HR & EDUCATION | Contributed Content, Singapore
Jeremy Han

Business innovation and mastery in Singapore – Is it a leadership issue?


Imagine a bored Michaelangelo creating the heart-wrenching Pieta, one of the greatest sculptures in the world. Or a disengaged Leonardo Da Vinci painting the enigmatic Mona Lisa. How about a Brunelleschi who only cared about getting a pay cheque at the end of the month erecting the eternal duomo in Florence? Would all these feats, all examples of mastery and innovation, have been possible if their creators were disengaged and unhappy with their work?

Towards the end of 2015, a widely discussed article on changing the innovation culture of the country caught my attention. The article quoted the government linking innovation to deep mastery of skill. In essence the article exhorted innovation, and believed that innovation in their field will be the result when people attained mastery of their craft.

I agree without mastery, one will find it hard to innovate, but what drives mastery? Why would anyone want to be a master in his craft? The article talks about how income increases when mastery is gained. While that is true, research also tells us that money is the not main incentive for the majority of the people to excel in their work.

So what is? I believe it is happiness. Happy workers are engaged and productive, and more likely to create value and drive innovation. But are Singapore workers happy and engaged? According to the National Workplace Happiness Survey 2014, the happiness index score for Singapore is 59, which falls under the category of ‘Under Happy’. Gallup gives us a bleaker picture – according to the worldwide survey, only 13% of workers are engaged.

The article goes further to say that innovation is linked to engagement. So how do we create happy workers? How do we spur engagement? Do we create happy workers by giving them a high pay and lots of perks?

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric and legendary people developer, said in his latest book The Real-Life MBA that bosses must be Chief Meaning Officers or CMOs. CMOs share how everyone's work is aligned to a higher purpose – a benefit to the client or to society, and how each one's performance is driving the organisation towards that purpose.

How often do leaders understand and talk about their organisation's or business' purpose? One of the issues that often come out during strategic planning sessions I hold is the question of how real is your Core Purpose to you and your team. Is it just a phrase on the wall, or is it alive, and aligning people's effort towards a common good?

As Henry D Thoreau said in a letter to his friend, "It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?" Singapore workers work one of the longest hours in the world. What are they industrious about?

You as the leader, what do you want them to be industrious about? Chasing numbers? Numbers are important to every business, but the sad fact remains that most employees don't care about our goals – Harvard Business Review features an article called "The Power of Happiness" that says that in a survey in the US, only 60% of employees are not motivated to drive their employers' goals. They care about their goals, their values, and that which creates meaning for them.

As the business leader, you have to be the 'Chief Meaning Officer' and answer that question. Finding a company’s Core Purpose is not discussing something fluffy but to find the means to unite and engage your employees for value creation.

According to a paper by the Stanford Graduate School of Business titled "The Business Case for Happiness," a higher purpose beyond profit and a visible impact your company is making for others, be it society or client, leads to greater happiness among employees because people want to know that what they do matters beyond getting their pay cheque on time. When they find that, they are intrinsically driven to create value.

So how do you discover a compelling Core Purpose? According to business guru and Gazelles International founder, Verne Harnish, in his book Scaling Up, the Core Purpose should not be a mouthful; how many of us had experienced working for a company whose mission or purpose is too long to remember, thus rendering it ineffective?

And Harnish leads the discussion with one of the most powerful, most honestly brutal question: What will your customers say if you are no longer around? Will you be missed, or will your customer go to your nearest competitor as though nothing really changed? This question unveils your raison d'etre, the real thing you are selling that others cannot sell. Use it to find that unique difference that only you can make.

One of my business coaching clients in the wind energy business told me that after I asked him that question, he could not sleep because he did not have the answer. He knows that unlocking that answer would unite and engage his team to greater heights. Energy is a highly commoditised market, so he needed his team to find that extra unique edge against competitors.

At that time, he struggled because when he realised that he did not know the answer, his employees were as lost as he was. This was despite the fact that they were the largest green energy company in their country. I told him that discovering this is powerful because you discover what your customer really needs that money could not buy; that gives you a special calling in the industry.

Link this powerful benefit to your employees' work and they too will see the meaning of what they do. In other words, don't just talk about it; set goals and KPIs that capture elements of fulfilling your Core Purpose and make it part of everyone's work.

Likewise, one of my other clients is the APAC director of an advertising business in 28 countries. She felt something was not settled in the business, causing her great uneasiness, and that affected her focus. She had difficulty challenging employees to go that extra mile in a highly competitive business.

When we sat down and talked through the issues, we discovered that despite their presence around the world and having several trophy clients, they had no Core Purpose. Their work, from leaders to employees, was not aligned to a strong, compelling benefit that is beyond money.

Another powerful side-effect of being a purposeful organisation is the affiliation effect. People like to be associated with an organisation with a good repute. In the past, good repute was derived from the organisation’s size and financial prowess. But more and more it is derived from the good an organisation brings to society.

The clearer employees see the benefit their work, and by affiliation, the company's work do to benefit others, the higher their engagement. When employees find meaning in their work, it will drive them towards higher productivity, mastery, and innovation. Otherwise, all this talk about mastery and innovation will fail.

So, let's end with this question – to help drive mastery and innovation, will you be the 'CMO' of your organisation?

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Jeremy Han

Jeremy Han

Jeremy Han is the Director of Corporate Strategy for the Adam Khoo Learning Technologies Group, as well as a certified Gazelles International Business Strategy Coach. He is also the author of the book Winning the 21st Century Game, and is a frequent speaker on career resilience issues at trade associations, government organisations, and other public events.

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