Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Seelan's Talk for 4th CEO Series of Talk

Thanks to the Young Corporate Malaysians for organizing the 4th CEO Series of Talk. This 4th talk on 26th February at Rumah UKEC featured Mr. Seelan Singham, Managing Partner of Mckinsey & Company, Malaysia.

Seelan brought with him 15 years of exposure at Mckinsey & Co, besides 18 months at restructuring ANZ Bank in early 1990s, when it was saddled with $600 million of losses. Seelan went to MBA at University of Chicago and before that, he was in Investment Banking.

Seelan talked about Leadership as the most crucial issue facing Malaysia and he mentioned that we currently lack about 4,000 leaders here in Malaysia.

Seelan shared on 5 Things that he thinks are crucial for someone to be a leader. He says that it is our obligation to ourselves, to our family and to our nation, to be a good leader.

The first quality is to have dreams that scare yourself . He talked about big dreams. One of the guys he showed is Sir Edmund Hillary, the first guy to climb Mount Everest. And Sir Edmund Hillary was a 6 feet 5 inch guy. Very hard for him to climb. But he managed to do it with sheer determination. So, we should really have very scary dream. Dream that we are scared for ourselves to even think about it. Dreams that make us shiver.

Seelan talked that those who are old, are those who look behind and talk about history. However, those who are old biologically, but young mentally, are those who continue to look forward. His father is one of the example. He is still working very hard, looking forward, although he is already 81 years old. He talked about courage to fail. We really have to try our best. At our age, especially for those of us in our 20s, there is nothing much for us to fear. We have the least obligation now. So, we should just go all out to try things that we might not try it later. No harm try and fail. He talked about how we should go against the flow and try things that no one wants to try. He turned down a Mckinsey offer after his MBA, although that's what he really wanted to do. During that time, the then CEO of ANZ Bank called him to do a turnaround for ANZ Bank when it is saddled with losses, and Seelan took it as a great challenge and learned through the experience.

He talked that it is very easy for us to achieve goals, if we know what is the goals. What is tough, is to determine the right goals. He shared about a 15-year-old American who listed down 127 goals, and many of those are really crazy goals. But as of now, he has achieved 110 of those goals.

This brought us to his second point Stretch Opportunities . He wanted us to really pursue those opportunities that others are running away from. We should go for those kind of opportunities, as it is the best training ground for us. He talked about how in his 2nd year of Business School at University of Chicago, he really wanted to go for Mckinsey and they are using point bidding system to get interview. He put all his points for Mckinsey. Then, when he went for his 1st interview, he really flung it. The partner told him that he flung it very badly, but they are giving him chance, and it is their first time doing so, as he put all his hope on Mckinsey only. Eventually he got it.

But he turned it down after a few months of thoughts, as he took out the opportunities to turn around ANZ bank. After 18 months, he joined back Mckinsey. He just contacted back the partner and asked for it, and he got in. Seelan thinks that it is not mere coincidence. Over hte past 15 years, he does not always just choose the safe path. Sometimes, he would take the toughest path and he has failed several times. In his annual performance review, he has gotten all 4 types of ratings. Distinctive, tracking plus, tracking and issue. In fact, he got "Issue" twice and those are potential time to get sacked, as Mckinsey practices Up or Out. He cited that those periods when he went through hell, the support that he got is tremendous and he learned from those failure. His quote is that "Fall that doesn't kill you, makes you stronger".

The third point is caring mentor or partner . Mentor is somebody who thinks that you can accomplish more that what you think you can do, and the person would tries hard to motivate you. In Business School, he has always wanted to go into Investment Banking. However, his mentor told him that he is much more suitable to be consultant instead of joining Investment Banking. At that time, Seelan was very upset with his mentor, but his mentor really cared to advise him, although it might hurt his feeling. Seelan said that the best way is that for us to see our dream, and from there, assess who should be the best person to mentor us. We should really go out to pursue our mentor.

The fourth point is giving . Seelan says that giving would make us keep things in perspective. Eventually, the world is a very small place, and everything would come around. If we give, we would get back the reward one day. And if we do bad deed, it would come around too. He talked about how his 8-year-old son wanted to donate all his ang pows away to others in need, although he himself won't be doing exactly like what his son does.

The fifth point is Mental Resilience . It is that when things are very tough, are we able to stand and not give up. Seelan talked about how he tried to influence his 4-year-old daughter, but she has very strong mental resilience. On advice of how to develop mental resilience, he said that one aspect is on intellectual curiosity. The urge to find out why things happen. The second aspect is on divine intervention, as 50% of things are beyond our control. If we think so, then whenever things go wrong, we can always say that 50% of it is beyond our control, but it is so too, if things go right, it could be just beyond our control and it turns out fine.

Seelan asked about how many does mental exercise vs physical exercise, and interestingly 50% does physical exercise vs 10% who does mental exercise. That shows that we lack mental exercise. Our mind is very powerful and we focus a lot. But we need to work on our subconscious mind. He showed us a video and asked us to count how many ball passes went through. All of us just keep on counting, and we didn't even realize a furry guy who walked through it, and it was just so obvious. I miss it. In total, only 1 person found it.

He also said that we tend to go through failures very often, but we tend to lack to spend time to go through our successes.

He leaves us with 5 questions.
1. Are we exercising our mind enough?
2. What more can we give?
3. Have we identified the right mentor? Are we pursuing our mentor?
4. Are we putting up our hand when we see stretch opportunity?
5. Does our dream scares us?

After that, it is Q&A. I asked on 3 major pitfalls for young management consultants, since there are many from management consultants there. Accenture, BCG, Mckinsey & Co etc. The 3 pitfalls given are:-
a) We fail to convince the junior clients. Often, too much focus is on the more senior clients.
b) We often tend to just think that we are doing glamorous job and just try to do our best and deliver and close the project. But we should actually be enjoy the work and be excited about it and make transformation for the client.
c) We should not assume that we are smarter than our client.

Some other aspects touched during Q&A.
1. We should move, when we are no longer stretched.
2. We should take huge risk at this age, as he asks us to imagine what is the worst can happen to us.
3. He talked about his scary dream of moving back to Malaysia from Australia, when others are going there.
4. Mentors like the new idea, especially the passion and drive of younger people. Good mentors would like to see their mentors improve and look forward, and mentors enjoy to have priviledge to make difference in their mentee's life.
5. He talked about leaders as not input-based, i.e. whether a leader is charismatic, smart, visionary, is not important. What is important is output-based, i.e. achieve breakthrough performance. He quoted 2 very good leaders are Tan Sri Hassan Merican and Datuk Seri Idris Jala.
6. When we approach mentor, we should be flexible in terms of expectation, and start with low expectations first.
7. For education in Malaysia, his opinion is that two most important aspects are teachers' quality and the interactions between teachers and students. He quoted Dubai, Singapore and Korea as those successful ones.

Above are what I capture in the talk. Do feel free to share if you were there and I miss out anything or interpret anything wrongly.

Really appreciate Seelan's sharing and hope to see more people attending future CEO's Series of Talk. Congrats to Firdaus and gang for organizing this too! This talk has the biggest attendance as of now. I guess more than 50 people were there! Maybe even 60 people.

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