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S2E04: An Insightful Leadership Journey

“What remains unchanged for me throughout my leadership experiences is that people are people, wherever they work, whatever is the content of their work, and connecting with them in the best way possible is always important for a leader.”

These are the capturing words of Mr. Larry Choi, a highly experienced and inspiring leader, who has journeyed different culture and various sectors, shares his leadership stories with us.

Victor Seet 00:00:01:14

Hello. Welcome to Capelle Livechat. My name is Victor. I’m your host for today. And together with us is Mr. Larry Choi. And today we’re going to deep dive into the topic of leadership. But before we do that, let me first just introduce Larry. 

So Larry is currently the Director and CEO of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He’s also the head of the ASEAN Studies Centre and Singapore APEC Study Centre at the institute. So I want to warmly welcome you, Larry. 

So Larry I understand that when I look at your leadership journey, it’s really quite amazing. Let me just share that with our viewers. So, Larry, I know that you started your career at Singapore Armed Forces, and you held various appointments. And after that, you were Director of the Security Intelligence Division in MINDEF before you became Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Transport. And following that, you had another role, you became Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources. And after all of this and currently now, you are at Yusof Ishak Institute. 

So when I think about all this, it’s like, wow, such a journey because it’s so different in the culture, in the sectors. And as we deep dive into this topic of leadership, I want to start by asking you, how do you adapt, as a leader in all these very different sectors? Share with us some stories if you have, we’d love to hear them. 

 

Larry Choi 00:01:39:15

Well, first of all, thank you very much for the opportunity to share and to have some discussion with you, Victor. In my view, every leadership situation is different and therefore may require different approaches and also perhaps different styles. 

So, for example, one dimension is the size of the organization. So a smaller organization actually requires more personal contact, direct verbal communication. Whereas in larger organizations, that will require influence actually from a distance. Normally exerted through things like written messages or videos. And perhaps even more recently through the use of social media. 

So for me, within the Ministry of Environment, if I may talk about that. The ministry headquarters was small and all the staff were located actually just in two levels of the same building. So this made it easy for me to walk around and talk to people rather than to call them on the phone or send them an email, or some types of the communications that I wanted to make with them. I think this was not the style of my predecessor. So at first the staff were not very used to it that I would walk up to them in their cubicle. So I wanted to make them comfortable by just asking my assistant to call ahead just to tell them I’m coming over, so they have a bit of early warning. But after a while, I think the staff got used to it. And sometimes I will just walk around casually also, so that we could have sort of, almost like random discussions when I had the time to do that. So that’s for small headquarters’ staff. 

But also within the Ministry of Environment, one of the things I realized is that I also needed to do outreach to a wider group of staff outside of my headquarters, as well as also to the public. And largely, that would be through the use of social media. As a relatively more, older person, using social media was not something that came naturally to me. Taking the appropriate type of photos, including selfies, composing posts that are interesting, sharing them on my personal social media account. This was something I had to learn from scratch, usually from younger colleagues in order to be able to communicate with the wider ministry staff and also to others in the public sphere. So at first it was really most unnatural for me, but over time it flowed more easily. 

So perhaps just one more example. In Environment, I also had to adapt to giving talks to, sort of in a more casual and informal context. Whereas my public speaking in my earlier stints in Defense, and in Transport required more formal speech making and careful crafting according to the audience. My time in Environment required more engagement in smaller groups in town halls and also in events. So this required a different approach and style, which I had to gradually get used to and also to improve upon because I wasn’t used to it at the beginning either.  

I think what remains unchanged for me through all these experiences I’ve had is that people are people, wherever they work, whatever is the content of their work, and connecting with them in the best way possible is always important for a leader. 

