How to show you’re being ‘strategic’ without actually needing to use that word

Being ‘strategic’ is a good thing – provided that you can also execute your strategy to achieve the outcomes you want. But we may mistakenly believe that labelling the titles of our projects and the work in our appraisals as ‘strategic’ will position us for greater things, when they aren’t much different from what we used to do or be. So what does it actually mean?

To illustrate things simply: To impress your boss, you state that you ‘strategically drove a Brand X car down Road Y’. Yes, it sounds a little odd, but you can adapt this example to work that you’ve actually done.

That alone does not show whether you achieved the desired outcome, nor whether the means you took was the most suitable.

Instead, you should state that you reached Point Z (which ideally, should be an important organisational goal) or at least did something that brought you closer towards it. This was done by pursuing the shortest and easiest route, using the most effective means of transport – which may or may not have been a Brand X car – or even a car. In fact, did you even need to drive?

Depending on your organisation’s mission and culture, you may also be judged on how you actually went about achieving your goal. Did you take the fastest car – which may also have wasted the most gas and caused the most pollution? Did you stop to pick up people along the way or did you ignore them, damaging relationships? Did you take a detour, which may have caused some delays, but discovered an even better route which has opened up new opportunities?

So, while being ‘strategic’ is very much about achieving your desired outcome, it’s also about doing it in a way that is deemed acceptable by industry standards and organisational values.

You can show you’re being strategic without having to use that word. Conversely, you can throw the word around everywhere but end up looking anything but it.

Pregnancy – heading towards the home stretch

I’ve actually been in pain for the past few days. Being pregnant and in my final trimester has resulted in the accumulation of a number of minor problems – what I’d like to call ‘death by a thousand paper cuts’. Each problem impacts on something else and it makes me yearn for a healthier, leaner, ache-free body which I will hopefully regain in a few months’ time.

When you’re pregnant, your immunity level goes down so that your body doesn’t attack your unborn baby. This means that you’re more likely to fall ill. I’ve been on safe antibiotics for three times since getting pregnant this time. I would’ve loved not to need any, but staying up all night coughing and not being able to present at work were no-nos.

When you’re pregnant, you release a hormone called Relaxin which sounds rather nice, but it loosens your joints in preparation for something the size of a small melon popping out of your vagina. Ideally, it should only be released as you’re giving birth, but the body doesn’t work like a machine, so instead you get gradual doses of this stuff over time. I’ve been walking around with a painful hip for the past few weeks. I really shouldn’t have played that game of badminton when I was 7 months pregnant…

And my biggest bugbear to date is something unmentionable. It’s not funny when you try to sit down, or pee, or poo. It hurts like hell sometimes and unfortunately, gravity does not work in my favour. It is an embarrassing problem  which may get worse as the baby gets heavier and pushes down on my pelvis more each day.

So in summary: Sore throat, sore legs, sore arse and in a month’s time, presumably sore tits. But it will all be worth it in the end.

How I nearly had a facial (but didn’t, because I’m pregnant)

Some time ago, I bought a facial package from a company that was apparently permitted to call me because I was a Citibank customer. While they were a bit pushy, I liked their treatment so I decided to purchase 10 sessions with them.

After getting pregnant with No. 2 (who’s been in development for the past 8 months), I received a call from them, asking if I’d like to make an appointment. Sure, why not? I thought. 

So this afternoon I arrived punctually for my facial… To be greeted with looks of surprise from reception staff. Apparently I should have told them I was pregnant, as not all treatments were safe. 

Given that I hadn’t purchased a particularly fancy package that used harsh chemicals, I hadn’t thought it would be a big deal. But they said there was some “Dian” (Mandarin for electricity) in their technique. Their main salesperson, who has been the pushiest staff member so far, then tried to offer me an ‘oxygen’ treatment that was ‘specially’ for pregnant women. All for the trial price of “only $188″. For one session!

When I resisted, I was unsurprisingly informed of how my skin was looking worse since the last time she saw me. In fact I’ve been moisturising myself more regularly and my skin no longer feels as dry as before. 

Sensing my doubt, she then proceeded to do some scans of the pigmented part of my cheeks – displaying them in magnified versions on a computer screen. Still it didn’t look compelling enough to move me. Surely one ‘oxygen’ treatment wouldn’t be enough and I would have to pay more to restore my skin to its former state of glory.

