Koh Boon Hwee, GIC Investment board

Koh Boon Hwee: Reflections of an Asian Trailblazer

by
KOH BOON HWEE AND DR. MANO RAMAKRISHNAN

Koh Boon Hwee, former chairman of numerous major corporations such as SingTel, Singapore Airlines, and DBS Bank, shares 10 tips on leadership

Introduction by Dr Mano Ramakrishnan
Whenever I meet successful business leaders, I often ask them to name their role models. And, a name that consistently gets mentioned here in Singapore is that of Koh Boon Hwee.

Boon Hwee has had an illustrious career serving as Chairman of numerous major corporations, including SingTel, Singapore Airlines and DBS Bank. The people I spoke to emphasised his natural ability to inspire integrity, critical thinking and the courage to pursue one’s dreams. By his own admission however, Boon Hwee’s people leadership abilities were not God-given, but something he worked hard to develop over time. His desire to learn – coupled with frank feedback from his mentors – had helped transform his leadership style.

Upon speaking with Boon Hwee, I realised his ability to inspire stems not just from his unique capabilities or exceptional career. Rather, it is his genuine desire to develop the next generation of Asian business leaders that stand out. Below are his top tips on leadership.

  1. Teach your managers to manage
    Hewlett-Packard (HP) Singapore was a small and relatively unknown company when I first joined them in 1977. However, during the interview process I was very impressed by their leadership philosophy and how they treated their employees. HP made no assumptions that just because you had a manager title, that you automatically had the required management skills. We were trained on things like how to interview job applicants and conduct employee performance evaluations, as well as matters relating to compensation. As a fresh graduate, I benefited greatly from the people management training that I received at HP.
  2. The gift of mentorship
    I had the good fortune of having a series of real mentors at HP. They were genuine people who never shied away from giving tough feedback. But, they had the tremendous ability to do this in a non-threatening way. I still remember the feedback I got from my first boss – Dennis Raney – after six months on the job. He said, “Boon Hwee, you are really smart and are able to come to conclusions very quickly. But, you know what? You are not going to make it as a leader, unless you learn to bring along the rest of the people with you in discussions. You need to slow down, make sure everyone’s views are listened to, and that you have real buy-in”.

    No one had pointed that out to me before. I had assumed that as long as you got the job done well and fast, that was all that counted. Dennis’s feedback had a profound impact on me. He was a ‘no-nonsense guy’, who I knew was looking out for me. Till this day, we remain good friends.
  3. Promote from within
    The probability of success is higher when you promote people from within, rather than hire from outside. It may seem that no one in your company is ready to step up to the plate, in part because Asians are quieter and they don’t push their own personal agendas as aggressively. So as a manager, you have to make the effort to know your people well and uncover their potential. And,

    This is the advantage of promoting from within – you can know your team well - warts and all.

    It’s not so easy to spot the warts of candidates from the outside. All the conversations they have with you will be focused on their achievements. It’s also a great way to develop your people – take a chance on them, and let them learn.
  4. The one non-negotiable
    I remember my experience launching Nippon Paint in to China in 1993. You expect to make initial losses when starting up, but we were still not making money in our second year. Then we found out that our star salesman – who was responsible for about a third of all our sales – was taking kickbacks. “Why do I have to have this problem?” I wondered in frustration. It was all the more difficult because at that point of time, taking kickbacks was not seen as a big problem in China. It was a tough call, but I had only one chance to shape the culture of the company. So I fired him, and explained why to the entire company.

    Integrity is the one non-negotiable I demand of my people.

    But, it’s hard to assess and you will make mistakes in hiring. The important thing is to have the courage to address the problem squarely when you notice it.   
  5. The sprint and the marathon
    Apart from integrity, I look out for people with sustainable energy levels who can drive the business 24/7 for short durations, as well as steer the company’s direction over the longer term. I therefore look out for people that can do both the sprint and the marathon.
  6. Speaking up
    Going to a business school in the US helped me understand some of the differences between Asians and Americans. Americans are usually comfortable speaking up, whereas Asians are generally much shyer and tend to be precise and somewhat terse in their communication. I remember my fellow Asian students at Harvard Business School not speaking up frequently. But, when they did, you knew they had done their homework. I then realised that if I was going to work in a US company, I had to learn to speak up and articulate my views clearly.

    As a leader in Asia, you must understand that people are more reserved here. You have to put in more effort to eliciting the ideas of your people, especially those who are quieter. But it’s also important to do this in a non-threatening way. I ask the less vocal people in my team, “What do you think of this?” but make it clear it is fine to pass on giving a view if they did not feel they had the domain expertise to make a contribution.
  7. Encourage risk-taking, punish failures slowly
    When I joined HP Singapore, it was primarily a manufacturing company. We made our money by being cheaper and more efficient than our US counterparts. But, this made me nervous as I knew that our Asian neighbors would eventually be able to produce more cheaply than us. The key to success for HP Singapore I felt was R&D – so I tried to get R&D into Singapore. After finally getting approval for this, my first two R&D projects – which cost millions of dollars – ended in failure. But, I did not get fired. HP had a great track record of producing entrepreneurs, because they encouraged risk-taking and did not punish failures – at least not immediately. I do remember my boss telling me “Don’t screw up – 3 strikes and you’re out”. Luckily, our third R&D proposal worked out!
  8. On driving change
    Culture change occurs not because of what people say, but what people do, every single day. At SingTel, my mandate was to make the company more competitive. At that point of time, the worldwide telecommunication sector was liberalising and Singapore had to follow suit. We knew that SingTel could not survive just in Singapore – the market here was just too small. So we made it clear to employees that if you wanted to progress in this company, you have to be prepared to work overseas. We educated our employees about what happened to other once-strong incumbents who failed to change fast enough and perished. We also worked hard to align our strategy with our performance metrics and reward systems. Dysfunction sets in if you don’t do this well. At many financial institutions, for example, management continues to preach about collaboration, but employees are evaluated and rewarded only on individual performance.  
  9. My only aspiration
    This may be surprising to some, but I have no career aspirations. My only wish is to have the opportunity to constantly learn. I’m sometimes asked to take up a director position, but usually for companies in industries that I’ve had experience with. But, this does not appeal to me, as I want the opportunity to learn something new. Today, I look at a lot of companies, and make investments in them. I do this because I get to learn a lot about these companies. If I make money from these investments, then it’s a bonus.  
  10. The worst thing possible
    I was not afraid of taking risks in my career. After all, what is the worst thing that can happen if you make a mistake? You simply leave your job and find another one. In my view, the worst thing possible is to say at the end of your career, “I wish I had tried that when I was younger”. It’s ok if you have tried something you believed in and it failed. It’s not ok if you do not have the courage to chase your dreams, and subsequently spend the rest of your life wondering about what could have been.

This article was first published in HQ Asia (Print) Issue 05 (2013).

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