 

Victor Seet 00:05:47:05

So I seem to hear, very common threads in these stories, and I think the last one you summed it up, I love it. It feels like that’s a leadership mindset that you have – that connecting the best way possible to people. People are people. That really came across. It’s almost through the different stories, that’s the common thread. You use that as a leadership value or a mindset, if I were to use that, to kind of help you adapt to the different contexts. At least that is kind of how I take away from your story. That seems to be something quite inspiring. Thank you for sharing that. 

And I’m wondering now, because you had to adapt constantly, maybe my assumption is you have some, you will know where, you’re going to a different sector, there will be some kind of preparation. How do you prepare yourself before moving into all these seemingly very different contexts? Share with us some stories about that. 

 

Larry Choi 00:06:52:01

Well, one thing I really believe in is knowing your stuff as a leader. So for me, myself, I had to learn many new things about the different sectors that I moved to, or even when in the same sector, new things happen in the sector. I also needed to then learn new things as well. So just maybe a few examples. 

One is, I was involved in security work in the Defense Ministry when the September 11 attacks, terrorist attacks took place in New York and Washington. And that actually changed the world, as it was, particularly in the world of security. So in order to adapt, I had to acquire new knowledge and new competencies by learning about, in that case, the deviant extremist beliefs of the Al-Qaeda group as well as their various affiliates and offshoots in our own South-East Asian region. And this really meant reading up on the history, reading up on the political context in which these deviant beliefs arose and how these groups like the Al-Qaeda came about as events happened in history. So that’s one example of learning something new. 

Similarly, when I first joined the Transport Ministry, I had a lot to learn about the past policy thinking and also the past policy decisions that led to the structure and the context of the transport scene at that time. And that was something that required going back into previous files and talking to people who were involved in those earlier decisions. So that I could really absorb, what was it that led to the current situation. Beyond that, there’s also I would say another dimension, which is to really learn the, I would say, the basics and the instincts. So that required for me to read books, some of them literally textbooks to understand about the economics of the industries. So the air transport industry, the maritime transport industry. 

 

Victor Seet 00:09:30:09

That’s a lot to read. 

 

Larry Choi 00:09:32:12

A lot to read, but there are some very good guides. And also to learn about the policies and the practices in other jurisdictions or other countries where they have faced similar problems but they may have either a similar solution or perhaps a different solution. And to just have that awareness as part of my, shall we say, my background knowledge, to be able to lead in this situation and in this sector. So in addition to that, of course, there’s always also a need to understand the ground situation, especially for public transport. It’s a very publicly, shall we say, rather sensitive issue. The public is always aware of how it is functioning and also has comments to make on it. So I started taking public transport regularly myself in order to experience it and to be able to see the perspective of the users in the system. 

 

Victor Seet 00:10:36:03

Wow. As I hear you, first thing I guess as you were sharing all the finding out about the background and reading up, that’s a lot of prep work, a lot of hard work as a leader. Sometimes that is unseen. I’m just amazed at how much someone needs to go into. That really came across even as you share a lot of the prep work is so important, the reading extensively. I just cannot imagine how many books and papers of all these things that you’ve read. 

The second thing I really was struck off is maybe the way you say it, like how you really need to go to the ground, and understand what’s happening, taking the transport yourself. That’s what I hear you say. 

So this staying in touch with the ground, could you share more, could you tell us more about that? Any stories about how that helped you to be more effective as a leader? 

 

Larry Choi 00:11:41:17

Well, Victor, as I mentioned, I started to take public transport while I was in the Ministry of Transport in order to personally experience what other commuters experience, as well as what the public transport workers, what they have to do, what they have to cope with. So I did this on both the train system, the MRT system, as well as the bus system. Quite fortunately for me, to get from my home to my office through both these train and public means, I could do so quite conveniently without having to change either train lines or bus service. So I could do it as part of my normal routine. So I would try to do this once a week if that was possible, though I must say it was not always possible because I would need to drive in the course of the day to go for meetings after having gone to my office. So that was what I had to kind of sometimes sacrifice. 