At this stage I decided that I should inform her that I had a propensity for blacking out when lying on my back after 20 minutes. (This did happen to me a few days ago while going for my detailed scan – as Baby was pressing on my aorta). And they couldn’t give me a facial if I lay on my side instead, right? And that ‘electricity’ used in my standard package – hmm – that sounded more risky now… 

So on that basis, we mutually agreed to postpone my appointment until after my confinement period. 

I suspect the hard selling will continue when I return to this ‘spa’. But with all the complications of pregnancy, as I approach the finishing line in a month or so, the last thing I want is to have more stress on myself and my wallet by feeling obliged to buy things I may not really need. 

On Lee Kuan Yew

There are so many articles, eulogies, blog posts and even tweets about the passing of the great man, that I was almost turned off from writing anything, as it would have just been seen as another brick in the wall.  But that would have been too factitious a reason to keep quiet, either.  So, here are some learning points and thoughts which have crossed my mind over the past few days.

[Views expressed are entirely my own, as a private citizen]

You can’t please everyone, if you want to be effective

We have studied him in history books and heard the older generations talk about how he turned Singapore into a developed nation.  Given such reverence, when I first saw the 500+ (now over 900) comments  on The Guardian – which happens to be my favourite UK newspaper since I was a student there, nearly 20 years ago – it felt like there was a huge divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Singapore was referred to as a ‘police state’ and those who had left Singapore were unsurprisingly bitter in their comments about the man.  (Of course, what else would I expect from reading a left-leaning Western newspaper? :))

But put them in his shoes and could they have done any better? It is always so easy to criticise, especially with hindsight, but how many would have persevered with the same challenges over so many decades and made as great an impact? And remember, whatever policy decision is made, there will always be tradeoffs. No system is perfect because humans run the systems and no humans are perfect.  Not even democracy is perfect. (Looking at two very recent elections in more volatile parts of the world, I actually thought the respective electorates were making a big mistake by voting without a long-term view in mind and this will bring further misery and instability to their regions.)

As LKY’s health deteriorated over the past few days, and being a big fan of MBTI, I did a quick search and found a cheeky forum thread discussing what personality type LKY had. I agree with the view that he was probably an ENTJ (or at least, INTJ, though it would be more strenuous for the latter type to be involved in public-facing activities for long). He reached out to people in Singapore and the rest of the world, who became strategic allies. He advised statesmen from other countries and played a balancing act between big powers. He set high standards and tolerated no fools, and thus left behind a system that is known for its world-class efficiency. He wasn’t out to win a popularity contest – he just wanted to do his job well.

After all he’s achieved, what’s next for Singapore?

That’s the question everyone is asking.  The biggest way we can thank him is not to rest on our laurels.  There are complex challenges ahead for the government, with a more educated and demanding population that wants to be consulted more.  Understandably, the younger generation has not experienced the dramatic improvement in living standards which LKY and his team brought to their parents and grandparents, and would feel more detached towards him. Can we produce a new generation of leaders who will also have the courage to step up to new challenges?

Stop limiting ourselves by putting ourselves in buckets

Some are now saying, “There will never be another LKY”. While such words sound very deferential and may be an appropriate way to express grief, I have asked myself, “Why not?”  Why are we limiting ourselves, just like we used to tell some of our children that they were less smart than others?

In the tumultuous situation that Singapore was in, over 50 years ago, there were more opportunities – and correspondingly, risks – that brilliant people could seize to make great changes. Now, to rise to the top, one is expected to go through various systems (e.g. educational and political) and show consistent performance over the years. The tendency is thus to play it safe and not do anything too risky. Let us be careful that this does not perpetuate groupthink, even among the most brilliant of minds.

Don’t be afraid to overhaul systems that need to be fixed

Singapore has had to review its policies as the population’s needs change. For one, I agree with the recent shift in focus away from paper chases to lifelong learning.  There may be other areas that need to be reviewed as well – let’s not have sacred cows.  LKY himself was not afraid to make corrections – we’re now telling people to have more babies, and Formula One did make it to Singapore.

On a similar note, I was once told a story about the innovative company, 3M.  At some stage in its growth, its founders decided to circulate their own CVs to their HR department as a test. Their CVs were not shortlisted.  This showed that the company was straying from its original values, and it was time for an overhaul.  Likewise, the day that we reject a LKY-type person because we don’t like how he speaks his mind – even if he makes good sense – because he causes offence to those in power, we are in trouble.

Dream the dream, and fight hard to live it

We stood up to neighbours who threatened us in the past – with separation, holding back resources like water, and even terrorism. They seemed to be more powerful but over the years we have proven we can stand on our own.  It takes guts to do this, and LKY certainly had that. Let us continue to dream and constantly stretch ourselves to do better, and not be afraid to do things differently.

