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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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 feels safer to take care of everyone’s feelings in case something goes wrong, in which case “we all made this decision together”.

People who resent office politics tend refuse to spend time building relationships, seeing it as “selling out” on their principles

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 talking about achieving a business goal, not a personal selfish goals. 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 this behaviour 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 and affect the company’s ability to make the best decisions.

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.

People who believe they can get ahead in their careers by using relationships to hurt others are misguided

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.

It take a strong leader with the will to look pass their own emotions and assess issues objectively using data and logic

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?

Leaders should create a culture of transparency 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. If you don’t have all the information, you have no choice but to trust management.

When a leader says “just trust me because you don’t know everything, it’s a management decision”, it 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.

When a leader says “just trust me because you don’t know everything, it’s a management decision”, it creates a culture where leaders become lazy at thinking through their decisions.

What we can all do to stop negative 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?

“Whoever you are, or want to be, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.”

— Marshall Berman

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 →

Radical Candor

Before we jump into how radical candor works, I want to write about the “conventional” or adviced method of giving negative feedback. In my previous jobs, we’ve always been trained to manage communication with colleagues, especially when giving negative feedback, using a common technique where you “sandwich” the negative feedback between positive ones, to get your message across but not hurt egos too much. The idea is that this allows negative feedback to be received without demotivating your team. Continue reading →

The Gen Y Mind

I was on BFM recently, having a conversation directly with Gen Y talent about their careers. We had honest discussions about work-life balance, job hopping, taking a gap year, find work that you are passionate about etc. Many important topics that are on many Gen Y’s minds, yet they’ve never had the opportunity to speak out and actually get feedback about how these ideas work in reality.

Have a listen here, and if you have friends who may benefit from listening to this conversation, share it with them too!

 

Entrepreneur Views: Gen Y Work Life Balance

They say Gen Y value work life balance. So it may be a challenge for employers where work life balance is not possible due to the nature of the business. But the reality is, not ALL Gen Y talent put work life balance as a priority, and there are many quality talent out there that is willing to put in the hours to get the work done, it just needs to be the right kind of work, and in the right kind of culture or environment.

One industry in particular, does not allow for much work life balance. And that’s the events business. If you’ve ever heard any stories about the people who run events, you will know that work hours are long, and stress levels are high.

Yet for Jwan Heah, this has been a challenge he’s faced and overcome across the many years he’s been in the events business. Jwan is the Group CEO of Pulse Group, an events company spanning across Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, and has previously been involved in organising some large scale events in the region.

If you’ve ever heard any stories about the people who run events, you will know that work hours are long, and stress levels are high.

Jwan has managed to hire and manage some of the most motivated Gen Y talent in the industry, so when I was looking for ideas on what makes Gen Y work hard and put in the hours, Jwan was kind enough to share some of his thoughts with me.

D: What are your views about work life balance?

JH: You spend the bulk of your time each day at work plus the the after hour work that you put in equates to a huge part of your life is work. If you’re spending almost all your life with/on work, then blur the lines a little so that you don’t have to balance work and life. Every morning you wake up and you’re excited cause you know its going to be a fun day, you head out to the office and hang out with a bunch of like-minded awesome people to do something you enjoy, its something you look forward to and then it doesn’t become work anymore. When you find joy in what you and who you do it with, its not work anymore.

D: When you interview Gen Y candidates, what techniques (or interview questions) do you use to distinguish those that are willing to put in the hours, from those who won’t?

Manage Expectations During the Interview

JH: During the interview, we start by giving an explanation into what we do and we’re very direct and open with how bad the situation is. Extremely long working hours, ‘show goes on no matter what attitude’ that includes occasionally the need to perform manual labor work, smile while receiving stress induced profanities, meeting crazy deadlines, dealing with all manner of people, changing plans within couple of hours notice, driving solo to ends of Malaysia or hop on a plane etc. Basically to get stuff done or die trying.

