Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Candour and Managing Up

It's a fairly quiet week of the home front but a more active one of the local political scene. Gave Dad a surprise send off at the airport and much to my surprise, he actually seemed to appreciate being sent off (after insisting that I don't send him off). Also managed to read through Jack Welsh's book called "Winning."

Mr Welsh makes allot of sense and unlike allot of guys in the management guru business has the credibility of having run what is arguably the best run company in the world. When he ran GE in the late 1990s til early 2001, he made sure that GE, an industrial conglomerate delivered exceptional results for stock holders, while everyone was mad about dot.coms that turned out to be dot.bombs. He also planned his succession immaculately, leaving GE to grow to stronger levels under the leadership of Jeff Immelt and the two alternatives to Mr Immelt as CEO went onto achieve outstanding careers as the CEOs of 3M and Data Craft.

What makes Mr Welsh so readable and believeable is the fact that he's exceptionally frank in his assessment of history. Allot of us make it a habit of glossing over our failures and trumpeting our successes. Who amongst us has not honestly polished up a CV? This former CEO actually draws attention to mistakes that GE made under his leadership like the purchase of Kidder Peabody and the bribing of an Israeli General. The secret to business success according to Mr Welsh is candour, and this is precisely what he practices in his book.

It was perhaps ironic that I read through Mr Welsh's book right at a time when the Home Affairs Ministry was going through a rather nasty week. Four months after Mas Selamat limped out of a highly secure prison, two clowns tried to escape from the courts - and darn well nearly succeeded and finally a retieree managed to stroll through the airport checkpoints with the wrong passport. Each of these incidents would have been exceedingly funny if they were not such a serious reflection on the competence and culture of the organisations that are supposed to take care of security - "Don't worry, if you're ever thrown into jail, you can just stroll out.."

As expected, the Minister of Home affairs was busy announcing to the world that he was "appauld" by the lapses of security. As expected the Netizens wrote that they were appauld he kept his job.

I've made my position clear that I think that the Minister should have made the offer to resign during the Mas Selamat incident. Alternatively, the ISD Director should have made a public offer to resign and then allowed the Minister to reject it. Instead, this was written off as a case of complacency of the people running the prison. The Minister went onto argue that one cannot argue that the Ministry as a whole is complacent. In fact the whole cabinate were very publically calling on us to remember that the Home Affairs Ministry had done a smashing job with the exception of one black mark.

But I'm with Al Capone when he says, "Once is an incident, twice is a coincidence and three times is war." Well, it's happened three times and are we going to sit there and tell us that three separate branches of the same ministry were cursed with complacent people but that has no widder implications? Call me old fashioned, but someone at the top has to take moral responsability and pay with their jobs.

OK, let's be fair to the people at the top. They're sitting on a very high pyramid and from their viewpoint, you cannot expect them to know every little detail of what goes on. People at the top depend on the people at the bottom to fill them in on what's going on.

But having said that, the people at the top know darn well that they are responsible for ensuring that they get good people at the bottom, people who will ensure that they,as bossess get what they need to make the right decisions. If the top man is responsible for anything, it's the setting of the culture of the organisation that he or she runs.

Something is definately wrong with the culture in the Ministry of Home Affairs if we can get three major cases of standard opperations procedures being disregarded. Only a simpleton would not see that this is a case of more than 2 Gurkhas, 1 policeman and 1 immigration officer.

Personally, I think our Ministry is suffering from a lack of candour, particularly when it comes to dealing with the boss. Nobody wants to look bad when the boss comes around, so we gloss over everything. I got my very lesson of this during National Service when an instructor told us, just before parent visiting, "Tell your parents you are happy if you are happy: if you are not happy also say you are happy." Didn't think much of it at the time. I was actually very happy during the early phases of National Service. But over a decade later, I've seen quite allot of this and think its something we need to speak about.

