Author: <span>The Maestro</span>

I used to help at a rehab center in Malaysia for ex-substance abusers. One day we were overjoyed to receive a phone call from the owner of a canned food factory, saying he wanted to make a big, generous donation of canned food to the center. Soon a truck showed up, filled to the brim with canned food. Our joy was short-lived, however, when we noticed that every single can has expired. Some cans were rusty and bulging from whatever was reacting inside. The factory owner assured us that the food “won’t kill anyone.”

I wonder if he will eat them himself.

A friend was helping to collect items donated for charity and there was a huge, damaged electric massage chair being given away. He declined to accept it and was scolded. The donor insisted that the chair could be sold for money. “That’s my contribution to charity,” she declared.

On December 6th The Straits Times carried a news item about Singapore-based lawyer Dipa Swaminathan’s collaboration with Starbucks to supply unsold food items to foreign workers. it is a commendable act. Efforts like food banks acting as distribution middlemen between eateries and the needy sure seem more sensible than international charities supposedly driven by disasters and whatnot.

However, her comment “As you know, they [the foreign workers] would never be able to go into Starbucks and get a drink or muffin. What better thing to do than to take perfectly good food destined for the bin and to give them a snack” reminded me of my own experiences with charity work.

In my nearly four decades of doing my own small part to better the circumstances of the unfortunate and the underprivileged, I must have ploughed through tons of garbage disguised as gifts. I have sorted through literally thousands of pairs of torn and moldy clothing, broken shoes – smelly footwear deemed unusable by any estimation – and even worn, unwashed, stained and filthy underwear – including push up bras, G-strings and you better believe this, crotchless panties! –  discarded by people and dumped for charity.

This phenomenon is not unique to Singapore; mountains of thick winter clothes were dumped in Thailand for the 2004 tsunami victims. Following that same disaster, 4,000 tons of donated drugs arrived in Indonesia, well beyond local needs, labeled in foreign languages and were close to expiration.

Even when there isn’t a disaster, donations are being raised round-the-clock by dubious organizations with questionable intentions. In the west, an entire industry has been set up purportedly to send aids to Africa. Operators of these “charities” pocket the main bulk of the monetary donations received but items like unwanted fur coats are shipped off to “needy women and children” in sub-Saharan Africa.

For the rest of us, I suspect our behavior may be due to a number of some misguided beliefs and deep-seated psychological reasons:

  1. You can’t afford a eight-dollar frappuccino? Well, maybe you didn’t try hard enough at being successful? Surely you deserve the state you are in, so you should shut up and appreciate it! How else would you get to stuff your stupid face with a mouth-watering Egg Omelette Croque Monsieur from Starbucks?
  2. It’s not good enough for us anymore, but those who never had a fur coat, or a pair of knee-high winter boots, ought to rejoice having one, even if it’s way too warm for this climate.
  3. It’s Christmas, so let’s do something nice for ourselves, like shopping for a new wardrobe with the year-end bonus we’ve got and at the same time get rid of old stuff; it gets rid of any feeling of guiltiness too.

Let’s not hide behind charity to assuage our guilt and rationalize our insatiable need for conspicuous consumption. Those who claim that giving is often for the giver are not necessarily wrong. But we ought to remember that we give to meet needs, not because we have needs to be met. We give because there are those who are in dire straits, not because we have to dump a damaged massage chair.

Jack London wrote that “A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.” Yes, giving is not giving unless it hurts!

And also, we shouldn’t be giving because of religious reasons. Recently the Catholic Church in Singapore announced that it hopes to raise S$238 million for next 7 years, and asked Catholics to make monthly contributions.

The money will be used for the construction of its upcoming S$150 million center for archdiocese-wide activities and priest retirement residence; a new S$19 million seminary and formation center; and a separate S$3.1 million residence for retired priests.

I understand that many Catholics are happy to abide but a couple of my Catholic acquaintances actually bristled at the suggestion. “This is making us like Christians!” they complained. I am no theologian but isn’t tithing a Biblical concept, and aren’t Catholics also Christians?

