know that Joe failed anyway?”

“Even if you succeeded to help him pass his exams by cheating, how many times can you do this for him? Eventually he will still fail, because he didn’t actually get better. If you really cared for him as a friend, you should have encouraged him to learn to do the hard work in order to pass his exams. I want you to remember this.”

Still crying, I remained silent and accepted my punishment.

The lessons I carry with me

Joe knew what had happened. But he never stepped in to take responsibility, because why should he? He failed anyway. And needless to say, we stopped being friends after that. In fact, he eventually left the school without finishing, and I never knew if it was by choice.

It’s been 25 years since this happened, but it’s left such an impact on my life. Even though Mrs Nora said it in a way a 13 year old could understand, these are lessons even many working adults could use.

  1. If you really want to help a friend, sometimes you need to say to their face what is hard but true. Even if they don’t want to hear it, they need to learn to succeed themselves. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
  1. If you want to progress in your career, you have to work hard and be genuinely good at your job. You can get away with shortcuts by playing politics to get promoted, or taking credit for other peoples’ work, but over a long period of time, you’ll eventually be found out and the market (invisible forces) will adjust you to your true value. The reverse is also true – if you feel you are not progressing fast enough compared to your peers, as long as you have a great attitude to work, time will adjust you to your true value, so keep going.
  1. If you’re a boss that thinks being nice to your team is being a good leader, you’re much likelier to hurt their long term career. Teach them the value of hard work, or they will go through their career thinking they are better than they actually are, and struggle in the long term.

And perhaps the most important lesson of all:

“Good intentions” can never justify cheating.

 

digital recruitment

Top Digital Recruitment Concepts

We successfully completed WOBB’s first ever Digital Recruitment Training recently, and it’s exciting to see such a forward thinking group of HR folks who want to understand the future of recruitment.

The subject is a really big one, and I believe someone can be doing this for months and still be considered a “junior”. But I will try to give my top digital recruitment concepts that I believe are the foundation of this topic.

1) Your candidates won’t “walk pass” your career page

In the physical world, if you set up a shop, people will walk pass your shop, and potentially visit or buy something.

In the digital world, it doesn’t work like that. No one will walk pass your website by chance, unless they are already looking for you. You’ll have to know how to set up channels to drive your targeted audience to your website.

The most common channels are: Search (Google), Social Media (Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram), or Direct (people directly visit your website because you’re promoting it in the physical world).

digital recruitment

2) Think of recruitment as a funnel, much like how sales and marketing people think of it

Typically when I meet HR folks, I often hear their frustration about how many irrelevant applications they get when they advertise their jobs, and constantly talk about the need to a better screening process from job portals.

But it actually doesn’t solve the problem for them. Even after screening all these irrelevant CVs, they won’t enough good ones to invite for an interview. So the REAL problem is that good people are not applying to their jobs.

Employers, should instead take a step back and start thinking about how to market their company as employer to attract good talent to even apply to them in the first place.

The digital recruitment funnel

In order to start marketing your company, you’ll need to decide on a clear employer branding message. Are you positioning your company as a prestigious employer? Or an employer that cares about social impact? Or are you positioning yourself as an employer that treats their staff like family? Be decisive and clear on the message.

3) Create digital assets (content) around your employer branding message

Once you’ve decided what the message is, start creating content in the form of digital assets such as videos and photos that share that message in the digital world.

I use the word “asset” because as you know anything that goes on the internet stays there forever! So your work is never wasted, it will stack and compound, and over time, the internet will be filled with digital assets of your company sharing that same employer branding message.

If you contrast this, with say, spending time having a booth at a university to promote your company, that effort disappears after the booth is gone.

This is why digital recruitment is so powerful. All your work creating your company’s digital assets is never wasted and keep stacking up.

This is why digital recruitment is so powerful. All your work creating your company’s digital assets is never wasted and keep stacking up.

4) Push your digital assets across multiple channels

Whether it’s your company’s own website, on Linkedin or on an employer branding job portal like WOBB, start posting all these digital assets everywhere.

digital recruitment

There are various tactics how you can post effectively in different platforms, as the audience behaves differently on each of them. There are many resources from the digital marketing world that you can refer to in order to decide how best to optimise your content on these different social platforms. Here are some basics:

Google search: Your audience find you here because they are searching for something, therefore there is an intent to take action. Think about how your candidates might be looking for you. What do they see on the first page of Google when they search your company name?

Social media: Your audience is browsing social media not because they are looking for a job, therefore if they find your content, they are basically “discovering” it. Take a less direct approach to promoting your job vacancies is important here to not throw off your targeted candidates.

You can also join WOBB’s digital recruitment workshop (which I train personally) to get deeper insights, include how to make content viral, how to be a digital headhunter on Linkedin and how to screen candidates automatically using technology.

5 Leadership Lessons from a First-time Startup Founder

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.

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 their CEO and guess what? Their CEO doesn’t care.

To their CEO, all this sounds like HR fluff. “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 your CEO care about employer branding?

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 employer branding 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, it’s easier to get the attention of your CEO if they can relate it directly to whether this helps the company make or save money. 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. That reasoning, though, may not work for many companies, and may feel like a bit of stretch.

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

With an attractive employer brand, backed up an aligned recruitment process, companies are able to recruit the right talent, make less hiring mistakes, get better people that fit the culture and ultimately creates an environment that these talents will thrive in. Your staff retention will improve 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 (not to mention, having less stress and more sleep!).

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 the momentum they create while being in a job for a long time 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 employer brand 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 your 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 organisational transformation is what is needed, and that will involve 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, your 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 talent to keep their company going and that business will fail if they do not solve this problem soon.

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

Not every CEO can relate to this because they  are just thinking about stability and keeping things as they are. This is clearly a mistake though, as not wanting to change to adapt to the new reality is exactly what will cause the business to fail.

What you can do now

Often, because your CEO may have 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 the issues that will catch the attention of your CEO, and how you can relate this back to the importance of investing in employer brand, 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