Going old school

Like some others, I’ve experienced a tech reversal of sorts. Instead of buying all my books via Kindle (which still is rather convenient), I have found myself enjoying print books more. Print allows me to feel more engaged on each page. Print also works better where a lot of graphics are displayed, allowing my eyes to view more content at a glance compared to the limited screen space of an ebook reader, where content tends to get reformatted.

I also went traditional in other ways. So what came through in our latest Amazon shipment was:

Value Proposition Design

Business Model Generation

and my early birthday gift for myself – a mid-priced Parker fountain pen. After seeing a colleague take notes using a fountain pen, with lovely cursive handwriting, I decided to revert to my 9 year old self (when we were all taught to write in cursive and use fountain pens).

More thoughts on these new items to come, in further blog posts!

Give more of our youth a sporting chance

Nominated MP Dr Ben Tan, a former sportsman and gold medallist in sailing, recently opined about a widening gap in the attitudes of Singaporeans and Westerners about sports. In Singapore, we seem to take things to extremes. Parents ask doctors like him to exempt their children from physical activity.  Alternatively, we focus only on a handful of outstanding young athletes who have the potential to win medals for Singapore.The vast majority of Singaporean children (the new “sandwiched class?”) are thus deprived of opportunities to simply enjoy sports. In contrast, children from international schools want to recover from their injuries quickly so they can participate in sports again.

This made me reflect on my own childhood experiences with sport. I wasn’t a very sporty person myself. However, I did participate when required. My parents sent me for swimming lessons after I nearly drowned in my grandparents’ pool when I was 9 years old. They also sent me for tennis lessons, which I enjoyed and was decent at, though I never thought of trying for the school team later on.

In secondary school, I took up badminton as my sport, since there were courts available in our old, tiny campus at Emerald Hill Road. Again, I didn’t bother trying for the school team as standards were pretty high. I could barely make it to the reserves in my class team!

In junior college, I tried signing up for badminton again but was told flatly that only those of school team standard would be accepted. I was surprised and more than a little disappointed.  I had the growing impression that you could only be the very best at the sport, in order to have the right to play it regularly in school.  Needless to say, I stopped playing badminton regularly after that. We had to study hard for the A-Levels, you know…

There were still other opportunities, however. Being a junior college famous for its swim team, it was decided that all students should learn how to swim. I recall being placed in the intermediate class as I already knew how to swim, and I would participate regularly. However, on the day of the lesson, the majority of girls in my cohort would say they had their periods and could not swim. This happened regularly each week, which either meant there was a serious gynaecological among our female population, or everyone just didn’t want to swim!

Another opportunity was given to me when we had internal class contests in track and field. Someone noted that I was a good sprinter, and before I knew it, I was asked to try out for the school team! I was even given a cloth badge with a number, and assigned a time slot to race with other candidates.

By that stage, however, after having gone through years of accepting that I had never been good enough to make it to any school team – and having seen how much faster the other female sprinters were – I withdrew from the heats. It would have been embarrassing to come in last, or nearly last – and I was quite certain that would happen.  I was never told I was good in sports, so why make myself out to be something I probably wasn’t meant to be?

In Singapore’s competitive culture, there is a strong focus on ‘excellence’, but this means that only a few at the top of the pyramid will have the opportunity to put in their sweat, and hopefully reap some glory.  Having been out of the local school system for nearly two decades, I cannot speak for the current system, although I would certainly like to think that the system has become more flexible and accepting of average performers, despite the pressure to produce stars.

In fact, there doesn’t have to be a tradeoff. Having a more sporting culture can work hand in hand with producing more top notch athletes. It can also create more community bonding, and of course, improving the health of the nation (which is something professionally dear to my heart).  Otherwise, how could other countries with small population sizes, like Jamaica and Denmark, manage to produce football teams that have at least made it to the World Cup?

On a similar note, I recently returned from a trip to Canada where ice hockey is revered as much as football is in England. Why is there so much talent in Canada, such that the current cohort has been called the ‘Golden Generation’? Because everyone loves the sport and many children have the opportunity to play it – whether or not they all become stars – and develop their skills further. I suspect such cultures are also less adverse to failure and embarrassment – and have become all the better for it.

Changing mindsets will take time. That is, if we really want to change. And when we do, there is a very Singaporean tendency to engineer change and speed up the process to show that we are reaching our short-term KPIs. Yes, building up infrastructure and providing funds is a good start. But the real challenge is redefining our performance-driven culture and letting our children know it’s OK to simply have fun.