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#LeadershipLessons: Learn to ask (and answer) the difficult questions

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A good leader leads from a position of strength, hope and kindness; builds persistence in team members; and instils hope, says global HR leader, Alex Png, in this interview with Jerene Ang.

Q What are the biggest lessons you have learned on your way up and across the career ladder?

Mine is a journey filled with unexpected twists and turns. Earlier in my career, I was thrust into a people manager role. Back then, I had no inkling what to expect nor what was expected of me, as I had no prior grounding in it and no one to turn to for advice. I wished I had a playbook, a mentor, or even a course to prepare for it (which on hindsight, couldn’t have prepared me for the leadership journey anyway). The learning curve was even steeper for me when I was moved into a customer-facing role managing a network of close to 60 team members across the region.

That’s when I learnt things the hard way: one has to go through the school of hard knocks and soft nudges to grow as a leader. I fumbled trying to straddle the thin line between shielding my team from management pressures when mistakes are made, and did not quite know where to draw the line such that I am over-protecting them and preventing them from learning and growing from their mistakes. I had difficulty code-switching from being an individual contributor where I primarily took care of delivering on my targets and job duties to ensuring that the team has a chance to shine as a collective unit and succeed on the whole. I had to find out what makes the team tick both at an individual and collective level, and unleash their potential so we could contribute towards success together. 

The biggest lesson I have learnt is that leadership is a commitment and not just a skill.

If I had to distil it all, the biggest lesson I have learnt is that leadership is a commitment and not just a skill. You’ve to be willing to listen, spare and spend the time to build rapport within your team and across other teams, and do right by your team. Additionally, it’s deeply connected to one’s personal values and working style. No leader can garner the respect of and earn the willingness to strive by others without imbuing the right attitudes and values towards work. You’ve to know you’re always watched by both your actions and inactions, presence and absence, and be able to live up to it while staying grounded and committed to serving your people so they can do their best for the business. 

Looking back, I’ve learnt many things along the way, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else. Going from small three people teams to big 60 people teams, the principle of grounded leadership still works for me. 

What are three leadership best practices that have proved evergreen?

In short: empowerment, development, and self-iteration.

Empowerment
It is absolutely instrumental to entrust the team with the right amount and level of challenges for them to grow, yet balance that out with giving the empowerment for them to do their jobs right. I find that it helps to give the ‘why’ of a project or task, provide the parameters and indicate available resources, so they get the clarity they need to get the job done. The ‘how’ and ‘what’ can be left to management by principles, so they are able to still freely experiment and innovate.

Development
It’s crucial to me that my team is continually learning and developing themselves. I foster this by having them set learning goals. To get their commitment and demonstrate mine, I request for specific targets and clear deliverables to ensure they would set about achieving these learning goals. This has become very well-received and strikes a chord with almost anyone who is looking to broaden their horizons and improve their knowledge and skills.

Self-iteration
What also works for me is the concept of keeping myself accountable by gathering feedback and performing introspection to find out how I can do better. As a leader, I will have blind spots and areas for improvement. I need to know what they are, how they impact the rest of the team now and perhaps in the future, and figure out how to address it so it does not get in the way of the team’s development. What also helps is the ability to take the step back and allow the team to bask in the spotlight; this gives them the due recognition they deserve and builds great camaraderie.

What also works for me is the concept of keeping myself accountable by gathering feedback and performing introspection to find out how I can do better.

Given how rampantly leadership is being disrupted,

Given the common need (or some may argue ‘want’) to develop themselves amidst an increasingly disruptive job environment, people sometimes expect leaders to be their coaches or mentors, which is far too much an ask for some leaders. It could be due to varying reasons: they’re not ready to commit, they are not available to do so, or they simply do not have the skillsets to do what others would ordinarily expect out of a professional coach or mentor.

We’re also witnessing an era where there are many young leaders and unconventional career moves that result in people being new leaders and not being prepared for it. With these leaders, we sometimes fail to see that they need time to hone their leadership capabilities. We still foist on them the standards we’ve grown to expect from more experienced leaders, and end up tripping over ourselves wondering why they’re unable to deliver. The silver lining is that with these leaders, they are generally more inclined and keen to pick up better leadership competencies, and are willing to journey with us through that. If managed carefully, we could turn this into an opportunity to build a co-leadership culture in the workplace.

In line with that, what does the mindset of a good leader look like to you?

A good leader needs to cultivate a people-first, process-last mentality. In this instance, I refer to ‘people’ as all people factors in a business, including employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. People-first leaders take a central approach to managing people; this means allowing for your team members to be involved and have a voice in decision-making that affects their work and development, including changes to any processes in the organisation. This stands in stark contrast to process-first leaders, who pay too much attention to whether processes will be disrupted, at the expense of additional labour effort or hours.

More so, this people-first ethos can guide the creation of policies and determine decisions in the face of uncertainty, working especially well for dynamic environments requiring many snap decisions to be made such as front-line staff.

A good leader leads from a position of strength, hope and kindness.

Apart from this, a good leader leads from a position of strength, hope and kindness. He/she needs to stay resilient and build this level of persistence against all odds amongst team members, instil hope by clarifying future directions and goals of the team, and fundamentally be able to operate by assuming best intents on the part of each team member to do their utmost for the team’s success.

To inculcate the above qualities, a leader needs to learn to ask the difficult questions to the team and answers equally tough questions by the management on the team’s behalf. He/she has to build the right environments and communicate clear goals for team members to collaborate, and choose to intervene only when necessary so they partake in the process of discovering hope. He/she has to overcome difficult times with the team and emerge with lessons of both failures and successes. This can be done by taking on or creating an ambitious business project together with the rest of the team, and assume key roles of individual contributorship, project manager, and overall sponsor who’s accountable to the management for the success of the project.


This interview was published in Human Resources Online’s January-February 2020 edition of the Singapore magazine and will soon be published in the Q1 edition of the Malaysia magazine.

 

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