The other thing I tried to do was to attend to some public feedback myself instead of asking others to do. We get a lot of public feedback in the Ministry of Transport. So there was once when a very senior private sector executive made a complaint to me. He had my email address. So he made it directly to me, and essentially he was a bit worked up and his demand was that one of the road junction modifications that had been made by the Land Transport Authority at that time, that it be reversed, because he saw it as having adverse outcomes. And this road junction was very near to his office so he could see it from where he was working. So I took the opportunity to deal with that feedback myself. I actually replied to him personally after getting information on the situation and using that information to explain to him why the change needed to be made. And I made it a point to try to get that answer to him before the end of the day that I received the complaint from him. So I thought I should do that because like any other member of the public, if he makes a query, he makes a, perhaps even a complaint, he deserves a rapid response. 

So the next morning he wrote to me again, rather angrily. He had updated, what he himself had observed from his office and he gave additional reasons why there was a need to reverse the change in the modification of the road junction. So I decided that this was not a case where he did not understand the reasoning, but that he may have observed, how this was or was not working. And so I gave some credit to his observation and so I went down to the road junction myself to observe together with an LTA staff. And we just walked through the situation, did some observation on the ground. Through that visit, I, together with this LTA colleague, we decided to make another minor additional modification to the junction and that could be done actually just overnight, quite a simple modification and it could be done overnight. So that night they made their modification. So I wrote back to the complainant and this time after observing the additional tweak that we had made, actually he was satisfied and he did not ask to reverse the original change anymore. 

So it was a win-win in my view. What he had observed, had been addressed but the reason, the rationale for making the road modification still stood. And therefore, in that sense, the public interest was still addressed as well. 

 

Victor Seet 00:16:34:17

Such a wonderful story. You know, Larry, as you’re sharing this story, there’s just so many things that came across, and just for our viewers I’d like to summarize. 

First thing that come across is this idea of seeing from the user’s perspective. I think that’s how you treated the feedback that came across to me, it’s almost like, I think we use words like, we must know our stakeholders. And the way they see things could be very different from us. That came across, the way you, if I bring it back to your previous idea about staying in touch with the ground, seeing the perspective of the user, the stakeholder, is quite important. So that’s one thing. 

Second thing I thought quite honestly, when you were sharing is, I’m quite amazed at just this, if I would use the word, humility to just listen, the willingness to say, okay, someone complained, what can I do? That came across to me, and that’s so important as a leader. I’m trying to imagine that if I’m one of your staff working with you, it is literally like that’s a role model, of how we need to respond to feedback given. So that came across, I just wanted to share that. Quite inspiring for me. Even though this is just a story of how you stay in touch with the ground, you in a sense, in my own personal thinking is, you get your hands dirty. And you’re willing to do it. I think that’s quite inspiring. Thank you for sharing that. 

As we talk about this, it feels like, that thread is still around people, coming back to that leadership mindset and the belief you have. Is there anything else, any kind of leadership principle, if I would ask you to share with our viewers today, what they can apply? With all your years of experience, what are some nuggets that maybe we can get from you? 

 

Larry Choi 00:18:48:03

I think leadership is kind of learned. In a sense to me, I was fortunate. I had many opportunities to learn. And you learn often by making mistakes, but being humble enough to go back and learn from the mistakes and then correcting it the next time around. So if there any sort of things that I now apply, it is to really make sure that as a leader I know what my goals are, what my goals have to be. I need to be able to work out how to achieve them. And then I need to communicate those plans to different levels of co-workers, people who can make this happen together with me. So there is both an intellectual process that needs some very thorough homework, pulling together expert views to find, I would say both ambitious but also attainable set of goals and then coming up with that realistic plan to achieve it. And after that, the communication, the dissemination of that is to enable that plan to go to everyone that we need to bring on board. And that is something that cannot be too, I would say, too overlooked in the process, because it requires repeated communication at many levels and also conscious emphasis through different, different avenues because then there’s a consistency that people can register and can be part of. So I think it’s quite, in that sense, it’s quite a simple, to me, leadership is quite simple, in theory, but the actual execution requires quite a lot of work. 

