Wong Kien Keong, chairman of Baker & McKenzie.Wong & Leow, talks to Jerene Ang about the pragmatic approach to running a business in order to adapt best to the environment and situation at hand.
How have you seen the company evolve in the long tenure you’ve had here?
I have been with Baker & McKenzie.Wong & Leow and its predecessor, Baker & McKenzie, for 28 years.
When I joined there were only eight lawyers. This has grown to over 100 lawyers or lawyer equivalents, about 20 paralegals and about 130 other staff within the same premises.
Our firm has changed from being an offshore law firm to a full-service international firm in a joint venture with Wong & Leow LLC.
How would you define your leadership style?
My leadership style involves being pragmatic, fair, firm and friendly. I hire people whom I believe are better than me to ensure that our succession pipeline is of a high quality.
I hire people whom I believe are better than me to ensure that our succession pipeline is of a high quality.
My approach towards running the firm is a pragmatic one, simply because we need to adapt to our environment or the situation at hand.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I enjoy most working with very bright and smart people with passion and tenacity who add value, and who do not drain the energy of our staff.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make as a boss, and what did you learn from it?
Dealing with high-quality partners who may have lost focus, may have misaligned themselves or become disruptive to the enterprise is a tough decision to carry through.
We have had to deal with such tough decisions and choices concerning very smart and very high-quality persons from time to time. This was usually done after much thought, consultation and consensus building.
We have had to take this to a vote once, and this was the toughest decision we ever took, although it was amicable and the process was agreed upon beforehand.
The lesson here is to plan well, hire well, make new partners carefully so that the risks for both parties are well understood, turn to new opportunities quickly in times of recession and absorb economic shocks as much as possible within the organisation.
When you’re struggling with stress or a bad day, how do you unwind and re-energise yourself?
I normally exercise, do yoga or listen to some music. I also like to spend time with my wife and son.
How do you engage and motivate staff when they are struggling with work?
I meet and socialise with them. We share mutual life’s stories and adventures together to take our minds off the work at hand.
What is your view of human resources as a business function?
Organisations today do well because they have high-quality human resource functions. Hiring high-potential persons, training them, coaching them, mentoring them and retaining them are real challenges and HR is crucial in dealing with these challenges.
Without a good partnership with and in HR, any organisation which hopes to be successful will find the process daunting. The management of talent is utterly important and high-performing talent which fit the organisation’s culture, ethos and mission is very hard to find.
Without a good partnership with and in HR, any organisation which hopes to be successful will find the process daunting.
HR must be engaged in key discussions and be involved in the decision making of the organisation to ensure it is fully apprised of its vision, mission and goals, and the strategy to achieve its goals. It must be encouraged to own the strategy of the organisation as well.
Further, it must be given the support and the base to draw from to discharge its tasks and programmes. Equally, a high-performing HR must be intelligent, passionate, engaged, and not fearful of being challenged by the boss.
HR personnel should also be encouraged to provide facts and evidence when assisting top management in their decision making.
Could many HR leaders make it to a CEO level? Why/why not?
Anyone with the right attribute that the organisation needs in a particular time of its history would be suitable to be a leader and a CEO. That includes HR leaders.
Typically, a CEO must grasp the business of the organisation well, understand its culture, have a strategy to take it from where it is to where it should be. Following that, the CEO should chart a plan to implement that strategy, and must then be able to harness resources to implement that plan.
I don’t see why HR leaders can’t become high-performing CEOs. Most have a good EQ potential and if they have been working in high-performing organisations, they would have acquired great organisational smartness and intelligence, high quality business sense and financial savviness.
What has been your most memorable moment with the organisation?
I founded two local law firms which are affiliated with Baker & McKenzie. One is Wong & Leow LLC which is the joint venture partner of Baker & McKenzie LLC in Singapore, and the other is Wong & Partners in Malaysia, which is a member firm of Baker & McKenzie International.
These two firms are milestones in my life as they have become well recognised.