Biz Alumni 24 April 2016

The Empathetic Leader

As Chief Marketing Officer at StarHub, Alumni Howie Lau leads the branding and marketing strategy of one of Singapore’s largest telcos. It is a challenging task given the dynamic and fast-paced nature of the industry and the diverse needs of his customers. What are some of the tools he keeps in his kit to motivate his team? Howie shares his experiences and views with us:

Howie Lau mike2I heard someone say once: “The beating will only stop when morale improves”. That is not a constructive way to lead. Nobody wakes up wanting to do badly at work. To bring out the best in people, a leader needs to set the environment for the team to perform.

For me, this is where empathy comes in. Empathy involves placing oneself in the position of others. This does not mean giving up one’s viewpoint. It is about finding a common ground to move forward. Used correctly, an empathetic leader can gain the respect and trust of his staff.

Empathy works in at least three areas – goal setting, understanding the business and leadership collaboration.

Goal setting

In one of my previous companies, we had to turn around an underperforming sales team. We were dealing with a group low in morale. Setting the objective to be number one would be meaningless. Instead, we set the simple goal of overtaking the competitor ranked just above; and then the next, and the next till we reached the top.

The team needed to believe that they had a goal that was not only possible but was also going to make a difference. This is where a leader who has his or her finger on the business pulse is critical.

Understanding the business

Today’s globalised world is one huge network filled with diverse partners. For instance, to ensure that the latest smartphone model can be successfully implemented from design to retail, a company needs to work with the cultural nuances of manufacturers and suppliers from many different countries.

I keep close ties with the Business School community by being involved with its undergraduate mentoring programme. This gives me the opportunity to experience how the young generation thinks. Empathy enables me to understand this unique yet important age group that is going to take over the workplace, but who is also the future customer base for many of my products.

Leadership collaboration

Would employing the traditional “one-size-fits-all” authoritative leadership style work today? Unlikely. Gone are the days of the all-knowing leader. I rely on a leadership group where each member brings a unique set of skills to the table. Being the overall leader, I have to relate to the different personalities. For example, some may need constant communication while others prefer independence.

In many ways, it means taking a leap of faith when building relationships. Leaders are expected to be figures of authority giving out opinions; when instead they should be listening and framing situations as, “what would I have done if I were in your shoes?”

Singapore is not a confrontational society. It may take a while for us to pick up subtle conversation hints like tone and body language. Schools should train students to have higher emotional quotient (EQ) and not just achieve mere grades.

When there is a problem, learn to ask “what” instead of “who”. Asking the former indicates that the leader is prepared to work out a solution. Asking the latter creates a defensive mind set and worse, a missed opportunity to get at the root cause. It also creates an environment where people are reluctant to report issues to avoid future confrontations. These issues almost always lead to disasters.

Looking back, my tertiary education taught me that it is not about being the smartest person but being able to work with people and deliver when it matters. So I always tell the undergraduates I mentor to make as many friends as possible in school because the people they meet there will one day become their colleagues, partners and even bosses.

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