 

Victor Seet 00:20:53:20

Thank you. Thank you for that. Almost as you were saying, it’s registering in me the steps, at least in theory, and I caught three things. Leaders must really know their plan well, and know their goals. Know their goals, be so clear about it and really think about how they want to get there. And I think last, when you talked about the continuous communication at different levels to get buy-in. 

As a leader myself, I often feel like the last part is sometimes the most difficult and the easiest to overlook because it’s also the most difficult; getting buy-in, and this deliberate communication process.  

Do you have any story to share with us how even despite the difficult thing to get buy-in?  

Any success story to share in terms of this aspect, you had a goal, how did you get buy-in, and there was a great outcome? Just wondering, in all your years of experience, could you share one story with us? 

 

Larry Choi 00:22:04:24

When I first joined the research institute that I work in today, I think like most, sort of more academic type institutions, our researchers used to decide on their own research plans on a more or less, a bottom-up basis based on their own understanding of what the institute’s broad goals and directions are. I felt this was not the most beneficial or effective process by which researchers and the institute could achieve what we wanted to, both, on all sides. But it was also very clear to me that this is an academic culture that is not so easy to change. 

So after grappling with this issue for a while, what I decided to do was to start a monthly meeting and to have all our research coordinators to meet together. And in this monthly meeting, we will gradually work together to improve collaboration, and also slowly change the culture. As people saw the benefits of collaboration and saw the benefit of meeting together, listening to each other and adjusting their own plans to be able to dovetail together, it gradually started to catch on. It did take some time, but I think because we persisted in this, this has already now been going on for several years. We also tweaked the format, we also tweaked the topics for our discussion when we met together for this monthly meeting as time went along so that it can sort of suit what is needed. And we have some research coordinators who are based overseas. Initially when we had these meetings, they were kind of left out because we didn’t think about any way that we could bring them in, but eventually they wanted to join and we managed to facilitate via Skype. And then later on, using the Zoom application. So of course, when the pandemic came, then everybody went on Zoom. But again, it carried on throughout the entire period. 

I think over time, this meeting has become the most productive session that we have at the institute. And it is really the nerve center for everything we do. It’s not a place where only one person talks. In fact, I would say I do the minority of the talking in this meeting, but we talk about important issues and I do of course give some feedback, but not only me, everyone would be able to listen and also to comment on each other’s work. And I think now everyone is happy to be part of it. And the reason for that is because the new process of this process, which is not new anymore, has proved to be helpful to their work. So this is, I guess, my approach sometimes if it’s a very typical, ingrained matter that we need to change, let’s just start, do it slowly and assure people as they go along, this is not something that is imposed upon them, but really something to help them, and that when we do this together, I think we will all end up being better off. 

 

Victor Seet 00:26:03:05

Wow, thank you. Actually even as you shared, I just felt like this is really quite inspiring because it seems like a very long, arduous process. But as you shared, I can almost feel like, wow, it’s very satisfying – you put in so much hard work and then suddenly, not suddenly, but over time, people’s voices started to come in. It’s almost as if it became more inclusive and in your own words, you speak, actually, you don’t speak a lot and other voices begin to come in, and there’s a lot more collaboration, and it’s a new culture that you’ve set. Thank you for sharing this. 

Because I guess sometimes we want results fast, getting buy-in could be really a matter of persisting and giving voices to people and setting a new culture. And I want to say that I believe also part of your calming disposition, you come across that way, you are willing to let people have voices and that was something also that came across as you shared your story. Thank you so much Larry for sharing that. 

So viewers, I thought that this is a very short but very important, wonderful deep dive as we hear from Larry about his journey, his story of leadership. We hope that you are inspired. So that’s all to today’s Capelle’s Livechat, and stay tuned as there’s more to come.