Ask questions about their personality

JH: Questions during interview focus more on personal attributes rather than skillsets. What makes you happy? If you are given RM1,000 to plan an internal company event what would you do and why?

Give them space to be sure of their decision

JH: Finally we tell them to go home and think about it and come back to us in 48 hours if they still want to pursue a life here in PULSE ASIA. At the end we always advise anyone wanting to join us that its their life and Pulse Asia is merely a platform to help you achieve your goals and personal vision, if the culture and environment gives you the added ability to do that, then join us.

jwan team - gen y work life balance

D: If your staff feel burned out from hard work, how do you try to balance that, to ensure that you retain them, and that they remain committed to their work?

J: We maintain a family like culture and a fun filled environment, and we’ve made spreading happiness and positivity a mantra. Everyone is aware of the company’s performance at all times including financials & profitability, we set targets and celebrate each mini achievement or win, and each individual’s contribution is publicly acknowledged and announced during our daily huddles and emphasised during our ‘Gratitude Fridays’. Although we do practice having a leave form, we are not tracking the number of leaves a PulsElite takes and half day off to sort out personal errands is a common practice. As long as the work is done, we allow the flexibility. Its the culture that we’ve built (building more like it) that keeps everyone together and committed to their work.

D: How do you compete with other employers who can offer work/life balance to their employees?

JH: We don’t compete. We’ve created (constant fine tuning) our culture and we’re continuously evolving to ensure we stay relevant in our industry. We’re transparent in terms of our expectations from the start and do our best to understand employees expectations. Part-timers, friends, vendors and clients constantly get a glimpse at how we live our lives as PulsElites and that creates good word of mouth for us. As an organization we do all that we can within our capacity and financial limits to provide an environment that is safe, fun and caters for as a wide a spectrum of personalities… as mentioned in the earlier questions, in the end its up to the job seeker to decide which organization suits his/her desires, values and goals.

We don’t compete. We’ve created our culture and we’re continuously evolving. In the end it’s up to the jobseeker to decide which organization suits his/her desires values and goals.

D: What do you think are some of things employers can offer that Gen Y candidates will find more important than work/life balance?

JH:

  1. Exorbitant amounts of money?? (hahaha)
  2. Clearly articulated and visible Vision, Mission, and Values statement. So you attract the right people who share those dreams and make sure its repeated day in day out.
  3. Engagement. Break the boundaries of the traditional hierarchical structure and engage across all levels and departments. e.g CEO spending time with the janitor to get his/her feedback and acting on those feedbacks, upper management walking the floor daily. This probably has a much bigger impact than on work life balance. In the end, people want to know that they matter.
  4. Involve everyone who will be affected by a decision in the decision making process.
  5. Opportunities for learning and personal growth and development
  6. Champion a social cause. Provide the resources and time for people to spearhead community enrichment programmes or charity causes.
  7. Drivers and/or UBER. Cause driving to the office and to meetings stuck in traffic is emotionally and physiologically taxing. Coupled with trying to find parking for an important presentation a the clients office can cause serious damage to the heart and mind! (we are beta testing the use of UBER for work at the moment)

How to Recruit Superstars for Your Early Stage Startup

Unfortunately, if you are an early stage startup, you HAVE to recruit superstars. You don’t have a choice. When teams are small, one or two average performers would mean that you have an average team. And with the level of challenges faced by early stage startups, average teams are going to fail.

But that’s really tough right? Because being an early stage startup also means that you do not have the resources to compete for the best talent. Some people think can get away with just “selling them your vision”, but be careful not to exaggerate because many startups are saying that they want to change the world or revolutionise something, and most of this sounds a lot like fluff to smart people (they are the ones you want to hire, remember). I mean think about this, if your startup’s business is to make money by selling bags, TVs or toys online (I’m not referring to any particular startup here), any altruistic vision to “change the world” doesn’t really work for most people.

The most important question you need to ask yourself is “Why would a superstar want to join an early stage startup? Why wouldn’t they just start their own?”. The truth is, they may want to start their own startup one day, and you should accept that as the reality, and for whatever reason, perhaps they are not able to do that now, or don’t currently have an idea that they feel very strongly about.

