I had a chat recently with my colleagues at Young Corporate Malaysians and we spoke about ‘what makes a great CEO?’ and ‘what makes a great CEO in Malaysia?’
I noticed immediately that one’s view and expectation of a CEO varies on what stage you are in your career (this observation shows that a good CEO needs to be many things – a different person to different staff groups. The common adjectives were mentioned: visionary, teamplayer, driver, empathic, timely decision maker, able to decide when to be what kind of person.
I have worked for nine years and I’ve spent my nine years in three distinctly different types of organisation. I have worked in a global management consultancy, an entrepreneur set up headed by a Malaysian billionaire and also a Ministry of Finance owned government linked company. My understanding of what makes a great CEO comes from my experience in these companies.
To me, one attribute not mentioned often enough when talking about the context of Malaysian leadership is this – that to be a good CEO you need to be an effective lobbyist. An effective lobbyist is defined by having a good degree of influence on private sector leaders and a real access to political leadership (I say ‘real’ because many GLC CEOs can say that in their company structure leading civil servants or ministers are board members but in actual fact, he/she doesn’t have the relationship to pick up their phone to call the person to push ideas). Malaysia is a country where the balance tilts in the favour of who-you-know over what-you-know. CEOs of multinationals in Malaysia and private Malaysian companies alike need to be effective lobbyists to be able to cut through red tapes and participate in lucrative government opportunities. CEOs of GLCs need to be effective lobbyists to drive ‘transformation’ (the popular word now) and drive results.
Too often I see GLCs hire smart individuals – those with the right work experience and academic grounding but with very little influence. CEOs such as these are able to craft, or sit with consultants to craft frameworks, ideas and envision a transformational change but after paying millions of dollars to consultants to craft these, the CEO is not able to access political leaders to present these great ideas and influence it to execution or not having access to other private ‘big boys’ to finance it.
If a CEO does not have this influence, he or she is no better than a manager. I often stress to young corporates that I meet, value your professional relationship and that you will never know who can be of help to you. The cost of keeping in touch is low – it comes in the form of sending a text or card during major holidays (Raya, Chinese New Year, New Year). This simple gesture goes a long way and may benefit your career in the long run.