Not many people can say they’ve been a CEO for 14 years when they are not yet 40 years old. What are some of the reasons for your success?
I was fortunate to have joined Aberdeen (abdrn now) as a Graduate Trainee when they were still small. At that point, the firm wanted to have offices in many places and as we were growing so quickly, I put my hand up to set up the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia office – and that was when I got my first CEO role at the age of 26.
It was about being in the right place at the right time. I always tell people to never underestimate luck and timing in one’s career. After being made CEO, I hustled, I met many people, spoke to them and learnt from them based on their experiences. Being a fund manager helped as it allowed me to meet many companies where I was able to spend time with owners and leaders, understanding their management philosophies.
What aspects have you enjoyed in your career to date?
I’m a people person. I enjoy going out to meet people, understand what they do, how they do it (that curious element was the fund manager training) and to build networks frequently.
I’ve also enjoyed developing talent. I was fortunate to be given an opportunity to be a graduate trainee with lots of training from my colleagues. As I went about charting my own leadership journey, I made sure we had a similar graduate trainee programme so young professionals could benefit from what I had gained. Nothing beats on the ground training.
What drives you?
I’m driven to make a change in whatever role I take on. It’s a personal challenge I give myself, that the firm should be in a much better state than when I first took it on. I also have a chip on my shoulder that I get extra motivated when people say a role is impossible, which is what drove me to return to Malaysia to run the sovereign fund, PNB when I was 37 years old – a huge success despite my short time there.
It was the same at Berjaya Corp, a family run business where I was appointed as the first non-family member Group CEO to run the business and set it on its path towards institutionalisation. These two roles required some risk taking as it forced me out of my comfort zone, to move to an unstructured environment which required a different set of leadership skills.
You’ve taken on some tough roles. Can you share some challenging situations you’ve faced and the outcome?
I had to deal with public scrutiny when I became CEO of PNB. I became a public figure overnight and had politicians breathing down my neck. I had to quickly learn the ideal pragmatic stakeholder engagement, what to prioritise and how to ignore distractions.
At Berjaya, I had to deal with a Founder/Owner who hovered over me. I had to make him understand the importance of people development, risk management—modern management methods and at same time put in structure into every layer of management. These two roles in a span of 4 years, truly developed me as a leader. In the process, I was able to understand myself better too.
What has been some career highlights?
- Being CEO at 26 was an unexpected honour. It meant having to grow professionally much quicker than others.
- Being the youngest ever CEO of PNB at 37 was a privilege for me. Not so much because of my age, but rather because Malaysia finally broke away from its mould of picking the same type of professionals, somebody out of the “old boys club”. I’d like to think I gave some hope that in the future, a different profile could be selected too.
- Turning around Berjaya to profitability when it looked impossible.
- Turning around and managing three football clubs is a boy’s dream, especially for a football fan like me.
What is your view on failure?
There is nothing wrong about failing. Everybody has experienced it and we should normalise people talking about it, to have people talk about their ventures failing during interviews. Or to talk about people taking a career break to recharge.
We should instead focus on what learnings one has taken from their failures/setbacks and what they would do differently now.
Who or what has shaped who you are?
Many people—not one particular individual. My parents for instilling a simple life, and to always lead with honesty and integrity, and that being good trumps everything else. We came from a middle class family, so it makes what I have today a lot more special.
My bosses who believed in me at a young age and gave me huge responsibilities, and guidance, their time, sharing their experiences. One of them was Hugh Young who always told me as a young fund manager, “Always look for what can go wrong in a company, because everybody tells you what is going right”. Other colleagues who wisely pointed out that my true friends will be those who are there when I am no longer in the job. That was proven post-PNB when close friends rallied together to give me the support I needed.
Finally, my wife who gave up her own career to support mine and has been supporting me, putting up with my own stress whilst raising our two daughters and moving with me 6 times in 12 years!
Is there such a thing as work-life balance in a role like yours?
One has to be disciplined to create one. I have a pedantic routine to put time during the day where I work out, have my own me time, meeting internal colleagues, networking and family time. I have a good assistant who is meticulous in scheduling. And I keep to this routine even when I was on a career break.
Despite all this, there is no guarantee of balance, which I found out when I was at Berjaya. After 18 months, the grind just took a toll on my mind and body, and I had to step away to recharge. Normalising burnout and taking a career break will go a long way towards addressing this work life balance.
What’s next for you?
I have been an investor, fund raiser, talent developer, business developer, asset manager, asset owner & business operator, to name some of the things that I have done. I want to do something that would bring all these skills together.
I am currently in the final stages of exploring setting up my own private equity fund that will be focused on growth stage consumer companies in South East Asia. This will allow me to focus on what I like doing best; consumer sector, South East Asia, building businesses, identifying talent, getting my hands dirty on operations and working on strategy. The biggest satisfaction will be to look back and say “I helped create that company and entrepreneur”.
Any advice to young leaders out there?
- Take risks and get out of your comfort zone. We often take roles that are similar to all our previous roles and that can create a false sense of success. You must put yourself in an unfamiliar environment / industry to learn more and challenge your own leadership skills. This will make you a better leader.
- Be pragmatic. We always want a rosy picture but sometimes out of 10 things, only 3 will truly move the needle. We need to learn how to prioritise and accept that things won’t always be perfect, and sometimes the path to success is messy.
- Take time off and take care of yourself. Set yourself a goal in every role, and what the measure of success will be. When you have achieved that, evaluate what’s next, and if need be, walk away and do something else.
- Have a support group around you – friends who know you well, industry peers who know what you do that can act as a sounding board for you when you are feeling down.
- Network internally and externally. Just because you are a CEO, it does not mean that it stops. You need internal buy-in and rapport, and it must be close despite a growing company. Continue external networking, making an effort to stay in touch and know what’s happening around you.