It is startling that too many today who claim to be churchgoers cherish a life of pleasure and prosperity by traveling the world – sometimes even alone, leaving their loved ones behind –  to seek out culinary delights at Michelin-starred restaurants, and bragging about quaffing rare and expensive single malts, and exhibiting their narcissism on Instagram and Facebook – they seem to thrive on “likes” –  yet they seem to also live a life which is totally devoid of sacrifice. It appears that these people are the ones with the most screws that need tightening.

Finally, charity consists not the sum given, but the manner in which it is bestowed. People have pride; they may forget what you said, but they will forget what you did and they will never forget how you make them feel.

So don’t give like you’re throwing crumbs from your table to a beggar, or scraps to a stray dog; don’t give grudgingly or make a big show of it, or keep a ledger. Charity is not about chalking up Brownie points.

Don’t be petty. Be a cheerful giver!

And one more thing: giving should be unconditional; you don’t give because there’s a quid pro quo.

A case in point – smog from Indonesian forest fires have plagued Singapore since 1972, but Singapore continues to help Indonesia during times of crisis. When Aceh was nearly wiped out by a that killer tsunami in 2004, 1,500 men and women from Singapore were there almost immediately to help stabilize the mayhem. They were accompanied by three supply ships, 12 helicopters and eight transport aircraft from Singapore.

Meanwhile Indonesia continues to mock Singapore and scoff at us whenever we expressed unhappiness about the smog. In fact, the Indonesian vice president even said that we should be thankful for the oxygen provided by Indonesian forests for the rest of the year and quit complaining about the one month of haze. Yet, when the same province of Aceh was struck by an earthquake of 6.5-magnitude last week (December 7th) Singapore was among the first countries to respond with help. Singapore Civil Defense Force officers and Mercy Relief officials flew to Aceh the next day. The Singapore Armed Forces has also offered their help to the Indonesian national armed forces and the Singapore Red Cross has pledged a sizeable donation as well in the calamity that has displaced more than 65,000 people.

Singapore expects nothing; hence we suffer no disappointment.

Before long, this disaster will be over, but smog from Indonesian forest fires will continue to plague Singapore, and Indonesian authorities will continue to insult and ridicule Singapore when we grumble about the pollution but should another disaster strikes Indonesia, Singapore will – in a heartbeat – again lend a helping hand very willingly.

Now, this is what I call real charity.

Extrinsic Change

Last month, I read with dismay in the papers that The Orchard Road Business Association of Singapore has decided not to participate in Black Friday sales.

The main reasons cited were that Black Friday “is a mostly e-commerce festival” and that physical retailers cannot compete with online stores. The Association also stated that Black Friday will clash with stores’ Christmas promotions. The newspaper report then went to quote a Polytechnic lecturer who echoed the same sentiments, lending credence to the Association’s views, rendering its decision “legitimate” and credible, hence acceptable to those who agree with its stance.

This is precisely the thinking that will sink companies eventually. Company bosses who refuse to think unconventionally and who insist on sticking to age-old dogmas are unable to transcend outworn habits, increasingly antiquated modes of operations and out-of-date beliefs to deal with the realities of a changing world. Retailers missed a golden opportunity by writing off Black Friday without giving a serious thought on the impact of their decisions; decisions based on misinformation, fallacy and utter lack of true understanding of the buying behavior of today’s generation of shoppers.

Anyone who is not out of touch will know that nowadays Black Friday is far from just an online event to dump cheap electronics. And while it is indisputable that brick-and-mortar stores have higher overheads compared to online ones, this is precisely the catalyst for retailers to think “out of the box” and use creativity to overcome these perceived roadblocks. Look at Uber, the world’s largest ride-hailing company that doesn’t own a single vehicle, or Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider that doesn’t own a single hotel room – their founders refused to accept status quo, challenged the norms, and creatively disrupted centuries-old tradition to triumph.

Retail is in the doldrums, it is believed, though the same newspaper also made reference to year-end travel bookings increasing despite a seeming decrease in retail spending. There appears to be a dichotomy here that perhaps someone beyond a polytechnic lecturer should seriously research further. Some may argue that the data indeed shows a reduction in retail spending but just as every pollster who used data to forecast a Hillary Clinton win has proven themselves so dreadfully wrong, retailers must pound the pavement, feel the heartbeat of the retail landscape, talk to shoppers, and respond to what shoppers want, in order to overcome their lowered takings. And all shoppers want a bargain, it doesn’t matter when. If retailers stop worrying about how Black Friday is clashing with their Christmas promotions, therefore messing up their neat and tidy calendars, and start thinking by walking in the shoes of shoppers, see things from shoppers’ point of view, that will be a laudable first step to saving themselves from ultimate ruin. Stores who ignore the Association’s decision to proceed with Black Friday events deserve my salute for being visionary and innovative.