“What remains unchanged for me throughout my leadership experiences is that people are people, wherever they work, whatever is the content of their work, and connecting with them in the best way possible is always important for a leader.”

These are the capturing words of Mr. Larry Choi, a highly experienced and inspiring leader, who has journeyed different culture and various sectors, shares his leadership stories with us.

Transcript

Victor Seet 00:00:01:14

Hello. Welcome to Capelle Livechat. My name is Victor. I’m your host for today. And together with us is Mr. Larry Choi. And today we’re going to deep dive into the topic of leadership. But before we do that, let me first just introduce Larry. 

So Larry is currently the Director and CEO of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He’s also the head of the ASEAN Studies Centre and Singapore APEC Study Centre at the institute. So I want to warmly welcome you, Larry. 

So Larry I understand that when I look at your leadership journey, it’s really quite amazing. Let me just share that with our viewers. So, Larry, I know that you started your career at Singapore Armed Forces, and you held various appointments. And after that, you were Director of the Security Intelligence Division in MINDEF before you became Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Transport. And following that, you had another role, you became Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources. And after all of this and currently now, you are at Yusof Ishak Institute. 

So when I think about all this, it’s like, wow, such a journey because it’s so different in the culture, in the sectors. And as we deep dive into this topic of leadership, I want to start by asking you, how do you adapt, as a leader in all these very different sectors? Share with us some stories if you have, we’d love to hear them. 

 

Larry Choi 00:01:39:15

Well, first of all, thank you very much for the opportunity to share and to have some discussion with you, Victor. In my view, every leadership situation is different and therefore may require different approaches and also perhaps different styles. 

So, for example, one dimension is the size of the organization. So a smaller organization actually requires more personal contact, direct verbal communication. Whereas in larger organizations, that will require influence actually from a distance. Normally exerted through things like written messages or videos. And perhaps even more recently through the use of social media. 

So for me, within the Ministry of Environment, if I may talk about that. The ministry headquarters was small and all the staff were located actually just in two levels of the same building. So this made it easy for me to walk around and talk to people rather than to call them on the phone or send them an email, or some types of the communications that I wanted to make with them. I think this was not the style of my predecessor. So at first the staff were not very used to it that I would walk up to them in their cubicle. So I wanted to make them comfortable by just asking my assistant to call ahead just to tell them I’m coming over, so they have a bit of early warning. But after a while, I think the staff got used to it. And sometimes I will just walk around casually also, so that we could have sort of, almost like random discussions when I had the time to do that. So that’s for small headquarters’ staff. 

But also within the Ministry of Environment, one of the things I realized is that I also needed to do outreach to a wider group of staff outside of my headquarters, as well as also to the public. And largely, that would be through the use of social media. As a relatively more, older person, using social media was not something that came naturally to me. Taking the appropriate type of photos, including selfies, composing posts that are interesting, sharing them on my personal social media account. This was something I had to learn from scratch, usually from younger colleagues in order to be able to communicate with the wider ministry staff and also to others in the public sphere. So at first it was really most unnatural for me, but over time it flowed more easily. 

So perhaps just one more example. In Environment, I also had to adapt to giving talks to, sort of in a more casual and informal context. Whereas my public speaking in my earlier stints in Defense, and in Transport required more formal speech making and careful crafting according to the audience. My time in Environment required more engagement in smaller groups in town halls and also in events. So this required a different approach and style, which I had to gradually get used to and also to improve upon because I wasn’t used to it at the beginning either.  

I think what remains unchanged for me through all these experiences I’ve had is that people are people, wherever they work, whatever is the content of their work, and connecting with them in the best way possible is always important for a leader. 

 

Victor Seet 00:05:47:05

So I seem to hear, very common threads in these stories, and I think the last one you summed it up, I love it. It feels like that’s a leadership mindset that you have – that connecting the best way possible to people. People are people. That really came across. It’s almost through the different stories, that’s the common thread. You use that as a leadership value or a mindset, if I were to use that, to kind of help you adapt to the different contexts. At least that is kind of how I take away from your story. That seems to be something quite inspiring. Thank you for sharing that. 