Be careful not to exaggerate, many startups say they want to change the world or revolutionise something, but most of this sounds like a lot of fluff to smart people.

Before we go any further, I would just like to mention the very basics of being able to recruit. Your startup needs to have a good idea and is able to pay salaries, either because you are revenue generating or are well funded (or has the potential to be well funded). After all, for employees, one of their top concerns is having some form of stability and career path. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at how you can attract and recruit some superstars for your early stage startup.

1) Build Credibility for Yourself (the Founder)

Regardless of what area your startup is in, what matters most to talented people when they decide if they want to join you, is less about what business you are in, and more about who you are as the founder. Is it someone they respect? Can this person mentor them in their careers, when they too may one day decide to have their own startup?

When news came out that Joel Neoh was starting KFIT, many people that wanted to apply to join KFIT probably were not into the entire fitness thing, but because they’ve heard so much about Joel and the opportunity to learn and work with a team that they admire, it was easier for KFIT to attract talent.

When Cheryl Yeoh first came back to start MaGIC, they managed to build such a high quality team. I don’t think it was the “excitement” of working in a government agency, but the idea of working alongside Cheryl was enough to draw a lot of good applications to MaGIC.

(Both KFIT and MaGIC use WOBB.CO to hire, so I know for a fact that they attract good quality applications.)

Well, most of us don’t get that kind of media attention. I certainly didn’t,  and most people don’t know who I am. So when I first started WOBB, without a strong track record, I knew I needed to build some credibility. I want to share with you some of things I did at the start that really helped us hire good quality talent.

Build your Linkedin Profile

Derek Toh Linkedin Profile

When someone googles your name, what’s the first thing they see? You can start by having a strong Linkedin profile. There’s so much you can do on your Linkedin profile (include photos, videos, links to publications) that it’s definitely under-used.

I will write a separate, detailed piece about what makes a strong Linkedin profile in Malaysia (there are also many good articles on the internet about this), but as a start, make sure your profile is complete. That means, having things like a professional looking photo, up-to-date information about your career to date, any achievements and definitely have a summary that is personal, yet gives you credibility.

Have a personal / professional blog

Yes, like the one you are reading now. I bought “derektoh.com” at the start of my entrepreneurial journey, because I thought it was a great way to tell a story as I learned about the business world. Turns out, it was also a great talent magnet. I’ve actually had people approaching me after they read my blog, asking if they could join WOBB.CO.

When someone googles your name, what is the first thing they see? You can start by having a strong Linkedin profile.

So go out there can get a domain in your own name. Basically, people who didn’t know you before will now have one stop where they can read about what you value, how you think and behave, and most importantly what kind of leader and entrepreneur you will be.

It’s important to know that even though I’ve called it a “personal blog”, I would suggest keeping it fairly professional. Not to write about your break up, or food, or travel adventures. Unless it’s relevant to what you do.

Also, remember to update it frequently, ideally at least once a week.

Put it on your business card and email

Now that you have an amazing Linkedin profile, and a professional blog in your own name, it’s time to make sure people can find it. When WOBB.CO first started out, I had my personal blog address and Linkedin profile on every business card I gave out, and in the email signature when I’m emailing. People do click and read it, especially if they don’t know you very well.

Btw, this benefit goes beyond just recruitment, it could even help you close business deals and partnerships if the person you are working with believes you have credibility.

2) Get Visibility, Go Where the Talent Are

The next thing you need to do is figure out where you can find the type of people that you are looking to hire. In my view, there are three types of people that you could potentially hire. And they are:

  1. Fresh graduates who are generally open to consider different careers
  2. Talent from other startups
  3. Startup enthusiasts (i.e. people who are not necessarily already working at a startup, but they follow startup news and may have friends who work at startups)

I would avoid approaching people who have been in corporate jobs for most of their career, not because it’s not possible for them to consider working at a startup, but it’s a decision based on how best to invest your time. This group is the least likely to consider working at a startup, and therefore should also be the one you invest the least time on.