To be fair to Singapore, the culture of wanting to gloss over happens all over the world. But I think its particularly glaring in Singapore because we're such a small island and our political system is such that we've developed a very corporatised culture. Success means doing well within your organisation and climbing the ladder.

Again, credit must be given where credit is due. Singapore has a world-class political system. Government officials by and large do a very good job of keeping the place ticking over. It was right to welcome the multinationals, particularly when the rest of the third world was kicking them out. I mentain that, after living in places like London and visiting New York that Singapore is everything that a city should be - clean, green, rich and safe.

However, systems need to evolve to keep up with the times. It was a good policy to get the population educated but docile so you could get large numbers employed by a cash bringing multinational. But that no longer works in an era where you have other places with far larger pools of cheap labour. You need people who have candour to tell you exactly what's going wrong with the system and you must be candid enough except that the other guy may have a point.

Singapore is very much a case of gloss. Statistically, our education system is fabulous. However, if you've been down to a neighbourhood school, you'll find kids ready to take their O-levels who can barely string a sentence together in English, Chinese or any of our official languages. Needless to say, these kids get shoved into a dark corner when a VIP visits (these will be the kids who would have spent the last few days cleaning up the school). You get this situation where the VIP feels good that he's walked the ground, the school management feels good that its shown the VIP its glory and everyone forgets that there are a frightening number of kids who are not being taken care of by the system.

Thanks to this, we get a situation where our top schools have their mouths open as the resource tap flows. Good kids get good teachers and good facilities. The neighbourhood schools could die waiting for the Ministry to upgrade the door to the staff room.

This situation with schools is only one example of what a lack of candour does for you. Note, we are talking about corruption here, merely a lack of candour is basic relationships and a lack of ownership. If there is a problem - we don't deal with it, particularly if it won't make us look good, but if it's going to be glorious, we go all out and usually get. Sure, its important to concentrate on what you're good at but not when you have a situation where you ignore issues or avoid bringing them up to the powers that be.

Bosses are only human - they want to look good. For government officials, it's all about the statistics. If your statistics look good, you get promoted and get a bigger budget. If problems arise, you may have put that promotion at risk. Subordinates also want to look good and they get it by making their boss look and feel good. Sometimes this leads to a situation where short cuts are taken. Look at the window grill or rather the lack of one at the Whitely Detention centre. Nobody looks good asking for a window grill to be put in place. But when you ask for a state of the art security system costing millions you can quite easily claim to the world that you care about security. Is anyone going to question this thinking?

Of course, it takes a certain skill to manage up as well as down. With subordinates you need to be respected and you need to be human to them if you expect them to respond. However, you must not cross the line of being their buddy as opposed to their boss. With superiors, its a different story. You need to make the superior know he has your respect but you must be able to manage him or her in such a way where they respect you and more importantly, your expert opinions. If you see your supperior going down the garden path, you have to be able to warn him or her about it and more importantly get them to listen - how do you do that?

In my personal life, I think of the "leaders" who have tried to break down the barriers between us so that we could each do our jobs more effectively. I think the first one that comes to mind is my battery commander, Lam Sheau Kai who would constantly remind us, "This BC is here to work for you." The funny thing was he actually expected us to alert him to problems so that he could solve them. One of the incidents I remember most clearly was a day when we lacked specialist to work as guard commanders (If I remember clearly, I was promoted to guard commander for the night but lacked a 2 and 3ic) We approached him and he solved the problem for us.

Another character who comes to mind, is my first supervisor, Loh Mun Loong, who is now a business partner. He constantly reminded me, "I'm a resource for you." True enough, he was good enough to make himself available whenever I needed his experiences.

Finally, MediaCorp's Editorial Direcotr, PN Balji, who kept his door open at all times and tried to eliminate words like "Educate" from our vocabulary. He said, " When you use such words, you create a situation of ME TEACHER, YOU STUDENT." Now, that's something we never think about, do we?

No comments: