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Leading clever people

October last year, Nik Nazmi wrote a piece on the dearth of the young Malays in investment banking, offering some of his conjectures on why this was so - arguing that there seems to be a mismanagement of young talent by GLCs, resulting in a brain drain not tantamount to an exodus, but lamentable nonetheless. The 83 comments (and counting) that transpired from that entry came as an interesting surprise to both myself and Nazmi; it seemed to be a fairly written piece, but the resulting responses seemed to carry malicious intent tinged with sprinkles of personal attacks.

In last month’s Harvard Business Review, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones of the London Business School discussed the issues surrounding leading people who may not really want to be led - but must be led anyway: specifically, clever people. Identifying that today’s economy is no longer led by bricks and mortar but intellectual capacity, leadership skills and motivation techniques that may enjoy the ranks of ‘tried and tested’ may need to be re-evaluated somewhat, because the motivational and challenge needs of what they term ‘clever people’ cannot be easily simplified into a generic list that applies to one and all.

The article outlines seven things leaders need to know about clever people - the fact that they know their worth, they are organisationally savvy, they ignore corporate hierarchy, they expect instant access, they are well connected, they have a low bordeom threshold, and they won’t thank you. In other words, they may be quite the arrogant pain in the patooties, but your company needs them to thrive and survive.

Putting all this into context of Malaysian GLCs is potentially interesting. On the one hand, at eighteen and post-SPM, when recruiting these ‘future’ employees via the lucrative carrot of scholarships to study abroad, GLCs and non-GLCs alike clamber atop each other to secure the signature of the smartest of the bunch. On the other, what do they do with them once they graduate some 5 or 6 years later, armed with a top degree from a top university, perhaps a touch of world-weariness but coupled with optimism, confidence .. and yes, the implicit arrogance that comes with knowing that they are smart, and they are worth it.

Perhaps the biggest mistake one can make is to assume that one and all graduates are the same. There are broad brushes with which particular groups of graduate recruits are tarred with: local graduates are assumed to have a poor command of English; overseas graduates are seen to be arrogant upstarts. Any negative experiences from dealing with graduates from a particular university may filter the perceptions of those who come in long after them - whether the perception is justified or not. The obvious answer from many is that firms should view each candidate on an individual level, and I don’t doubt many employers already do this, but if you are faced with 80-90 new recruits every six months, is there space and time to learn about their individual strengths and weaknesses, their aptitudes and their passions, of whether their intelligence is prominent or that of a quiet but compelling variety, and at the same time, retain their interest and manage their boredom thresholds without having them being lured by other corporations who may be able to provide one-on-one attention that, as Goffee and Jones argue, clever people demand.

Retaining clever people may not necessitate firms luring them with prestige, added responsibility or increased pay (albeit the latter is much welcomed anyway). It may be enough to sustain them by managing their boredom thresholds. It is absurd to expect fresh graduates - even if they come armed with degrees from Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge - to be given accolades and be feted by making them instant managers or to be given preferential treatment; but placing them in the more dynamic sides of the corporation where they can maximise their skills of managing steep learning curves under a manager who is willing to both lead and mentor, is perhaps a workable solution.

Young graduates need to manage their expectations too. Balking at menial tasks, turning up one’s nose at tasks such as minute taking or having a poor relationship with the clerical and janitorial staff are common mistakes observed, and not novel to GLCs, or even to Malaysia. Regardless of where one graduated from, a little humility can go a long, long way - even if you know how clever you are. Success stories are peppered with anecdotes of good PR. Enemies will be made along the way anyway, so I suppose getting a head start in that department may not quite be the best way as you climb up.

Then of course there is the need to manage the politics. Most of the criticisms hurled at Nik Nazmi’s aforementioned article were to the tune of young graduates not willing to bide their time. In organisations where career advancement hinges more on seniority than performance, biding one’s time is perhaps the only way up - and those that ‘do time’ are often amply rewarded - but coming back to the idea of the low boredom threshold of clever people: this may not be the best of options if one is looking to retain the best of the best.

Sponsoring bodies often have a major bargaining chip in their hands - the threat of having to pay sums amounting to half a million ringgit is enough to deter many former scholarship holders from jumping ship and seeking greener pastures. But having that ace in one’s pack of cards surely cannot be used as blackmail to hold back people who are looking for a better fit between their career and who they are. Again, biding time until one is released may not be the best of strategies - seven years down the line, the lack of a challenging job spec and interesting opportunities, coupled with frustrations of seeing older and yet less competent colleagues being promoted, may sap the energy, the drive and the desire that they once had. Add to that, a spouse, two kids and one on the way, housing loans and car loans tied in with the company… therein lies the premature demise of the mind that firms once spent hundreds of thousands of ringgits educating. And from the perspective of the firm, the smart young executive who may have had ideas is now gone, replaced by a clone of the current management which, for firms that need to re-invent themselves to meet the new challenges of the current economy, that has got to be a loss of major proportions.

Hulbert Homes Filed under Malaysia, Managing Cultures | 1 Comment »

‘Senseless’ just doesn’t quite cut it

My brother passed me this link. Kevlar hoodies, stab proof. “If they make bulletproof ones, you might want to consider investing,” he said. He may be a crass joker at times, but I knew full well his underlying concern. The Virginia Tech shootings, which killed 32 including 4 members of academic staff, shook the world for many reasons, of one which is that academia is often seen as an oasis of intellectuality and calmness. Universities are meant to be boring. Not scenes of mass murder.

And amidst the killings every news anchor, channel and mogul alike can only bear to describe as ’senseless’, a new medium of communication unleashed information people wanted to know but the news wires had yet to pick up. The world turned to blogs - and Facebook. In the same way the world obtained information about what was happening in Iraq and the Asian tsunami, short, almost stacatto blog entries collectively sent one message: I’m okay.

And in the sadness that engulfed those who lost friends and loved ones, Facebook became the place where tributes poured in. Of Ross Abdallah Alameddine, a friend said: “You always made me smile”. Of Ryan “Stack” Clark, ” I don’t think I ever saw him mad in the five years I knew him.” Reuters reports that 236 Virginia Tech related groups have been set up on Facebook, what it calls a sign that internet social networking is becoming more prominent. The Malaysian student presence is as yet unknown - a quick google yields a Malaysian students’ society website - last updated 1996.

As details from the police and the university are sketchy at best at the moment, the mass media, often at loggerheads with the blog culture, are piecing together the lives of those who died yesterday by what their Myspace accounts said of them. Emily Hilscher, the first victim and also believed to be the object of the gunman’s obsession, was described as an easygoing girl with a zest for life, who enjoyed snowboarding, riding and music: all information gleaned from how she described herself on her Myspace page under the moniker, The Pixie. We often wonder what people think of us once we are gone; it used to be that friends and loved ones would swap stories. These days, one wonders how much memories are defined by Myspace and Friendster testimonials.

idlanzakaria on April 17th, 2007 Filed under Political / Socio Economy | Comment now »

On History

On history, I recall a prominent statesman speaking at a conference I was forced to attend saying, it should act like a rear view mirror. You glance at it to reassure yourself you’re on the right track, but you drive forward. It’s the glances, really… do they reassure or do they hold you back? It seems unclear for a young country like Malaysia whether the burden of its recent history is baggage or a blessing.

I suppose it’s how you view it, or how you use it. There is wisdom in hindsight, so the cliché goes, but sometimes wisdom is person-specific. Prof. Dr Khoo Kay Kim, speaking on race relations at a forum organised by the Malaysia Think Tank London recently, recalled his pre-Merdeka school days in Perak. “We were aware that we were of different races, the Chinese, the Malays and the Indians. But we never let it get between us. These days..” he smiled instead of continuing further. Many in the room with him smiled back, wryly. The state of the union of the country needed no further introduction. Many a time I have been told by those who were alive then, that pre-Merdeka, there were no muhibbah campaigns, no keris wielding politicians fighting for the Melayus. Everyone was united for a cause, and that cause was independence.

The question did crop up a bit later, though. A hand was raised and it was asked, “If things were like that back then, what happened to make things the way they are now?” I knew the answer before the Professor answered it. Politics. As much as many would love to deny it, Malaysia today is governed by racial politics. Yes, Barisan Nasional is for the best part tripartite, but each party is runs along racial lines. Barisan Nasional is a coalition, but a coalition of parties representing race, and inherent with it, racial ideologies. One does not need to be a cynic of major proportions to question whether racial division is actually perpetuated to ensure votes.

Because underneath the muhibbah banners, the patriotic songs sung by a member of each of the three major races, the Visit Malaysia posters showing Indians, Malays and Chinese, we all know the inherent racism is still rife. Because if we were truly muhibbah why would we care whether our badminton players were Chinese, or our football players Malay, or our hockey players Indian? Why would we use, as motivation fodder, issues of race? Why would people still race to see whether the best student at SPM or STPM level is a Malay, a Chinese or an Indian? Why can’t everyone be a Malaysian.. a Malaysian of Malay, Chinese or Indian descent?

And this is where history comes in. There is little awareness of the history behind the presence of the Chinese and the Indians in Malaysia. The Chinese and the Indians who came to work in Malaya in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had strong ties with their homeland. They were not subjects of the individual sultanate of the states that made up Malaya, and their loyalties still lay with China and India. They were merely foreign workers, at best, and had homes they could go back to in the motherland. Hence the phrase, “Kalau tak suka, boleh balik negara sendiri.”

Fast forward fifty-odd years, this is no longer the case, despite the preference of some politicians to still use this outdated quote. Perhaps the issue of citizenship was mismanaged back then, I don’t know. There were other immediate concerns in the late 1950’s and the 1960’s; that of the Emergency and the communist threat, for instance.

Of course, everyone’s a little bit racist. But where do you draw the line? I suppose malicious intent is always a good point of departure, but it’s easier to be racist if you’re the minority. It’s as if every racist gripe is owed, as payback for being part of the disadvantaged. I don’t know if that’s right. There’s a lot I don’t know, really. For instance… past mistakes. There’s nothing that says past mistakes cannot be rectified. The question is, do our legislators – the people we ‘voted’ into power on our behalf – want change? Which is more precious to them, their stay in power or leaving a legacy for the future? How many of our politicians today are worthy of being mentioned in the same breath of awe and respect that accompanies people like Tun Dr Ismail and Dr Burhanuddin Helmy? I don’t know the answer to that, either.

I am often told I am naïve in discussing these things, because I was not yet born during the race riots of the 60’s, the Emergency or the days leading up to independence. I am, for the most part, a post-Merdeka baby who was born during the days of Tun Hussein Onn but effectively lived my whole life in a Malaysia led by Tun Mahathir Mohamad. I admit my naiveté, perhaps the mildest of my many flaws. I lack the historical background, and growing up I lacked appreciation for local politics. But that brings me back to the question I asked at the beginning of this piece: is history a burden or a blessing, baggage or boon?

idlanzakaria on April 8th, 2007 Filed under Political / Socio Economy, Malaysia | 3 Comments »