My promises to you

Just finished a very restful vacation over Christmas and New Years’ holidays. Had time to reflect on many things. So my first task of the year is to make three promises to you.

Promise #1: We will grow

You and I both will suffocate if we allow ourselves to live and work within boxes or silos, or restrict ourselves to following “the norm” in every instance. We need to stretch ourselves, learn new things, try new things. We need to change or we  get stuck in a rut. So I promise, in everything I do for you—as your consultant, trainer, or business partner—I promise to take you beyond the familiar if you wish to grow. How will we do this?

  • I will educate you along the way, not simply perform tasks for hire. I will give you the benefit of my experience, even as our collaboration helps to broaden it. Example: last year, I was hired to help a client modify their sales incentives, and I started by delivering a half-day Sales Comp 101 class to their HR team, to enable them to consider alternatives to their current practices. This equipped the internal project team to articulate ideas to internal stakeholders with confidence and credibility.
  • I will teach more than knowledge. Competence includes knowledge, skill and attitude, according to Singapore’s Institute for Adult Learning, where I received my Advanced Certificate in Training and Assessment (ACTA). Yet classroom instruction is normally about 90% knowledge-based. I am a doer. Everyone tells me to become faculty somewhere, but I prefer to stay active doing as opposed to lecturing (which, by the way, has a very low retention rate, in terms of learning.) Whether client or student, I will show you, not just tell you; I will share with you new skills along with the underpinning knowledge which simply tells you when to use those skills. Attitude refers to willingness, i.e. the inclination to do the right thing. Often we need a bit of courage to sell ideas to our superiors because we lack personal experience and the convictions that are only learned through experience. I will help my students “feel” the subject matter. Example: when I teach expatriate compensation, I will tell localisation stories that will send chills up and down your spine. I will demonstrate how to sell the news to a foreigner that they don’t get big allowances like their boss got 7 years ago for the same job.
  • I will never assume I have all the answers. I once won a $1 million dollar consulting project with a $39 billion government-linked corporation in Washington D.C. How? My proposal included three workstreams marked “to be determined following current state analysis”. The other firms proposed new pay structures, new incentive plans and a new performance management system, as specified in the RFP. But the client respected my humility and willingness to spend the first part of the project listening to the right people to gain an accurate understanding of the issues. Only then could we validate their needs and design the right solution. Clients normally think they know what they need, but often they miss something. We learn together, and that’s the way it should be.

Let’s learn and grow together. I always seek to apply the best practice in a given situation, which may be new for your company, or for me in some ways. Any consultant who says they have done it all before and therefore assumes “what worked in one instance will work for you”, may lack a healthy respect for the uniqueness of each organisation, industry, culture, etc. No two situations are identical. Everything I do is an opportunity to learn. Plan, do, check, act. It’s like breathing. It’s how we learn and grow.

Promise #2: Relationship comes first

I had coffee with Keith Barr, CEO of Greater China for InterContinental Hotels Group in early 2011. I had been in Asia nearly 4 years as Vice President C&B for Asia Pacific. Keith had been in Australia several years, but in China only 1 year. Keith and I are both American. He told me “Tom, I made a mistake. For the past year, I was focused on process improvements, but I should have focused initially in building relationships.” Owners were not paying their bills, and Keith had been working with legal and finance to devise an effective progressive coercion process that would enable IHG to “unplug” the non-paying hotels from IHGs powerful reservation systems and other support. Meanwhile, the local Chinese head of operations would solve many of these problems by personally flying to the hotel and having dinner with the owner, listening and expressing IHG’s understanding of the owner’s needs, demonstrating a humble attitude and expressing a sincere desire for a continued business partnership. The next day, a check for a million dollars would be in the mail from the owner. A process/task orientation was not nearly as effective as a relationship approach. Keith has learned from this is and is one of the most effective business leaders and team builders I know.

I do not claim to have the relationship-building instincts of a Chinese business leader, but I admit there is great wisdom to it, not to mention it makes doing business more of a pleasure than simply work. I never said no when my teams in Shanghai or Manila planned a karaoke night! I am also a believer in servant leadership. I believe humbly serving others and putting their needs first is the best way to build relationships, but a little fun and some face time helps as well. So, dear clients, how do you like karaoke? Dinner? Want to keep it simple… ok, let’s meet at Ya Kun. As an introvert, this may not be my comfort zone, but even nerds need to socialise a bit, ya?

Promise #3: I will be direct, indirectly

Face is important. I get it. I will not criticise your current reward or mobility practices in front of others. But as soon as we are in private, I will tell it like it is. Example: I was in Shenzhen when a client explained they calculate their expatriate cost of living allowances (COLAs) using the United Nation’s Peace Index. I forced myself to smile (I learned to smile from the Thais) and make a comment about how creative that was! Later, I passed along my constructive feedback through a colleague of mine. Another example: a client requested an “opinion letter” concerning some of their expatriate practices. They wanted a carefully written letter that addressed some obvious risks but without overtly stating anything was wrong. Verbally, I simply told the client their current practices were very risky and could result in being fired.

Maybe the problem is sitting right in front of us.

Courage is endangered in cover-your-ass corporate environments. No one wants to be the bull in a China shop. No one wants to address the 10 thousand pound gorilla sitting in the room. No one wants to challenge the emperor’s new clothes (sorry for the all the western metaphors). We all want to play it safe and keep our jobs, so we let someone else address the issue. Why get yourself fired? Who cares anyway? It’s not my company…

I was in charge of transforming mobility practices for my company. Regional profit was $40 million, but expatriate housing alone was $10 million. This was the 10 thousand pound gorilla in the room. Well, I could run around the office shouting the P&L was on fire, or I could simply keep my mouth shut and look the other way. So I did what any consultant (or parent of teenagers) would do: rather than sound the alarm, I quietly presented the facts and asked “is this ok?” to the regional MD. The cost of an expat was on average twice that of a local in the same level. I prepared a one-pager called “Scary Facts” and shared it with the MD. He used this as ammo to sensitise his expat-heavy management team to the need to localise the workforce, including key management roles. I was very direct, in an indirect way.

As your consultant, you are paying for results, not just my time. Results normally require managerial courage which cannot be outsourced. I will equip you by helping you clearly see the scary facts of your current practices or policies, and show you how to raise the issue for internal attention, along with alternatives and related insights. Another example: I helped a client re-write their localisation policy, but the gorilla in the room was the fact that they had little focus on local talent development and were therefore heavily dependent on expats. So my final advice to them was to spend the next six months focusing on local talent development before even mentioning the ‘L’ word to the expats. The client immediately agreed this was needed but admitted little was being done to groom local successors.

The above promises—to grow together, put the relationship first, and to be direct (indirectly)—are three promises I make to you. Who grows when a big firm sells you their “product” or proprietary system as the answer? How much stronger is your relationship with the big firm when they invite you to a year-end event and only contact you personally to renew your subscription or to chase you for your survey submission? How have the big firms helped you change internal manager mindsets, or address the big gorilla in the room without offending anyone?

“When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be.”
—Lewis Smedes

Work with me and we will grow together, build a strong relationship and courageously achieve things that matter. This is my promise to you.


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