Intrinsic Change

Ancient Gaels believed that on October 31st, the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped and the deceased would come back to life and cause havoc. Masks and costumes were worn in an attempt to mimic the evil spirits in order to fool them. What was the Festival of Samhain evolved into present day Halloween.

I am surprised to learn of a Halloween Festival was held this year in Singapore, though here, Halloween seems to have been observed for several years now, with stores – including FairPrice supermarkets – stocking up on Halloween-related paraphernalia, complete with “bloodstained axes”, fake blood, chopped limbs and other scary stuff every October.

What further surprised me was parents making their toddlers up to look like creepy ghosts.

While Singapore may be a metropolitan state with people from all over the world working and residing here, I can’t help but wonder if a “festival” that can hardly be considered international in nature and one that traces its roots to paganism has a place in our predominantly Asian culture.

What is so edifying about skeletons, blood-soaked zombies, dead babies and scary ghosts? Are we desensitizing our young ones to gore and violence, even if they are all done in the name of fun? What next? Creepy clowns? It is a phenomenon already sweeping parts of the United States and has apparently just made its way here too.

We should be discerning in what to emulate and adopt. I don’t see how a fright fest adds value to our culture. Merchants should not simply jump onto the bandwagon just to make a few extra bucks.

Retailers love any occasion that can make them money. Given the current economic climate, that’s perfectly understandable. I have no statistics on Singapore, but in the US retailers rejoice during Halloween as they warm up their cash registers to receive a projected US$82.93 from each of the 171 million Americans celebrating Halloween this year.

Total Halloween retail spending was projected to be US$8.4 billion this year, a new record.

In my humble opinion, Halloween has no place in our society. In previous years lots of youngsters paid good money to be frightened out of their wits at the Night Safari. It has since done the right thing by scraping Halloween-related activities. Life is ugly enough and we can certainly do without more dark, ghoulish imagery. I am a firm believer that what you see becomes a part of you. What you see stays with you. Hence I do not open emails from people who have this irksome habit of sending me gruesome pictures of accidents or videos of beheadings and the like. Remember in our younger days, how our parents would tell us to turn away – “Don’t look!” – whenever we chanced upon sights that may scare us; our elders had good reasons to shield us from looking at things that may not be pleasant to look at. Indeed we need to seek that which is edifying. Let’s fill our lives with beautiful images, shall we? Let’s winnow out the wheat from the mountains of chaff in our lives.

Some may think Halloween is all harmless fun and Hollywood has added to the “fun” a wide assortment of fictional characters. But the fascination with vampires and werewolves for example, as glorified by mindless movies like the Twilight series, certainly isn’t improving our mind, but it sure is making someone a lot of money.

Let not get suckered into that.

Extrinsic Change

Singaporeans have the habit of “reserving” tables at foodcourts before going to buy their food. Items used to do this range from packs of tissues to newspapers to small foldable umbrellas.

Recently, however, I was flabbergasted to see several security tags belonging to employees of a major American technology company being placed on a table at the foodcourt of a local mall.

These security tags allow users to gain entry to the company’s premises. I had assumed that employees from this company would be more security-minded than to leave the tags on an unguarded table during a busy lunch period. The irony is that this company’s products and services center around security, including cyber security.

This is also a reminder that cyber attacks today, according to numerous studies, cost the global economy about US$400 billion a year.

It’s not going to get better – a research firm estimates that this figure will quintuple to US$2.1 trillion by 2019.

Earlier this year, the central bank of Bangladesh lost US$81 million to hackers over the course of several hours from its account with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. And it could have been worse: The attackers had tried to withdraw more than US$900 million.

Another study found that organizations in the region face a 45% higher risk of a targeted cyber attack than the global average, with one in four such attacks aimed at governments.

And companies in this region take an average of 17 months to find out they had been attacked, more than twice as long as the global average, said yet another study. So, please, plan on using more iron-clad passwords for a start!