And I’m wondering now, because you had to adapt constantly, maybe my assumption is you have some, you will know where, you’re going to a different sector, there will be some kind of preparation. How do you prepare yourself before moving into all these seemingly very different contexts? Share with us some stories about that. 

 

Larry Choi 00:06:52:01

Well, one thing I really believe in is knowing your stuff as a leader. So for me, myself, I had to learn many new things about the different sectors that I moved to, or even when in the same sector, new things happen in the sector. I also needed to then learn new things as well. So just maybe a few examples. 

One is, I was involved in security work in the Defense Ministry when the September 11 attacks, terrorist attacks took place in New York and Washington. And that actually changed the world, as it was, particularly in the world of security. So in order to adapt, I had to acquire new knowledge and new competencies by learning about, in that case, the deviant extremist beliefs of the Al-Qaeda group as well as their various affiliates and offshoots in our own South-East Asian region. And this really meant reading up on the history, reading up on the political context in which these deviant beliefs arose and how these groups like the Al-Qaeda came about as events happened in history. So that’s one example of learning something new. 

Similarly, when I first joined the Transport Ministry, I had a lot to learn about the past policy thinking and also the past policy decisions that led to the structure and the context of the transport scene at that time. And that was something that required going back into previous files and talking to people who were involved in those earlier decisions. So that I could really absorb, what was it that led to the current situation. Beyond that, there’s also I would say another dimension, which is to really learn the, I would say, the basics and the instincts. So that required for me to read books, some of them literally textbooks to understand about the economics of the industries. So the air transport industry, the maritime transport industry. 

 

Victor Seet 00:09:30:09

That’s a lot to read. 

 

Larry Choi 00:09:32:12

A lot to read, but there are some very good guides. And also to learn about the policies and the practices in other jurisdictions or other countries where they have faced similar problems but they may have either a similar solution or perhaps a different solution. And to just have that awareness as part of my, shall we say, my background knowledge, to be able to lead in this situation and in this sector. So in addition to that, of course, there’s always also a need to understand the ground situation, especially for public transport. It’s a very publicly, shall we say, rather sensitive issue. The public is always aware of how it is functioning and also has comments to make on it. So I started taking public transport regularly myself in order to experience it and to be able to see the perspective of the users in the system. 

 

Victor Seet 00:10:36:03

Wow. As I hear you, first thing I guess as you were sharing all the finding out about the background and reading up, that’s a lot of prep work, a lot of hard work as a leader. Sometimes that is unseen. I’m just amazed at how much someone needs to go into. That really came across even as you share a lot of the prep work is so important, the reading extensively. I just cannot imagine how many books and papers of all these things that you’ve read. 

The second thing I really was struck off is maybe the way you say it, like how you really need to go to the ground, and understand what’s happening, taking the transport yourself. That’s what I hear you say. 

So this staying in touch with the ground, could you share more, could you tell us more about that? Any stories about how that helped you to be more effective as a leader? 

 

Larry Choi 00:11:41:17

Well, Victor, as I mentioned, I started to take public transport while I was in the Ministry of Transport in order to personally experience what other commuters experience, as well as what the public transport workers, what they have to do, what they have to cope with. So I did this on both the train system, the MRT system, as well as the bus system. Quite fortunately for me, to get from my home to my office through both these train and public means, I could do so quite conveniently without having to change either train lines or bus service. So I could do it as part of my normal routine. So I would try to do this once a week if that was possible, though I must say it was not always possible because I would need to drive in the course of the day to go for meetings after having gone to my office. So that was what I had to kind of sometimes sacrifice. 

