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Shared Lessons in Leading

Experiences from IEL’s Saturday Sharing Session with Engineer-Leaders

(3 March 2018)

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Mr. Khay Guan Lim, MD, Endress+Hauser and Mr. Yao Zhang, Senior Manager, RedMart 

IEL’s Saturday Sharing Session on 3 March 2018 featured two speakers with very different experiences. Mr. Khay Guan Lim, MD, Endress+Hauser has had decades of leadership experiences in global multinationals. Mr. Yao Zhang, Senior Manager, RedMart, has spent the past 8 years in different functions in two young, rapidly growing enterprises. 

In spite of these differences, leadership lessons shared with the students of the module “Experiencing Engineering Leadership” resonated because they had many commonalities. 

Leaders have to be skilled connectors 

Mr. Lim is now leading change that would require seismic shifts in organisational culture and individual mind-set. He acknowledges that leading such change was challenging but that a critical role as a leader was to put together the ingredients for successful change to happen. Mr. Zhang labelled himself a “generalist” in spite of multiple technical qualifications, citing that his strength was in being able to connect different people and ideas. This skill had been honed through exposure to varied functions throughout his career. 

Leaders recognise that one size doesn’t fit all 

In today’s fast-paced environment, many fall into the trap of depending on a “template” of behaviours and actions, expecting similar results each time. Leaders should not expect that the same approach or solution would work in every situation. Good leaders calibrate responses and actions depending on the people involved and the circumstances. Mr. Lim cautioned that empowering everyone in an organization and expecting all to succeed was a recipe for disaster. Different people had different strengths & motivations, and a savvy leader should acknowledge those differences. Mr. Zhang shared wryly that early in his career, he pushed through on decisions that he thought were for the best but realised he could not get anyone to support him. He then took the time to understand how different functional teams “ticked” and how to adapt his approach depending on the team he was working with. 

The continuously learning leader 

When asked by students how they coped with leading people more qualified than themselves, both speakers agreed that leaders should be comfortable surrounding themselves with talent but that leaders have to be open to continuous learning. This was so as not to be an expert in everything, as that would be an impossibility, but to know enough to leverage on the talent around them. 

With good leaders, people come first 

This element came out strongly throughout the session. Mr. Zhang shared that in the early days when RedMart was starting up, funding was an issue but that the company had taken pains to reassure employees and created a culture that was resilient in the face of challenges. Mr. Lim shared that being “forward thinking” was a common cited attribute of leaders but that the more difficult skill was to get people’s buy-in for the common future and alignment with the vision. To do this there must be trust between people in an organisation and showing integrity in word & action was key. 

Pursue passions but have a good support base 

It was clear that the speakers were passionate in what they do with Mr. Zhang admitting that he bounced off ideas with his wife even when out shopping! Passion for their work drove them to greater heights, but they acknowledged that they could not do so withrout the support of those closest to them. 

The lessons shared that day put leadership squarely in the context of building relationships with others for a common cause rather than a shiny goal to reach, with leaders existing at all levels of an organisation. 

 

Perhaps Mr. Lim summed it up best by saying, “Leadership is not a title. You are a leader as long as someone follows you.”