Q&A with Mr. Gan Seow Kee From ExxonMobil Asia Pacific
HQ Asia sat down with Mr Gan Seow Kee, Chairman and Managing Director of ExxonMobil Asia Pacific Pte Ltd, for a discussion on how ExxonMobil develops its local leadership pipeline as well as Mr Gan's leadership journey.
HQ Asia: What has been your leadership journey?
Gan Seow Kee: ExxonMobil has a rigorous leadership development process, and I have been a beneficiary of this robust and structured process in my over 35 years with the company. I was given my first supervisory role quite early in my career, where I managed a small group in supply logistics coordination. This assignment allowed me to learn about managing people and the various interfaces that my group had with other parts of the company.
Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to take on various leadership positions, with increasing levels of responsibility and wider scope. Over the course of my career at ExxonMobil, I had 16 jobs in very diverse parts of the business – in manufacturing, logistics, sales, business development, planning and trading.
Several of these were regional management positions where my scope covered the whole region. I served as the head of ExxonMobil’s oil trading company for the Asia Pacific and concurrently as the head of the Asia Pacific Supply and Trading business, based in Singapore.
I was also privileged to have had two opportunities to work at our Refining and Supply global headquarters in the US. In my most recent overseas assignment, I was responsible for ExxonMobil’s global oil products supply and trading business, and it was really fascinating for me to see the immense global scale and breadth of ExxonMobil’s businesses.
These experiences prepared me well for my current role as Chairman and Managing Director of ExxonMobil Asia Pacific Pte Ltd (EMAPPL), which I assumed in 2014. EMAPPL is ExxonMobil’s Singapore affiliate, and is the Asia Pacific hub for ExxonMobil’s downstream and chemical business, with more than 3,300 employees in Singapore of which about 90% are locals.
HQA: What three pieces of advice would you give to an emerging leader looking to take on a regional or global role?
GSK: First and foremost, my advice to an emerging leader would be to pay close attention to the people aspects. It is important to truly get to know the people in your team, understand their different backgrounds and their strengths, and also the people in the market that you are operating in. Only with this knowledge can you harness the full strength of your team to collectively identify and capture business opportunities and effectively meet the needs of your customers.
Second, have a positive and inquisitive learning attitude. This will help you adapt quickly in your new role, whether it is learning about the new area of business or new people that you have to work with. Also, the world is changing at an ever increasing pace, and as progressive leaders and managers we need to continuously learn and adapt, and be ready to embrace new ways of thinking and working.
Related to this is my third piece of advice – to keep apprised of external socio-economic and political developments, and closely monitor market trends and what our competitors are doing, so that we can ensure we are well-positioned early to stay ahead of the game.
HQA: How does ExxonMobil develop its local leadership pipeline?
GSK: It starts with hiring – ExxonMobil is a global company, and we recruit highly qualified candidates with strong leadership potential who can succeed on the global stage. Our philosophy across our corporation is to hire locally, provide our people a range of assignments and experiences, promote from within, and to help our people to reach their full potential.
We take a disciplined and structured approach to developing employees over their long term careers. This encompasses on-the-job and specialized training in technical and functional skills that are aligned with our business strategies and needs, as well as interpersonal, personal work effectiveness and leadership courses.
ExxonMobil also has an internal Corporate Learning Organization which manages and offers a comprehensive suite of in-house leadership development courses, partnering with universities and leading vendors to provide corporate leadership programs tailor-made for ExxonMobil. For example, we have an Enterprise Leadership Program with the University of North Carolina, a General Leadership Program and Advanced Leadership Program with the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, and a Global Leadership Forum with Columbia University.
We have a very rigorous process of identifying future candidates for designated leadership positions, ensuring the pipeline for filling these positions remains healthy, and monitoring that the development plans are in place for the identified candidates, so as to support them for success in these positions.
We have a Singapore Leadership Development Committee, comprising the company’s senior leadership team based here, that oversees the development of local talent to fill senior leadership positions in Singapore and globally.
Our corporation’s scale and global presence enables us to offer our high potential employees with developmental assignments and experiences as part of their career development and in line with business needs.
Currently there are about 140 Singaporeans working overseas, lending their talent and contributions to ExxonMobil’s businesses abroad while gaining international experience. Upon completion of their overseas assignment successfully, these high potential employees may move on to other developmental or leadership roles in Singapore or other ExxonMobil work locations to further grow their competencies.
HQA: What successes and key learnings have you had along the way?
GSK: The successes that I am most proud of are those where I had led and driven major changes and where I could harness the global strength of ExxonMobil.
One key learning for me is that the greatest essential factor for success is the ability to lead people. There is nothing significant that one can achieve alone, certainly not in a company with the scale and complexity of ExxonMobil. So it all comes down to being able to work with other people, and harnessing the energy and expertise of the people in your team as well as those in other groups that you collaborate with, to achieve the desired outcome.
Another key learning is that one must be prepared to try and test and fail in some instances, in order to be able to achieve greater results. It is important to have a positive attitude towards learning from failure and decisions or approaches that didn’t quite work out. The only way to never fail is to not do anything at all – which means that nothing gets achieved.
HQA: What have you learned from the leaders you have helped develop?
GSK: I’ve learnt many things, including that however experienced you may be, you do not have all the right answers or good ideas all of the time!
More seriously, an important learning is that we need to take some managed risks in putting our future leaders into positions that will stretch and challenge them. I’m very proud of how our emerging leaders had embraced the higher level of responsibility they were entrusted with, and grew in their new positions. I still keep in touch with them today, and often seek their ideas and views as a sounding board.