Those of us from Singapore live, for the most part, in a relatively safe environment.

Living in a low-risk environment, personal security is something that is generally taken for granted; unwatched and unminded, where everything miraculously sort of takes care of itself.

After a few years of living and working overseas, it occurred to me that a gunshot wound was never any further than a small misunderstanding away.

I don’t go to concerts, soccer games, or engage in any indoor activity that has orders of magnitude more people than the building has exits.

That might sound silly to you but I’ve seen way too many crazy things in my life.

I never sit in a restaurant with my back facing the entrance.

And you’ll never see me using a ferry in the Philippines. Year after year, these under-maintained, overcrowded ferries sink killing hundreds of people each time. (And year after year, the authorities allow it to happen – but that’s another story for another post.) Inter-island ferries are one of the main forms of transport for millions of Filipinos across the archipelago, mainly because they are cheaper than air travel but you would have to put a gun to my head to make me go on one of these rickety boats. Well, I may be persuaded to squat on the top deck! There is no way I am going below deck with 300 other people and their farm animals on a vessel that has only 2 exit doors that are either locked or blocked by people. If that boat ever rolls over I plan on being able to make a dive for it, even though I am no Joseph Schooling.

Thankfully, no untoward incident has happened here in Singapore in recent times, as they have in other countries. But we have been warned that it is not a matter of “if” but “when” we will suffer terrorist attacks.

Incidents like the unattended security tags, as well as the countless times I have seen people leave their bags at tables in cafes to go and buy drinks, worry me.

In other countries, these bags would have been quickly removed by security forces. My wife and I were dining in a restaurant in Israel when her handbag, as always, placed on a separate chair near her, was nearly removed by heavily-armed soldiers who suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere. She was advised to make sure that her handbag sits in her lap at all times.

Here in Singapore, despite the threat of terrorism looming in the background, we have become careless, and our biggest enemy is our complacency.

All it takes is one explosion to erode investor and visitor confidence, and our economy will fall into a downward spiral. This is not to mention the loss of innocent lives.

I am not being alarmist, but it behoves us all to take security more seriously.

Situational awareness is our single greatest defense in staying safe.

It enables us to live to fight another day against those who live to do us harm.

Intrinsic Change

Major firms are doing away with annual or semiannual performance reviews, news that generated a bit of a buzz.

In the various companies I’ve worked for in the past, very often performance review time was when I was told to evaluate myself and then submit my own assessment to the boss, who will then “bargain” the ratings down; we would agree on a “compromise” and from there, salary adjustments and bonuses are then decided.

And the supertalented HR people who oversaw all that went on to become Managing Directors of HR – yes, such titles exist! –  or VPs of HR or VPs of Talent Management or Chief Talent Officers – yes, yes, such hifalutin titles indeed do exist! – in big, world-famous corporations.

Why am I wriggling my toes? Oh, because they are laughing, since you asked. I bet those HR honchos are also experts in balanced score-cards, data analytics, executive training, coaching and mentoring, labor laws and competency models too; HR know-it-alls.

Some companies even have quotas on how many promotions are allowed for a certain period of time and even if you make it, you will not receive your due rewards. I know a star performer who was eventually let go, because HR told him “It is now cheaper for us to hire three Indians than to keep you, despite your having far superior qualifications and have a proven, verifiable track record for the past ten years.” This was said by the HR fellow with a straight face, who, by the way, is still working in the same organization. No wonder many people have the impression that most of the time, HR practitioners seem to treat preserving their own jobs as the number one priority in life.

If you ask me, the entire HR dog and pony show needs a major shakeup.

Such practices by revoltingly unqualified HR “professionals” make a mockery out of performance reviews and if these practices still exist, they should indeed be scrapped altogether.

Also, often performance reviews consider the tangible results; for example, some employees are judged by the volume of business they can generate. In fact, with a certain company I’m acquainted with, almost all country general managers are promoted into that position as a reward for having being good salespeople.

Sure, you may be a super salesperson, but if your nasty, arrogant, and cocky attitude leaves a trail of broken toes behind, how should you be evaluated during performance reviews then? Few systems take into consideration your EQ and intangible qualities like that. And companies are short-sighted if they only value rainmakers.