The other thing I tried to do was to attend to some public feedback myself instead of asking others to do. We get a lot of public feedback in the Ministry of Transport. So there was once when a very senior private sector executive made a complaint to me. He had my email address. So he made it directly to me, and essentially he was a bit worked up and his demand was that one of the road junction modifications that had been made by the Land Transport Authority at that time, that it be reversed, because he saw it as having adverse outcomes. And this road junction was very near to his office so he could see it from where he was working. So I took the opportunity to deal with that feedback myself. I actually replied to him personally after getting information on the situation and using that information to explain to him why the change needed to be made. And I made it a point to try to get that answer to him before the end of the day that I received the complaint from him. So I thought I should do that because like any other member of the public, if he makes a query, he makes a, perhaps even a complaint, he deserves a rapid response. 

So the next morning he wrote to me again, rather angrily. He had updated, what he himself had observed from his office and he gave additional reasons why there was a need to reverse the change in the modification of the road junction. So I decided that this was not a case where he did not understand the reasoning, but that he may have observed, how this was or was not working. And so I gave some credit to his observation and so I went down to the road junction myself to observe together with an LTA staff. And we just walked through the situation, did some observation on the ground. Through that visit, I, together with this LTA colleague, we decided to make another minor additional modification to the junction and that could be done actually just overnight, quite a simple modification and it could be done overnight. So that night they made their modification. So I wrote back to the complainant and this time after observing the additional tweak that we had made, actually he was satisfied and he did not ask to reverse the original change anymore. 

So it was a win-win in my view. What he had observed, had been addressed but the reason, the rationale for making the road modification still stood. And therefore, in that sense, the public interest was still addressed as well. 

 

Victor Seet 00:16:34:17

Such a wonderful story. You know, Larry, as you’re sharing this story, there’s just so many things that came across, and just for our viewers I’d like to summarize. 

First thing that come across is this idea of seeing from the user’s perspective. I think that’s how you treated the feedback that came across to me, it’s almost like, I think we use words like, we must know our stakeholders. And the way they see things could be very different from us. That came across, the way you, if I bring it back to your previous idea about staying in touch with the ground, seeing the perspective of the user, the stakeholder, is quite important. So that’s one thing. 

Second thing I thought quite honestly, when you were sharing is, I’m quite amazed at just this, if I would use the word, humility to just listen, the willingness to say, okay, someone complained, what can I do? That came across to me, and that’s so important as a leader. I’m trying to imagine that if I’m one of your staff working with you, it is literally like that’s a role model, of how we need to respond to feedback given. So that came across, I just wanted to share that. Quite inspiring for me. Even though this is just a story of how you stay in touch with the ground, you in a sense, in my own personal thinking is, you get your hands dirty. And you’re willing to do it. I think that’s quite inspiring. Thank you for sharing that. 

As we talk about this, it feels like, that thread is still around people, coming back to that leadership mindset and the belief you have. Is there anything else, any kind of leadership principle, if I would ask you to share with our viewers today, what they can apply? With all your years of experience, what are some nuggets that maybe we can get from you? 

 

Larry Choi 00:18:48:03

I think leadership is kind of learned. In a sense to me, I was fortunate. I had many opportunities to learn. And you learn often by making mistakes, but being humble enough to go back and learn from the mistakes and then correcting it the next time around. So if there any sort of things that I now apply, it is to really make sure that as a leader I know what my goals are, what my goals have to be. I need to be able to work out how to achieve them. And then I need to communicate those plans to different levels of co-workers, people who can make this happen together with me. So there is both an intellectual process that needs some very thorough homework, pulling together expert views to find, I would say both ambitious but also attainable set of goals and then coming up with that realistic plan to achieve it. And after that, the communication, the dissemination of that is to enable that plan to go to everyone that we need to bring on board. And that is something that cannot be too, I would say, too overlooked in the process, because it requires repeated communication at many levels and also conscious emphasis through different, different avenues because then there’s a consistency that people can register and can be part of. So I think it’s quite, in that sense, it’s quite a simple, to me, leadership is quite simple, in theory, but the actual execution requires quite a lot of work. 

