A dialogue with 2 CEOs

On 9 January, I attended a CEO dialogue at Braddell Heights CC.

In this event, Mr Seah Kian Peng, Group CEO of NTUC FairPrice and Mr Tan Tong Hai, CEO of‪ Starhub shared important insights on their life and career journeys. They’ve also shared their views and advice on the importance of good leadership and teamwork, as well as overcoming challenges, to succeed in the working world.

So here’s their advice:

On relationship with people around you:

Tan: Importantly, do not burn bridges, do not make unnecessary enemies. Along the way you will find many people who can help you. And the longer the journey you take, the more friends you have.

If you want to go far, you have to go as a team. Where the team comes from? Your contacts and friends you made along the way.

On Mentorship:

Tan: This is an interesting question. I remember having a discussion on Confucius studies. And we were thinking, why a master is a master? Because he chose the brightest of his disciples and students. Why a school remains a top school? Because good students enrolled for the schools and continue upholding the high standards of the school.

A mentor will also want to select promising mentees to mentor. So firstly if you are seeking a mentor, you also must demonstrate your potentials. If you find that there’s no one that’s willing to mentor you, it maybe because you didn’t show your potential. And that is something that you need to work on, it is very important to make yourself appear appealing, open to criticism and have a spirit of learning.

Personally, my mentors are my former bosses and associations I participate in. Importantly do not forget to give thanks, buy them a dinner, and built and develop trust from there.

Ultimately, it is your perseverance and determination that wins the heart that you are seeking for.

Seah: Indeed, if you are able to get mentors, it is not easy. Naturally for most, mentors will usually be the former bosses and people you previously worked with. But you have to be prepared to seek counsel, you need to know the right people to call and get advice.

It is important to keep your relations with your previous bosses and colleagues, I believe this is useful. At the end of the day, none of us have monopoly of ideas and knowledge.

Bear in mind that it is always alright to ask, to seek counsel from fellow colleagues, peers, formers and current bosses. Do not be afraid to ask.

On challenges in their career:

Tan: I would say that the first challenge was making the decisions to move out from IBM after getting promoted. I asked myself, will my children be proud of my achievements at IBM, achieving the quarter century club, or will my children be proud of me taking up more challenges ahead. After asking myself, I left IBM.

Looking back, that was a challenge to me, however if I didn’t move out from IBM, I would have remained as a division head, which is a very comfortable position but I will not be where I am today.

You know sometimes in life, you took up jobs without knowing how serious their underlying problem were, I think sometimes this are also your best decisions, because if you know too much, you will end up not taking up the challenges.

There is a term called, paralysis to analysis (it is the state of overanalysing a situation as a results no action was taken.)

Later in your life you will realized all this challenges are the defining moments. You need this kind of troubled projects and troubled people to hone your skills. Do not look at them as trouble projects or trouble makers, look at them as a way to hone your skills.

Seah : You want to look back at your life, and know that you have been there and done that. You don’t want to be saying if only you have and what if.

If you ask me, I am glad that I have worked in many sectors from the government own companies, the public services, private sectors and now NTUC. When opportunities presents itself, grab them, don’t lead your life asking yourself “what ifs and if only I had.”

I have also worked in a company with many red tapes, and one of my goal was to turn it around. Looking back, this are the defining moments, they will leave an imprint in your life.

Another challenge will be managing people, in my life and years of working what are the things that are hard, are the things that revolve around people.

Have I ever ask someone to leave the organization, yes, was it tough, yes.

On another occasion, I asked someone to leave an organization, knowing that individual can perform and excel. However the organizations have restrictions that limits the person’s ability. 5 years down the road, I saw that person, and she became an entrepreneur .

On Work Life Balance:

Tan: I do not believe in work life balance, I believe in work life integration. When there’s a launch of projects or events I bring my kids along, so they join me. It is integrated and I believe that it is essential. It is hard to draw the line between work and family as we are easily contactable.

On Networking:

Seah: It is extremely important. As you network, you learn from others, how each people deal with different situations and the solutions they have, the outcome you want it to be in a certain way but the process and the solution. 5 of us may come out with 5 different approaches, but with the same end results. As you network, as you discuss, that is where you gain the insights and knowledge.

On Qualities they look for in people:

Seah: I would look for someone that is humble, hardworking, willing to share, shows empathy and a team player. There is nothing sophisticated about it.

If I were to interview two candidates, and the two candidates are of equal standards. I will not be shy to tell you that I will pick the person with the harder path to get to where he/she was.

On top of that, it is also about how the person approaches life and the values they see in others. At the end of the day, whatever organisation or industry you are in, we are all here to make life better for ourselves and our society.

Tan: I would look for people that can solve problem, manage adversity, and handle difficult situations especially with people.

On setting goals:

Tan: I think the motivation of setting new challenges is not about being not content but it is about not being complacent. Once complacency sets in, it is a problem and a danger. The biggest fear is when someone feels that they have attain certain level of accomplishments and do not work hard anymore.

Seah: There’s a good point to end and actually one of the fear i have for our generations. We have progressed so quickly to that many of the young ones have a very sheltered life.

With the world being so interconnected, the hunger of the people out there is like what your grandparents and your parents were then, we were hungry, we have nothing then. We have to earn and fight for everything.

Like what Tan have said, we should not lose the hunger because no one owns anyone any lunch. And the only asset we have is you. In this very connected world, where access to information and knowledge is easy, our drive and hunger has to be there.

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