In fact, there were a number of times when I accompanied various country general managers to client meetings and I had to cringe when they talked like used car salespeople in front of CEOs – complete with splattering saliva. It’s a sad day when you are ashamed of your own country general manager.

Brand name companies announcing that they are stopping performance reviews makes for great PR, but if you really think that these companies are abandoning the tracking of employee performance, then you must be really naïve. Even religious organizations track their staff!

No matter what they call it, all companies have one form or another of monitoring employee accomplishment, even in those companies that say they have stopped performance reviews altogether. What gets measured gets done.

Reviews are part of performance management, so what makes an effective performance management system?

An effective performance management system must start with a detailed goal-setting process between the manager and the staff who will be managed and whose performance will be reviewed. Goal-setting of KPIs must be a joint exercise because if you shove these down the employee’s esophagus, there will be no ownership, and literally nothing will happen.

Next, regular feedback and appraisals must be carried out. And not the way one of my managers did it before. She responded to each of my detailed monthly report with a one-word email: “Noted” and refused to meet me face to face, because she had zero idea of my subject matter expertise. “No need to meet,” she told me, “nobody complains about you, so you must be doing great. Besides, I don’t understand what it is that you are an expert of.” Incidentally she is now with a very well-known multinational corporation as head of HR for Asia Pacific and on LinkedIn, she has listed that expertise of mine she claimed no knowledge of as a core strength of hers. Unbelievable!

Now you know why I said HR needs a major shakeup.

A good performance management system also identifies employees’ developmental needs and includes vigorous reward and recognition practices. We don’t live in an altruistic world, unfortunately; people don’t work for philanthropic reasons – even pastors get handsome salaries, complete with CPF –  and they must and should be incentivized, especially for exceeding performance goals.

The system should also encourage collaboration and teamwork. A “superhero” working alone adds no value. I have had colleagues in the past who hid in a corner and nobody could fathom what it is they do but they are “untouchable” because they had “godfathers” who protected them. Yes, if I reveal the name of the company, you will be shocked, but that was what happened and is still happening.

See How Not to Change from Hero to Zero.

What is HR, the so-called custodian of organizational conscience, doing amidst all these shenanigans? I suspect, most times; they were just being used as henchmen of the corporate “mafia” that exists in every company.

Experts agree that fundamentally, a performance management system is composed of process and people elements. The process element includes items such as job descriptions, rating criteria, the time period of performance appraisal discussions, and reward and recognition systems. The key component of the people element is the manager, who drives the system by setting expectations, communicating plans, encouraging development, and giving and receiving feedback.

But most companies invest in world-class processes for their performance management system, but overlook the importance of the people element.

A company might have a world-class performance management system in place, but the system is only as effective as the managers who implement it.

The human element is the most important component in whether employees perceive the system as effective. The relationship between an employee and his or her manager is the key factor in driving those perceptions.

These are what the experts are saying.

Contrast that to what is happening in real life!

Companies that want to increase organizational and employee performance and productivity must put in place the right managers; those who refuse to meet their subordinates because they are intimated by their subordinates’ knowledge or reply with one-word emails should not be hired at all.

Because when they eventually worm their way into multinational corporations and become regional heads of HR, the damage they inflict will be a lot more than when they were doing just a local job.

Extrinsic Change

Through tattered clothes great vices do appear;
Robes and furred growns hide all. – Shakespeare

If you attend a few classes and get a certificate does it make you an expert in anything?

That is, versus someone who spent years practicing the craft, doing post-doctoral studies and possesses deep understanding of human psychology.

If you are able to stand in front of an audience and spout regurgitated, plagiarized homilies, does that qualify you as a priest?

Versus someone who have devoted years in theological studies and training how to be a shepherd?

Are unmarried marriage counselors any good? If you cross the line into territories you should not have ventured into, how does that make you look?

The world is full of nobodies with fierce, impressive titles but these same charlatans have probably never managed any endeavor of any significance and size. Yes, anyone can use PowerPoint charts to dazzle even when they have no proven track records to speak of.

Sure, you may have all the external trappings of what you imagine is a picture of “success” and you could even hire ghostwriters to write you a book, but if you have not the character, experience and values, how professional are you?

And even if you have the proper – that is real – qualifications, how do you conduct yourself?

Are journalists reporters of news or do they themselves become the story?