So where do you find the people you are targetting?

magic career fair

Go to career fairs for startups

Career fairs are filled with fresh graduates or people in the early careers, and it’s a great place to get your brand out there as an employer. You will want to avoid generic career fairs that are dominated by large corporate companies (basically the guys with the most money also buy the most outstanding booths, and get all the attention). You want to look for the career fairs that were designed for startups.

Here are some of the startup career fairs that I am aware of:

  1. MaGIC – happens once every six months or so, I believe, and typically coincides with other events that they hold such as MaGIC Startup Academy. Doesn’t charge for this.
  2. YouthsToday – organises startup events (may not be directly about careers, but great place nonetheless) every now and then, and it’s good to reach out to them to find out when the next one is. There is a fee to attend.
  3. Enactus @ University of Nottingham’s Malaysian Campus – as far as I know, they have organised the first one in early 2015, and currently preparing for the second one in 2016. There may be other universities that have startup career fairs, but at present I am only aware of this one.  WOBB attended the first one, I think results were okay, but they promised the second one to be bigger and better. This is a paid event, should be a couple of hundred ringgit to attend.

At the time of writing, we are also considering organising our own career fair / networking session at WOBB.CO, as long as employers are interested to fund their own costs, it will not be profit-driven.  You can drop me a line at derek@wobb.co to discuss.

Attend startup networking events

This is where you will meet existing startup talent and startup enthusiasts. There are many startup networking events that have grown and increased in popularity, and that’s great news for someone like yourself who is looking to recruit. Here are some of the startup networking events that I am aware of that may be worth your time.

My number one tip for networking events is to have long, meaningful conversations with a few interesting people, rather than trying to meet as many people as you can, and end up having superficial, unmemorable conversations.

Here are some of the startup networking events that I am aware of:

  1. Startup Grind – this is a global movement, originated from San Francisco I believe. Events are in the form of an “interview” with a popular startup personality on stage, and is very casual and conversational. Arrive early and leave late if your goal is to meet people. There’s a fee to attend, and they provide snacks and drinks during the event.
  2. DrinkEntrepreneurs – this is a pure networking event, no stage, no speakers. I’ve never attended one myself, but some of our WOBB team like going, and I hear there is a lot of startup talent and startup enthusiasts who attend these events. And people are drinking. Yes, alcohol. Which means if you stay long enough, you could be in danger of being too happy. And make some real friends. You’ll need to pay a cover charge to join the event.
  3. SITEC – This is Selangor’s version of MaGIC, as their goal is to play a role in building the tech startup community in Selangor. They organise networking sessions every month, and invite startup founders to speak. I believe it’s free to attend.
  4. WOBB’s Coffee Sessions – Every month, we organise a meet up with jobseekers who use WOBB, to understand how we can help them, and to get feedback on our app and website. Turns out, we ended up making some new friends and even hired people we met through these sessions. Everyone buys their own coffee, so it’s really casual. I would welcome some founders of early stage startups to join us, we don’t charge. Just be nice to our jobseekers.

StartupGrind KL

StartupGrind KL, image from PEATIX.COM

Get invited to speak at startup events

Instead of attending an event, why don’t you speak at one? Many people who attend startup events are not actually founders, but people who are curious, inspired by startups, and would consider working for one. So if you’re up there speaking, you’ve automatically got the attention of potential employees.

You will need a compelling story, perhaps you are solving a problem that many people care about, or if you are doing really well, then let them know you are succeeding. No one likes to join a startup that is stagnating or on the decline, so get the audience excited by showing how much progress you are making, and invite them to speak with you for “advice” afterwards, which will be your opportunity to identify potential hires.

Many people who attend startup events are not actually founders, but people who are curious, inspired by startups, and would consider working for one.

