7 leadership lessons from CEOs who answer to a higher power
Salt&Light // July 22, 2019, 8:15 pm
"Many people have asked me the question of how to have a successful career," Lucas Chow told Salt&Light. His reply? "Let’s first define success."
Together they have led upwards of 1,000 staff.
But these C-suite leaders report to a higher power yet.
From CEOs to top civil servants, they share the lessons they have learnt about leadership through making God their CEO.
“Define what success is to you”: Lucas Chow
Lucas Chow needs no introduction in the corporate world. After working in Hewlett-Packard for 20 years, he assumed various chief executive positions in SingTel Mobile, MediaCorp and Far East Orchard.
He was conferred the National Day Public Service medal in 2015 and was on the board of directors for the Health Promotion Board Singapore and the Board of Trustees of National University Singapore.
“To be happy and successful, we need to know what we value and what are the priorities in our lives.”
“Many people have asked me the question of how to have a successful career,” he told Salt&Light. “Let’s first define success. My own definition: Success is like beauty, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. You are successful when you are happy.
“To be happy and successful, we need to know what we value and what are the priorities in our lives. I would suggest listing them down and reviewing them at least once a year. This is because our priorities can change with time and age.
“When I had a young family, they required more of my attention and I had to set aside time for them. But now I am an empty nester, my priorities have changed.
“After knowing your priorities, check if you are allocating time to your priorities. Time is finite; we need to spend our time wisely. If spending time with your family and friends is of higher priority than work and career, you will not be very happy if you had to stay back at work, hoping to get ahead, while missing out on a family or friend’s birthday gathering.
“The flip side is also true: If building a career at this stage of your life is more important, you would not be very happy partying while thinking about work.”
His views on money changed when he became a Christian in his forties, he said. “John Wesley’s teaching on work and money challenged me to rethink stewardship.
“John Wesley preached three simple rules on money and good stewardship: Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.
“Now I ask myself: Am I acting like I own the money, or am I acting like the Lord’s trustee?”
“Look beyond the bottom line”: Nicholas Goh
The successful entrepreneur who set up TwinAgri, Cambodia’s first composting facility, was among a handful of Singaporeans who was highlighted by former President Tony Tan during his state visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in January 2017.
The honour was all the sweeter because Nicholas Goh’s six-year journey had not been an easy one.
In his first week, he met with a serious accident while scouting for materials and machinery. His car skidded on the sandy road and was sent spinning into the house of a villager. No one was seriously injured but the accident put a dent on finances as he had to compensate the home owner and repair the damaged vehicle.
His tenacity was founded on the conviction that the business was to make an impact on the Cambodian community.
The near-death experience was not the end of his troubles. He had to contend with cobras and tigers as the factory was at the forest edge.
The rough start might have sown a seed of doubt in the minds of most people, but Goh said: “I told myself to look at the greater picture. Am I looking at small incidences? Or are these obstacles to doing greater things?
“If you’re not even faithful to deal with the small problems, how can you be faithful to handle the big ones? (Luke 16:10) If you’re faithful, He will give you the tools and equipment to know what to do.”
His tenacity was founded on the conviction that the business was not just to benefit his family; he saw it as a call to make an impact on the Cambodian community.
The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19) was never far from his mind.
He was intentional with employee and job development. As the business grew, so did staff strength – from just five to 60. The majority of his staff are under 35.
“The end goal is to develop character and encourage the youths to persevere and achieve their goals through hard work,” said Goh.
He noticed that, as his young employees absorbed Kingdom values like integrity, even the culture within the company started to change.
He recalled an incident when some workers tried to steal company property but the rest intervened to stop the act.
“Kingdom values influence culture, which can change a country,” he emphasised.
“Carry out your role with as much love as you can”: Kuik Shiao Yin
Kuik Shiao-Yin, the co-founder and director of The Thought Collective, stepped down as a Nominated Member of Parliament in September 2018 after completing her term.
“My wish is that we, the people of this one small island nation, will remember to keep loving each other.”
After her last Parliamentary session, Kuik shared in a Facebook post:
“In the Book of Corinthians, love means being patient, being kind, not envying, not boasting, not being proud nor resentful, not insisting on one’s own way. Not rejoicing at wrongdoing, but rejoicing with the truth.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things – it’s a remarkably tall order but for those who profess love for fellow citizens and our home country, those challenges come with the territory.
“My wish as I leave this House is that, come what may, we, the people of this one small island nation, will remember to keep loving each other. I hope we keep choosing to seek common ground – especially with those who seem different. For if we seek, we are more likely to find.
“If we NMPs can carry out our small role with as much love as we can muster, and not go at it alone but seek the input of a greater community and find the support of good friends, we can make a difference.”
“Catch people doing right”: Dr Tan Poh Kiang
A battalion commander in the army for over 12 years, Dr Tan Poh Kiang took over the presidency of HCA Hospice Care from ex-Minister Dr Seet Ai Mee in 2014.
One of the initiatives Dr Tan and his management team made was to revamp the appraisal system as they sought to sharpen the organisational culture.
Dr Tan envisioned the fairness of an organisation where “even the introverted, quiet people who do their own work but do it well, are rewarded”, where “we catch people doing right, not only doing wrong”.
Dr Tan believes that even the smallest, most unremarkable actions deserve to be highlighted and recognised in the presence of community.
He envisioned an organisation where “even the introverted, quiet people who do their own work but do it well, are rewarded”.
“Culture is built on the cumulation of many organisational habits, he said.
In August this year, Dr Tan is handing over his role as president after five years of service. It has been a personal journey of growth in leadership, being humbled many times, and learning from the wisdom of those around him.