Following a devastating earthquake in Nepal, CNN crew filmed its own chief medical correspondent Dr Sanjay Gupta, on-site, as he performed emergency brain surgery on an eight-year-old girl and resuscitated another victim of the quake. This was not the first time Gupta practiced medicine on a patient in front of the camera. He treated a two-year-old boy on assignment in the Middle East, and examined patients on camera after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

In doing so, Gupta violates both medical and journalism ethics. As a doctor, he is obligated to protect client confidentiality. He may not show the procedures being performed on them without their informed consent, and in a foreign setting under emergency conditions, informed consent by patients is almost never possible 100% of the time. In the US, doing what Gupta did in Nepal on camera would be against the law. That means it is unethical anywhere, even in places like Nepal.

But Gupta is a new breed of television doctor who has a medical degree and thus must be a health authority. And gullible viewers suck it up.

People trust doctors, that’s the problem.

Gupta has repeatedly endorsed Merck’s controversial vaccine Gardasil as a means of preventing cervical cancer on the air and on his CNN blog, but the fact of the matter is that Gardasil’s clinical trials never tested for preventing cervical cancer. The vaccine was tested for preventing pre-cancerous lesions associated with two strains of HPV (Human Papillomavirus), a sexually transmitted disease.

And since these lesions can take 12 to 20 years to develop into cervical cancer and the clinical trials lasted less than five years, medical experts warn that the jury is still out on what impact this vaccine might have on cervical cancer rates, so for Gupta to endorse it is an act of not only sheer unprofessionalism but also an act of gross irresponsibility.

Further, his credibility as a journalist has gone to the dogs when he rubbished a medical report on Donald Trump but gave a rather muted response over Hillary Clinton’s fainting episode last month. Clearly he was demonstrating his political preferences, something no professional journalist should be involved in. Dr Gupta, your slip is showing!

And don’t get me started on Dr Mehmet Oz.

He made a name for himself touting miracle cures on TV, but Oz was strongly criticized for his claims about weight-loss supplements in a Senate hearing in June 2014. Following that, 10 doctors from around the United States have called for Oz to be removed the faculty of Columbia University in New York. They accused Oz of “an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.”

Some actually asked for his doctor’s license to be revoked.

And his response? “Freedom of speech is the most fundamental right we have as Americans. And these 10 doctors are trying to silence that right.”

Well, I leave you to draw your own conclusions about people who talk like that.

And you know what?

Oz wasn’t removed by Columbia. Those ten were voted down.

You see, doctors take care of their own kind.

And that to me, is the most insidious aspect of the medical profession.

It’s time we change our views about these “healers” who seem to have forgotten The Hippocratic Oath.

Intrinsic Change

Is there really a dearth of talent in Singapore? Or are there other reasons?

Why are some company directors, directors of so many companies?

Not long ago, I did a count. Here’s what I found at that time:

A particular company director was found to be a director of 117 companies.

Another held a total of 114 directorships.

Yet another sat on 105 boards.

It is the view of experts that a full-time executive with three or more board seats faces time constraints which may render his service ineffective.

And for retired execs, it is deemed that they are ineffective if they sit on more than six boards.

Studies also found that the presence of such directors on the board correlates with excessive CEO compensation and imply that busy directors do not contribute as much to effective corporate governance.

When companies announce the appointment of an outside director that is a full-time executive at another firm and holds three or more other board seats, the market reaction tends to be negative.

Yet, this happens all the time in Singapore.

When I see a person sitting on so many boards, I immediately form a negative opinion of that person.

Do they actually contribute anything useful? Do they add value?

How can such a person be really effective?

Of course it is glamorous for narcissist to be named as a director of this board or another and of course one can make a heck of a lot of money collecting director fees, but this phenomenon should end.

In other countries there are laws limiting the number of directorships one can hold.

Here in Singapore, the Singapore Institute of Directors refuses to take a firm stand.

What is worse is when people with totally zero subject matter expertise are helicoptered into companies to sit on their boards as a favor – many politicians, retired armed forces leaders, friends, relatives, etc all sit on boards of companies in which they have no professional knowledge about. True, an outsider’s view may be refreshing but what is a retired army officer doing as a director of a hospital, for example?