 

Victor Seet 00:20:53:20

Thank you. Thank you for that. Almost as you were saying, it’s registering in me the steps, at least in theory, and I caught three things. Leaders must really know their plan well, and know their goals. Know their goals, be so clear about it and really think about how they want to get there. And I think last, when you talked about the continuous communication at different levels to get buy-in. 

As a leader myself, I often feel like the last part is sometimes the most difficult and the easiest to overlook because it’s also the most difficult; getting buy-in, and this deliberate communication process.  

Do you have any story to share with us how even despite the difficult thing to get buy-in?  

Any success story to share in terms of this aspect, you had a goal, how did you get buy-in, and there was a great outcome? Just wondering, in all your years of experience, could you share one story with us? 

 

Larry Choi 00:22:04:24

When I first joined the research institute that I work in today, I think like most, sort of more academic type institutions, our researchers used to decide on their own research plans on a more or less, a bottom-up basis based on their own understanding of what the institute’s broad goals and directions are. I felt this was not the most beneficial or effective process by which researchers and the institute could achieve what we wanted to, both, on all sides. But it was also very clear to me that this is an academic culture that is not so easy to change. 

So after grappling with this issue for a while, what I decided to do was to start a monthly meeting and to have all our research coordinators to meet together. And in this monthly meeting, we will gradually work together to improve collaboration, and also slowly change the culture. As people saw the benefits of collaboration and saw the benefit of meeting together, listening to each other and adjusting their own plans to be able to dovetail together, it gradually started to catch on. It did take some time, but I think because we persisted in this, this has already now been going on for several years. We also tweaked the format, we also tweaked the topics for our discussion when we met together for this monthly meeting as time went along so that it can sort of suit what is needed. And we have some research coordinators who are based overseas. Initially when we had these meetings, they were kind of left out because we didn’t think about any way that we could bring them in, but eventually they wanted to join and we managed to facilitate via Skype. And then later on, using the Zoom application. So of course, when the pandemic came, then everybody went on Zoom. But again, it carried on throughout the entire period. 

I think over time, this meeting has become the most productive session that we have at the institute. And it is really the nerve center for everything we do. It’s not a place where only one person talks. In fact, I would say I do the minority of the talking in this meeting, but we talk about important issues and I do of course give some feedback, but not only me, everyone would be able to listen and also to comment on each other’s work. And I think now everyone is happy to be part of it. And the reason for that is because the new process of this process, which is not new anymore, has proved to be helpful to their work. So this is, I guess, my approach sometimes if it’s a very typical, ingrained matter that we need to change, let’s just start, do it slowly and assure people as they go along, this is not something that is imposed upon them, but really something to help them, and that when we do this together, I think we will all end up being better off. 

 

Victor Seet 00:26:03:05

Wow, thank you. Actually even as you shared, I just felt like this is really quite inspiring because it seems like a very long, arduous process. But as you shared, I can almost feel like, wow, it’s very satisfying – you put in so much hard work and then suddenly, not suddenly, but over time, people’s voices started to come in. It’s almost as if it became more inclusive and in your own words, you speak, actually, you don’t speak a lot and other voices begin to come in, and there’s a lot more collaboration, and it’s a new culture that you’ve set. Thank you for sharing this. 

Because I guess sometimes we want results fast, getting buy-in could be really a matter of persisting and giving voices to people and setting a new culture. And I want to say that I believe also part of your calming disposition, you come across that way, you are willing to let people have voices and that was something also that came across as you shared your story. Thank you so much Larry for sharing that. 

So viewers, I thought that this is a very short but very important, wonderful deep dive as we hear from Larry about his journey, his story of leadership. We hope that you are inspired. So that’s all to today’s Capelle’s Livechat, and stay tuned as there’s more to come.

 

 

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