“The culture now is such that people know they are welcome to speak – even if it is a contrarian view.”
“It boils down to a level of respect for others, being willing to listen and not put down someone else’s view just because of education levels or rank.
“By inviting different people to participate and incorporating various perspectives, there is diversity and a more robust way of converging on the shared HCA vision of helping people procure a good end to their lives.”
“Know your flock”: Choe Peng Sum
Choe Peng Sum leaves a track record of having developed Frasers Hospitality into a global brand, with a chain of 150 properties spread across 80 cities worldwide. It is a record that is hard to beat.
But more than the awards and accolades, it is his staff’s regard of him as a workplace minister that Choe holds dear. He firmly believes in bringing Christian principles to management.
“A lot of what we need to know in business is in the Word of God,” he said. “He brings us to our workplace so that we can influence the environment.
“When I lead, I try to see the positives and encourage. This is the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12.”
“When I was still at school, the Lord had asked me: ‘What kind of boss do you want? One who always scolds, breathes down your neck and constantly tells you what to do? Or a boss who trusts, encourages and helps develop you?’
“I said, ‘Lord, definitely a boss who encourages and looks at my positives rather than my negatives.’
“So, when I lead, I try to see the positives and encourage. This is the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12.
“Frankly speaking, you can always find fault and focus on the negatives and breathe down necks. Or you can choose to look at your staff’s positive points and build them up.”
When asked if God ever corrected his course when he was on the wrong track, Choe answered: “Many, many times. We were planning to list the REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) and I was pressing the people because of deadlines.
“One morning, while doing my quiet time, God reprimanded me from Proverbs 27:23. God spoke to me, ‘Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds.’
“I took that to mean the condition of my staff, and I felt God asking if I knew how they were.
“That morning, I called them in, one by one. They had all been working hard without complaint. But as I talked to them, the tears just flowed because of the pressure they were facing.
“I realised I was driving my team too hard. It also showed that God’s heart is for the people, not just the believers. Christian leaders are put into position to look after our flocks.
“That taught me a big lesson: We have to drive results, we need to move, but we don’t have to make people suffer for that.”
“In crisis, seek God”: Jocelyn Chng
She is a force to be reckoned with in Singapore’s competitive food industry.
Jocelyn Chng, managing director of Sin Hwa Dee Foodstuff and CEO of JR Group specialising in food manufacturing and F&B operations, was named Woman Entrepreneur of the Year in 2001 among other awards.
Yet she is no stranger to crisis. Her father died when she was just 21, leaving her in charge of his ailing business. Just when she managed to stabilise the company, her beloved grandmother died, and shortly afterwards, her husband, leaving her a widow at 37.
Despite the series of sorrows and setbacks, Chng recounts how God protected and provided through her difficult seasons.
“In university, I was working and studying full-time but I managed to graduate. It was not to my credit but God’s. He gave me good lecturers, helpful friends and good health,” she said.
“As a prayer group, we have seen how impossible things became possible.”
“As I look back, I can see that God surrounded me and my family with good people who were willing to support us, love us and push us to the next level.”
In business, God brought her partners who shared the same values and closed the doors on unsuitable ones, she said.
Debt-ridden Sin Hwa Dee was turned into one of Singapore’s leading F&B players, supplying products to international fast food chains, top-end hotels and major airlines. It even expanded its reach overseas, exporting its products to over 30 countries.
Chng now oversees about 300 employees.
Despite her busy schedule, she continues to set aside time every morning to pray and count her blessings (Colossians 4:2).
“In business, don’t always think that it is within our power to make things happen.
“Leave it in God’s hands. He is an attentive and personal God, He will look after everything that matters to us.”
Her management team has formed a prayer group. “Whenever we encounter any problem, whether at work or home, we pray together and for each other,” Chng said. “It is quite powerful because as a group, we have seen how impossible things became possible.”
An example was how her SME (small- to medium-sized enterprise) managed to beat bigger competitors to clinch a huge project.
Instances like these have strengthened her faith. “If you think that God wants you to take on a project, then go and get it.
“There’s nothing too big for Him. God can move mountains.” (Mark 11:23)
“Remember that all positions of influence are from the Lord”: Stephen Lam
CEOs are tasked to lead a company; public servants are tasked to lead a country.
Stephen Lam served for over 30 years in the Hong Kong public service. His role of Chief Secretary for Administration was equivalent to deputy head of government.
To Lam, God is both the Master of histories of nations, as well as of his personal life.
“My life and career as a public servant are truly anchored in Micah 6:8.”
In an interview with Impact magazine, Lam, who was raised a Catholic, said although he was an altar boy in church, “I did not really understand the Gospel until I was studying at the University of Hong Kong. Friends from the Christian Association finally resolved my puzzle of why Jesus had to die. I then became a Christian”.
In 1983 he graduated from the University of London Law School, qualifying as both English Barrister and Hong Kong Barrister in 1985-86.
His plan had been to work in private practice, but God called him to public service, and “knowing in my heart that I would serve in the public service for just a finite term, according to God’s timing, I humbly stayed on in the job God had called and prepared me for”, he said.
When asked: “What would you say was the most important lesson you learned as a public servant?” he replied: “All positions of influence and power are from the Lord.
“Hence, one must work faithfully with humility, always trusting God through prayer.
“My life and career as a public servant are truly anchored in this Bible verse: He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
During his time in office, a weekly prayer-breakfast began among four Christian ministers in 2004.
“We also encouraged many churches, pastors and leaders (members too) to show concern for the territory’s needs, through united prayer, like never before.
“And God always answered our petitions.”