Perhaps one of the biggest concerns businesses have when I talk to them about building a good company culture, is that they think SOME of their employees are going to abuse it.
I get that.
The business world is tough and unforgiving. If your employees start abusing your culture and become less productive, your clients don’t care, your investors don’t care and ultimately if your company can’t deliver, the market will punish you for it.
But stopping yourself from creating the best culture that MOST of your people are going to love and thrive in, just because you’re worried that a small handful of people may abuse it, is not a good strategy.
Your good people are not going to abuse it, in fact, it will energise them and make them more productive. And the bad ones only make up a small percentage (maybe 10%) and are going to find a way to do bad things, whether or not you try to have a good culture.
I’ve made the mistake of introducing rules (that “damaged” our trust-based culture) just to control bad behavior but in the end, only the good people get punished, and the abusers still found different ways to bypass those rules.
Create and defend your company’s culture for your good people, do what you can to help them succeed, and those who abuse your culture will soon find that they don’t fit in.
As an entrepreneur, starting a business with just one person (me!) and growing it to almost 50 people now, I can confirm one thing that’s always been talked about, and so true, is that people build businesses.
Not strategy, not product, not marketing. All these things are created as a result of your people.
Good people = good strategy
Good people = good product
Good people = good marketing
And the list goes on.
As the company grows, it becomes less about how good I am, and more about how good our people are. Because I can’t do and decide everything.
So if you can invest millions in product and marketing, you should and can invest in attracting the best people.
Last week, I was almost late to an important meeting, so I rushed to my car, got inside, but realised the engine wouldn’t start!
In a moment of agitation, I thought to myself:
“I can’t believe this is happening now!”
“I have so many issues to deal with, now I have to deal with my car!”
“I need the car this weekend!”
This went on for about a minute. But my conscious mind quickly caught myself spiraling into a negative state. That’s when I decided to change my mind’s voice. I decided to practice gratefulness instead of feeling like a victim.
“I’m so lucky that I can grab a taxi so quickly using an app. Now I’m not going to be late.”
“It’s a good thing that I have a second car at home, not everyone is as lucky to have a second car.”
“I’m grateful that I can call my family for help, so I can focus on my work.”
I immediately created a positive emotional state, and was back in a productive mood, ready to take on challenges again.
We have more power over our emotional state than we realise, and can choose how our inner voice speaks to us. Had I stayed in a “victim” state, it would have had a negative impact on my work for the rest of the day. But I chose gratefulness, and you can too.
I promise this choice will encourage the world to react positively to you too.
Coincidentally in the last few weeks, five different people asked me about the “importance of networking”.
And I told them – if you think about your activities as “networking”, you probably got it wrong. Going to gatherings and shaking hands with influential people is not networking. They won’t help you because they are surrounded by people who want to network with them ALL THE TIME.
I go to very few gatherings. When I meet people, it’s about discussing a common goal together, never small talk. All my “network” was not from me trying to meet influential people. I was just driven by my work, and the right people showed up because they were interested in the work that I do.
And if we contacted each other, we will genuinely try to help each other out, even though we’ve not known each other for long.
That’s because to build a real network, there needs to be trust and mutual respect. Trust is built because they know I am not meeting them for the silly reason of “trying to network”. I am meeting them on equal grounds, discussing how we can add value to each others’ goals.
We shouldn’t try to shake the hands of influential people for the sake of networking. If you want a real network, focus on being driven by your work, and the right network will appear.
Was thinking recently about whether there are certain guiding principles that have brought me to where I am today. And took me a while to summarise them into this list. Here are my Top 10!
1) Treat your loved ones like it may be the last time you’ll see them
Most people will leave this world unexpectedly or with very little warning. Be kind to your loved ones, don’t assume you will have time to tell them you love them. And don’t live with regret only when it’s too late to do anything about it.
2) Only spend time with people you like
Life’s too short to be socially polite. And stay away from those who like complaining. They are sucking energy from you to keep themselves going.
