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Ascott Limited CEO on Disruption, Picking the Right School, and Drawing your Career Direction

One of the good piece I came across this week was written by the CEO of ASCOTT Limited. Not many know Ascott is the world’s largest international serviced residence owner-operator.

As a top level performer in society, he has the privilege to interact with a wide variety of folks in his complementary scope.

And these interactions have shaped the way he look at work evolving to the time our children starts working.

So when his wife asks him which primary school should they pick for him, his answer is “It doesn’t matter

I for one thought that, where they live, which alma mater is available, their children’s school is already picked for them. Sounds to me that it is rather snobbish.

But his message is clear. It doesn’t matter because what will shape us is more than just which school we participate in.

I find that there are good takeaways regarding the challenging environment and life.. I will list out those that resonate with me.

1. What we used to think is our advantage may become a gaping hole that destroys us

Mr Lee writes:

To better understand the “enemy”, I have made it part of my job to meet representatives of tech companies and start-ups as I travel across the United States, Europe and Asia. What I heard shook me up. I recall asking the founder of one of China’s leading Internet companies, “What drives you?” He declared, with no hint of apology whatsoever, “I want to make the next company irrelevant.”

Our leaders position ourselves in public forum about how we can offer value in an increasing globalized world. We can be the bridge between the west and China.

You wonder how long this could last.

The affluent Chinese sends their next generation to western university directly to obtain the necessary competency to take their business global or to evolved it.

They are not as laid back and low in competence as what the Singapore leaders made it out to be now.

The businesses copied the best from others, make us frustrate with them. However, those who pay attention is that they are forming their own innovative culture in this wave of copying. And with free markets that provides the incentives to profit from, they can push themselves, much better than Singaporeans.

There is no safety net over there. When we have so many safety net, such as the government, affluent or upper  middle class parents to bail us out, we do not feel the weight of our every decisions made, and perhaps the decisions are not sharper.

This is what I feel sometimes, that with financial security, this safety net tend to blunt my decisions because things are not hanging on the line. It is only when things

  1. get more critical
  2. closer to dateline
  3. that I do not have valid alternatives

That I will push myself more. It is not a good feeling but guess we all suffer from this.

For poorer folks, who have been seeded with possibilities they have more incentives and motivation to try. It will be a challenge in Singapore to seed hunger.

2. Identify and have Awareness of your Edge and your Shortcomings and Working on It

If I were to turn the scenario around to our Singaporean graduates, how many of us are prepared to do the same? If your answer is yes, my next question is, what is the competitive edge you have that other people do not? Can you weather the uncertainty and disruption in today’s complex world?

Singaporeans are trained to spot 10-year series answers. My business counterparts in multinational corporations tell me they like to hire Singaporeans because we are honest, law-abiding and hard-working. We are good at following rules and instructions. For these reasons, we make great heads of internal audit, compliance managers and finance heads.

These are not bad things. But have Singaporeans become victims of their own strong values? The pessimists will say that we cannot be in leadership positions. Leaders are supposed to be flexible enough to manage ambiguity and complexity as they arise. Leaders are supposed to make judgment calls, even with incomplete and imperfect information. We often work well within a clearly defined structure, but may feel uneasy when asked to create something new from the whole cloth.

One of my ex-colleague shared with me his thought process in looking at his position in the team, when he was still with us in the company. He looked at what is his strength and how he could stand out, and also am aware of the weakness, whether working to reduce his weakness is a worthwhile endeavor.

My best friend shared with me his logic for being a relatively above average performer in whichever his company he go to:

  1. have an adequate mind share in the work and goal that they move towards as an organization
  2. provide value that is at least higher than your competition (your peers)

It is simple, but it requires some strategic thinking of your environment, and also yourself.

However, many failed to do it. And it shows in their action:

  1. Not proactive in being meticulous for some work that requires attention to detail
  2. Volunteering to cross examine things that you were not told  to do, but might make an impact to your bosses overall plan

You don’t need an extended effort about these, you just need to be more explorative in your work, have mindfulness on the company and the team. Put yourself in a better position and things will work better. If it doesn’t, it sharpens your skills, analytical abilities for another employer that appreciate things better.

Mr Lee do not mean things this way in the article. He is wondering if we, as a country can seed more leaders, whose basic requirements is to cover these KPI.

Will we see a change in the next generation that doesn’t want to live a paper pushing life but a more meaningful one? You can share with me whether the mindset in Singapore workers have shifted for the better or worse.

3. Be more deliberate in your Career and Life

When I started out in the private sector nine years ago as the Assistant to the Group President at CapitaLand, and asked for my job description and responsibilities, I was given this reply: “You have a blank piece of paper – make what you will of it.” It was a simple but extremely empowering statement.

I had no commercial experience prior to joining CapitaLand from the public service. I read up as much as I could on corporate finance, real estate, valuations and business strategies. I spoke to many people, listening and learning from them.

Just as I was getting comfortable in the world of real estate, I was posted to Shanghai to oversee and grow Ascott’s business in China. I knew nothing about the serviced residence business, much less the intricacies of doing business in China. Once again, I was thrown into the deep end to sink or swim. Nobody ever warned me that part of my job was dealing with thugs demanding unauthorised payment.

Did I have moments of insecurity and incompetence? Many. Yet looking back now, I fully appreciate the exposure I was given. I learnt to manage within messiness, and to create my own structure in an unstructured environment.

I like Mr Lee’s sharing of this blank paper example.

For sure, when we come out to work, we won’t always have the opportunity to “do what we like”. We have to do the mundane hard repetitive work. These might be unappealing, but its these work that grind into you the fundamentals required for the heavy and complex work.

For the wealth builders who started work, your job is not a blank paper, but what you do with your career and life is a relatively blank paper.

If you do not know how to write or draw on this blank paper:

  1. find out yourself through as much materials
  2. speak to mentors who walked this path before or who you think are good influences

Mr Lee shares how he tackles complex competencies that he needs fast.

If you relate to wealth building, many have tell me they do not know where to start. Take it from Mr Lee’s example. Speak to someone. And then dive into it.

Sometimes the action of fake it till you make it, pushes your brain in a positive direction.

Building a certain competency is a muscle. You need to exercise it to make it better.


I thought its a good article challenging the next generation of the world they come into. You can read the article here.

However, we should not make it that the world they come into is more daunting then ours. Each generation faces unique challenges due to different circumstances.

The mindset of each generation differs and thus the shift that is required, is also different.


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