Now, getting invited to speak for the first time is always the most challenging, especially if you don’t speak publicly that much, and you are not very well known. Start by looking at events where where they invite a panel of speakers, instead of having solo speakers. Get connected with the organisers, either through your friends in the startup scene, or even approach them on Linkedin (you’ve got a pretty good profile now!).

At the start, don’t worry too much about how many people are there, or whether you can hire them. Just go out there and speak. Get some practice. Get some exposure. Before you know it, you may be invited to speak at other events.

3) Vision and Culture

Superstar talent don’t just want to work for a paycheck. And while you’ve built up some credibility for yourself, that still won’t be enough to attract them if they don’t feel like they are part of something much bigger than themselves.

Have a vision for the company

Think about how your startup can change lives, but remember not to exaggerate. If your vision is clear, ambitious, realistic and resonates with who they are, it will be a strong magnet for superstar talent.

Examples of some vision statements include:

Microsoft – A personal computer in every home running Microsoft software.

Toys R Us: Our vision is to put joy in kids’ hearts and a smile on parent’s faces.

WWF: We seek to save a planet, a world of life. Reconciling the needs of human beings and the needs of others that share the Earth.

At WOBB our vision is that one day every Malaysian will be doing a job that they love, as we make it easy for jobseekers and companies with the right culture to find each other.

(So many people have approached me directly to ask if we are hiring because they care so much about this vision)

Have a vision for their careers

This is not the vision for the company, but rather a vision for the careers of your team and their individual careers. Tell them how you will expect them to progress as the startup grows, and how this accelerates their growth, opportunities, and finances. The beauty of being in a startup is that the possibilities are endless, there isn’t a set hierarchy or structure for growth, and that gives you flexibility to craft out the right plan for people who intend to hire.

Have you heard of the chain of fruit stalls, MBG? I was speaking on a panel at an event with their founder, Adnan Lee, and he told me that his vision was not about the business, but rather, he had a vision for the people that work at MBG. And that vision is “To Improve the Quality of Life for All MBG Staff”. Interesting isn’t it? You can have a look at their vision and mission statement here.

MBG’s vision is not about the business, but rather, they have a vision for the people, and that is “To Improve The Quality of Life for All MBG Staff”.

And most importantly, let’s talk about CULTURE

If you want to be able to attract and hire superstars, you need to be clear what kind of culture you want to have as a company. Some of the employers that use WOBB.CO started out without a Culture Page, and they didn’t attract many CVs, but after they created a Culture Page, their job applications jumped up between 4X to 5X. And the quality of the CVs improved dramatically too. So it really works.

I could go on and on about how to define and shape your company culture (it is, after all, what WOBB is all about), but to get you started, here’s a simple infographic.

DEFINING COMPANY CULTURE

 

CONCLUSION

Increasingly, what superstar talent care about is evolving really fast. If you look back 10 or 20 years ago, all the best talent would have wanted to join large corporations who can pay well, have good benefits, and also stable long term career growth. Small businesses were generally seen as not the best place to work for some of the most talented individuals.

This is, however, no longer true. Young talent are drawn to the new, unfamiliar territory known as the startup scene, which is essentially made up of many many small but fast-growing companies, and with the right credibility, presence and culture, they may choose to work at your company too.

BFM Interview

Had an interesting interview on BFM last week. The haze has been affecting my voice the entire week, and initially I thought “not so great timing for a radio interview”, but it actually turned out to be a lot of fun and really smooth.

Freda Liu was really warm as soon as I stepped into their office, and had a chat in their conference room before the interview. She started asking me some questions, and I was wondering if there a hidden mic somewhere and that the interview had started, but she laughed saying that it was only to warm me up and to get my thoughts flowing.

She asked me not to be nervous, I didn’t think I was, but perhaps she could sense that I was in “interview mode”.

So I just told myself to treat it as a conversation, and not to overthink how I answer the questions. Basically, remove “corporate speak” and to be candid and just be myself.

Which led to a really fun interview!

Check it out here:

Listen to Open for Business with Derek Toh from WOBB