Boards should also have a balanced mix of skills, knowledge and experience, and conflicts of interest should be avoided. Board members should not have conflicting appointments rendering them unable to objectively and satisfactorily discharge their duties.

The length of service is another disturbing factor.

It is therefore heartening to recently see a major institution like the Monetary Authority of Singapore leading by example in refreshing itself, vis-a-vis the board of directors, to stay nimble and forward-looking.

Its Code of Corporate Governance suggests that, for reasons of independence, directors should not serve beyond nine years.

If you are involved in directorships, it’s time you ask some hard questions.

Surely you don’t want people to think that you are involved in a company that is more like a zoo or a circus.

Extrinsic Change

I was apoplectic when a friend remarked that the president of a certain country did “nothing” during the president’s entire term.

To me that is an unfair sweeping statement.

Sweeping statements are never beneficial. They are imprecise and often send mistaken messages. They seed uncertainty and distrust and are usually intended to make an imposing point about how right the person making the statement might be. They tend to be narcissistic and self-serving and are often sanctimonious. In other words, people with weak foundations for hard facts make sweeping statements because they want to make a point that makes them look correct and therefore look moral and righteous in the stance they are taking.

On August 21st, there was an article in The Sunday Times, entitled Blindedsided by Dirty Old Man, written by Sharon Loh. In it she recalled a couple of incidents experienced by her daughters.

She first recounted how a man in his 50s asked her teenage daughter for her name when jogging. Loh accused the man of “hitting” on her daughter.

She also wrote: My daughters were lounging by the condominium pool when they were invited by some boys to a movie. “Wow,” I told anyone who would listen, “Singaporean men are buayas.” (“Buaya” is the Malay word for “crocodile” but is also a colloquial term for “lecher.”)

Now, that’s a sweeping statement for sure!

Loh, who calls the US her home now, then went on to make another sweeping statement:

“In our home town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, men do not make a habit of staring openly or passing remarks on women in the street.”

In one fell swoop, Loh insulted all the men in Singapore – including her own father and husband – just because from her experience, men in North Carolina “do not make a habit of staring openly or passing remarks on women in the street.”

(As an aside, despite the presence of perverts and sickos, not all men who talk to teenage girls are sexual deviants, and if my teenage daughters don’t get movie invites from other boys, I would be very worried.)

Another example of a sweeping statement would be “You ALWAYS stay late at work, making those of us who leave on time look bad.”

Any leader worth his salt would have long learned that to make an effective point in communication, we must use the three-part assertion message, a technique to communicate a message when others are doing something on which you want to comment.

This is how it works:

  1. Describe behavior
  2. Describe how you feel
  3. Show the broader impact of their behavior

So instead of saying “You ALWAYS stay late at work, making those of us who leave on time look bad” say “When you stay on after hours, I find it annoying, because there’s a chance that people might get the impression that the rest of us are not working as hard.”

Many are often not sensitive enough to realize the effect of their actions on others. Disclosing how you feel can be quite a surprise – and eye-opening – for many. It is also impossible for them to deny this: only you can describe how you feel. Taking the risk to describe how you feel helps the other person to accept the impact of what they have done, beyond having affected your emotions.

Have the courage to “confront” the person one on one, not deploy a whole host of others to carry your message. If you feel slighted because of what someone said, go and meet the person face to face, describe his behavior, describe how you feel and show him the broader impact of his behavior. Do this yourself instead of making use of a whole bunch of other people, emissaries, to do this for you. A non-intimidating chat over coffee would have resolve the issue there and then.

Above all, care enough to get your facts right; if you have solid, documentable and verified evidence that the particular president has done “nothing” in his entire term, present those facts and not just bits and pieces of information taken out of context. There is a phenomenon called “confirmation bias” where you turn everything you see into a nail just because all you have is a hammer.

As a leader, you are responsible for communicating clearly and succinctly at all times and to do it well. And I can’t stress this enough: It is also always, always your own responsibility to communicate on your own behalf, not make use of mouthpieces who will do the job for you.

If you lack the courage to speak the truth, who can trust you to have the courage to lead?

Intrinsic Change

Business travel seems to have taken off again. But the truth is that jet-setting executives may soon go the way of the dinosaurs.

Not long ago almost every business function required a trip.

