There are times when we run out of inspiration and fresh perspective in our leadership. What do we do then?
My encounters with Ee Soon Wei, 33, were striking in three ways. First, he is a young man who has an outlook toward life that belies his age. He is equally fascinated by the old (black and white portraits of extended family, his grandmother’s stories, museums) and the new (iPhone, Instagram, Facebook). Second, it is also unusual for someone his age to take on the extraordinary challenge of breathing new life into struggling print shop. Third, rather than throw away the old ways of doing things or dismiss the advice of the elders in his family, he has chosen to integrate their perspectives into his turnaround plans. Unusual? You bet.
The process of reviving and reinventing one’s self – or an organization – is never easy. It’s not for the timid. It’s also not for those of us who want to be stuck in old ways of thinking, or who are convinced that our way of thinking is the best way.
Given that I could be susceptible to my own perspective, I asked my 18-year-old niece, Hannah Khaw, to offer me a new set of eyes as we witnessed Soon Wei’s efforts to revamp The Royal Press. We found five principles in Soon Wei’s leadership that can get anyone started on the process of renewing ourselves.
1. Cultivate Curiosity
As we talked, both Hannah and I were impressed by the ideas, strategy and products Soon Wei has developed to reinvent the Royal Press . But it is worth remembering that all this stemmed from one young man’s curiosity…five years ago. “I wanted to find out more,” Soon Wei said. He started by driving from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka during weekends to visit his aunt. He constantly pressed her for stories about the family. “From one story,” he said, “I wanted to find out more stories.” Curiosity led to passion, and passion led to radical action.
2. Listen First
“Managing people is the toughest part,” said Soon Wei. He deals with this through careful, vigorous listening. As any young person knows, it is so easy to disagree with the opinions, assumptions and advice of older folk do. When placed in such situations, Soon Wei chooses to listen and understand first – without telling others what to do or asking to be understood. How do you do this? By asking clarifying questions. And asking more clarifying questions. And more. If nothing else, this process of attentive listening helps the speaker feel valued – and and more willing to work towards win-win concessions.
3. Reflect in solitude
The past one year has been pretty intense for Ee Soon Wei. Besides launching new projects at the Royal Press in Melaka, he’s also CEO of Art Printing Works in Bangsar. After five full days of work at APW, he drives from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca most weekends to work at The Royal Press. One Sunday morning, we saw Soon Wei head back to the Royal Press and spend several hours in silence there. “I just sat there in silence, and sometimes a thought would come to mind, and I’d write it down,” he told us after he returned. He read aloud his reflections to us. These were the essential insights that would guide him as he reentered the intense vortex of next week’s daily work.
4. Do what you love
An old, nondescript and dusty printing press is the last place one would expect to find a young global citizen. Yet that is where Soon Wei has chosen to be. “If I wanted to, I’d probably be a young, successful entrepreneur with my own start-up,” he said with a shrug, “but here I am, with this family business instead.” Soon Wei’s love for The Royal Press, his passion for story-telling and writing, his strength in collaborating with others, and his respect for the family’s printing legacy – these are some of the things that have caused him to unhitch himself from the bandwagon of conventional success and to pursue his heart’s calling.
In many ways, Soon Wei is a visionary. Over the years, little has changed about The Royal Press. The machines have printed paper as usual; workers have arranged lead blocks as usual; operations have gone on as usual. It’s been status quo for decades. It takes a visionary to take a step back from the usual — to see the same old things in a new light, and to cast a new vision, a new story and new strategies for the organization. In the recent year, Soon Wei’s vision is finally bearing tangible fruit: prototypes of new products are being developed; the experiential tour is almost done; and his efforts have been highlighted by international media, including an upcoming one-hour documentary on Discovery Channel.
We’ve often heard management gurus say that anything worth doing begins with a vision. But my niece and I suspect that Soon Wei might not have arrived at this vision if not for those four years of struggle and gestation: where he learned how to cultivate curiosity, listen first, reflect in solitude, and take bold steps to do what he loves.