3) Think with your head, act with your heart
In modern society, sometimes being emotional is portrayed as a weakness, but realise it is a great driver of action. Nothing is more formidable than someone who can make decisions using their mind, but is obsessed and driven by their heart.
4) Realise that you’re wrong about many things, especially about yourself
Self-awareness is a gift, and even those that remind themselves to be self-aware know so little about their biases and own personality. Understanding this helps you listen to others better, develop empathy, and opens up your mind to have a deeper understanding of yourself.
5) If you want to grow, don’t get offended when someone criticizes you
“When a student is ready, the teacher will appear”.
Too often I see those that get easily offended or defensive when others criticise them or their work, and at the same time, start complaining that others do not want to mentor them. We need to respond to feedback well, in order to encourage others to continuously want to help you grow.
6) Remind yourself that the world owes you nothing
Do not fall into the entitlement trap. You’re not a victim. And life is not fair. While you envy others, realise that there are those that envy you too. This understanding helps you live life happier, with more gratitude, and encourages everyone to work hard to pursue what they want.
7) Speak less, ask more
It’s always better to learn what someone else knows rather than trying to impress them with what you know.
8) Don’t try to fit in and be normal
Normal usually means average. Be extraordinary.
9) Know that it’s a privilege to have the responsibility to tackle big problems
The bigger the problem, the bigger the hero. If you feel overwhelmed by your problems, remember that it’s a privilege to have the responsibility to take on big problems. Who is in a bigger position, the Prime Minister of a country who is facing problems that will affect the lives of millions of people, or a university student whose biggest problem is trying to hand in their homework on time?
So don’t feel overwhelmed. Take on your problems knowing that you’re lucky to be facing it because you’re doing something important.
10) Be as curious as a toddler
Look at new ideas like how a toddler looks at a new toy. With intense curiosity and excitement, and be willing to experiment. A closed mind will lead to a life of stagnation.
We’ve started a “Jom Balik Tanah Air” movement to share personal stories of Malaysians who have come home from living abroad, and making an impact, not just in their own lives, but also in the lives of other Malaysians, whether in big or small ways.
As someone who has lived in London for many years, I believe there’s a common misperception that many Malaysians did not want to come home purely because the money was better elsewhere.
But if you’ve lived abroad for a long time before, you’ll learn that most Malaysians don’t live luxurious lives or drive BMWs there. So why don’t they come home?
One word: Confidence.
Confidence that there is opportunity for them back home. Confidence that the country loves them as much as they love their country.
As the rakyat stood proudly together in the recent elections for what a momentous moment in Malaysia’s history, many Malaysians I have spoken to (who are still abroad) are thinking “maybe now is the time to come home”.
So if you’re living abroad now, I hope these stories inspire you that the possibilities are huge if you’re willing to come home, bring your talent and enthusiasm, and help build this country together!
“Derek, I’m looking for a new job, is there a good one you can recommend?”
I asked, “But you’ve only been there for 6 months, why so soon?”
“I have learned everything I can from this job. Time to go to the next one and learn new things.”
Firstly, you might have learned new skills. Maybe you’ve performed these skills successfully once or twice. That hardly makes you an expert. True mastery takes time and practice.
BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, the difference between those who achieve great things vs those who don’t, is not “skills”. It’s your ability to demonstrate grit and perseverance. Grit is the ability to push through despite struggles and hardship. The strength to see problems as hurdles that you can overcome and not quit when things get tough.
I can’t read your future, but if you’re an ambitious person, I can promise you that the road to success is filled with a barrage of problems.
Not a single successful person out there got to where they are without having to persistently overcome them in pursuit of their long term goals. This strength is more important than any skill you can acquire.
Skills are important, but they will only get you so far. It takes years of relentless focus and an uphill climb to learn grit. We hardly learn anything in 6 months.
“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.
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:
They misunderstand being a good boss as being an understanding boss
They don’t like conflict
They are vain and care too much about what other people think about them and want to be seen as a “good boss”
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.
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.