I used to cover Asia Pacific – and that meant over 20 countries. I hated it after a while. There were even times when I made day trips to India – I would leave Singapore at night, arrive in India in the morning, Indian time, and leave India around midnight Indian time.

But there are those who relish being road warriors; I guess it gives them a sense of importance.

People flew for the slightest reason – to meet with clients, to meet with suppliers, to meet with colleagues, for training, to connect with the troops, etc.

Thousands of trips add up to millions of dollars, not to mention tons of CO2.

But now, by using world class unified communications and collaboration solutions and services any meeting anywhere can be just a click away.

Indeed, in this day and age, where very technological advanced and powerfully effective communication and meeting tools are cheaply available, do you really, really need to travel?

Of course, nothing can replace human presence, but I have often found that a private personal phone call is a great way to make a direct connection with someone.

Nowadays, technology can even enable us to hold entire all-hands-on-deck town hall meetings – which have their purposes – but lots of work-related issues can also be resolved with a phone call, no need at all to mobilize the troops.

With ever escalating operational costs, companies should be wary of execs who insist that they have to travel. They can’t be too wise, can they?

Remember, people are hired to be part of the solution, not to become a part of the problem!

In fact, nowadays, in enlightened circles, business travel is actually frowned upon when, extended across an enterprise, unified communications and collaboration capabilities have the potential to transform traditional work and travel habits.

Cisco, for example, realized many years ago that 49% of travel was for internal reasons. It has practically eliminated travel for internal meetings, reducing it by 99%. The company has also reduced training-related travel by 98%.

So in this day and age, if someone complains with an exaggerated shake of the head and a loud sigh that he’s living out of a suitcase and traveling too much because of work, as if it’s such a curse, (“but what to do, someone’s got to get the job done”), he’s probably not working for a very enlightened organization or he’s doing it to inflate his own ego, or worse, he’s taking his company for a ride, finding excuses to go on vacations on company expense and pocketing per diem money, air-miles and whatnot. (Yes, there ARE people like that, and most of them have lost their jobs!)

Whenever I come across such “international jet-setting” execs, I immediately form a negative impression of his or her company; I can’t help thinking it cannot be a very well-managed company.

Extrinsic Change

In every organization, there is a group of people who are the untouchables.

Their jobs are always safe.

The company may be suffering numerous consecutive quarters of negative growth and even those who performed and delivered and who have labored for the organization for decades had to be laid off to minimize operating costs, but this group of insiders will continue to keep their jobs.

It’s basically cronyism pure and simple.

These are protected members of the boss’ inner sanctum – the company mafia, its seat of power.

In good times and bad, this unholy alliance can do no wrong.

They run the company as they see fit.

They think they are the only ones that are right.

Even the best and brightest are being ousted.

In fact, anyone that outshines any member of the inner sanctum will be put down.

Worse, this insidious group panders to their toadies and bootlickers, protecting them and shielding them from harm’s way.

Lots of talented resources had their capabilities suppressed so that this mafia could gain eminence – all at the expense of the organization and the constituents it is meant to serve.

But every story has a closing chapter.

As the Chinese say, there is no never ending banquet under the sun. All good things must come to an end.

That is the fate of a mafia group in an organization that I am familiar with.

With the control of the untouchables, the organization continued to be weakened until a coup was mounted and the mutiny resulted in the disposal of boss and his grovelers.

One sees many similar parallels in history –  from Lenin and Stalin to Saddam and Gaddafi, despots were eventually disposed.

There are lessons for us all here.

First, people have eyes. They are not blind. It is said that “when you are in it, you don’t see it” but those on the outside of the inner sanctum can see your shenanigans quite clearly.

Second, everyone has a boss – the mafia met their downfall when disgruntled employees and shareholders petitioned head office. Usually, leaders at head office are protective of those they appoint to run the local offices, but when the level of disgruntlement reaches epic proportions, head office had no choice but to act.

Third, you may enjoy being at the top, but it’s a law of nature and a matter of time before you will be brought low and humbled, if not totally humiliated and annihilated. Like they say, “every dog has its day” and you will get your comeuppance, eventually. You will be crushed.

Leaders come and leaders go, one day you’re cock of the walk, the next you’re a feather duster.

The rest of the people have all the time in the world to wait you out.

So if you are in a position leadership, do a sanity check on yourself every once in a while.

Intrinsic Change