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Leadership, skills development key to growth of emerging enterprises

In a time of disruption, diversity and digital revolution, bosses need to be decisive, dexterous and display good team-building abilities

Deborah Heng says great leadership should stem from one's ability to think beyond the present, to have a long-term vision.

Sovann Giang says focus should be on skills acquisition, rather than skills development, especially in the early growth phase.

Desh Balakrishnan says emerging enterprises need a clear talent management strategy incorporating skills development.

Christophane Foo says good leaders bring in the right talent. Leadership should be seen to be demonstrated at every staff level.

Mark Roberts says the traditional command-and-control style doesn't work when adaptability and flexibility are what's needed.

The Business Times posed five questions on leadership and skills development to five industry leaders:

  • Deborah Heng, country manager, Mastercard Singapore;
  • Sovann Giang, senior director, RSM;
  • Desh Balakrishnan, managing director, Maxus;
  • Christophane Foo, executive director, human capital division, SPRING Singapore;
  • Mark Roberts, associate dean - executive education, INSEAD.

Here are their answers:

1. How important is leadership for emerging enterprises in Singapore?

Deborah Heng: Great leadership is integral to any organisation's success, regardless of size. The difference between good leadership and great leadership is the ability to progress from the operational level to the strategic level.

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Sovann Giang: Leadership is the brain of the company. In the start-up and emerging years, leadership is often centred on the behaviours and immediate actions of the founder. Leadership and decision making are largely informal and seen more as a set of corporate habits and behaviours.

Desh Balakrishnan: It is key and fundamental as it defines the way the company is managed. The company's survival, growth and expansion rest on it. With strong leadership, a company can chart its own course of action in the face of challenges and still stay true to its core fundamentals.

Christophane Foo: Deloitte's 2016 Global Human Talent Capital Trends ranked leadership as one of the most pressing talent challenges today. Great leadership is consistently at the forefront as the key driver for growth innovation and sustainability in any enterprise. Today you must have high performing leaders with different skills and expertise to cope with rapid technology and economic changes and to manage a diverse workforce.

Mark Roberts: Leadership is critical in the management of any organisation. But in emerging enterprises, each stage of its lifecycle brings different challenges and opportunities. So emerging enterprises require visionary leaders who have the flexibility to evolve and develop with their organisation, adapting their style to each stage of growth.

During the initial stages, leaders typically must adopt an agile and collaborative approach, mobilising workers' talents and expertise in a flexible, creative and highly dynamic way.

2. Where should leadership come from?

Deborah: Great leadership should stem from one's ability to think beyond the present, to have a long-term vision of where he or she would like to see the establishment going. Leadership can also be honed and developed based on learnings from one's experiences or from other leaders' success stories as motivation to do better.

Sovann: Leadership is nurtured through experiences and challenges; it is not learnt from a textbook nor accorded through certificates, awards or titles. The dynamic and volatile space that many of our emerging companies thrive in requires true leadership in the founder.

As a business expands, the leadership structure needs to be broadened. Many bring in executive directors to give focus to certain aspects of the growing business model. It is also common to start appointing independent directors to serve as advisers and provide an objective check and balance on the strategic directions and decisions proposed by the CEO.

Desh: Leadership should come from the founders of the company and the key senior staff responsible for business growth, talent, technology, finance and R&D - the core functions.

Christophane: It will be too much for the leader if leadership comes only from the top. Good leaders will bring in the right talent and build the team wisely. Leadership should be seen to be demonstrated at every staff level.

Mark: Most effective leaders are those who understand themselves, have the confidence to know where they are strong and weak - and then use that knowledge to develop themselves as they steadily build and encourage the right team around them. That is particularly relevant in leading emerging enterprises, most of which are looking to grow organically through improved productivity and effectiveness, rather than through large-scale recruitment or buying in specialised talent.

3. What kind of leadership is needed for emerging enterprises? Do we have it in Singapore?

Deborah: The ability to be a navigator as well as a motivator. A great leader needs to clearly and swiftly work through the complexity of business issues, stay resourceful as well as leverage potential business opportunities. At the same time, an effective leader must be capable; to build passion and motivate the employees.

There are definitely talented individuals in Singapore who possess the necessary skillset. However, it is important to also have the appropriate learning opportunities to develop these skills and help these individuals fully realise their potential for business leadership and entrepreneurship.

Sovann: Leadership needs:

1) Intense passion for the business and an insatiable desire to succeed whatever the odds.

2) Ability to handle business crisis.

3) Courage to make big decisions and take responsibility for the outcome.

In a world in which unicorns and disruptors are worshipped, the leaders of emerging enterprises must never abandon their basic moral values and social principles. They must always be tuned to their "true north" and know what is the right thing to do when it comes to customers, stakeholders and employees.

Desh: Collective leadership, where members of the team have a strong focus on technology and are passionate about the business they run. This kind of leadership is currently emerging in all the start-ups and scale-ups in Singapore as well as in the rest of Asia.

Christophane: Every enterprise has its own leadership philosophy which is very much shaped by the founding teams. The ones that impress often are bold and see technological disruption as necessary for progress and therefore make plans to transform their business at an early phase. Many have ventured overseas to expand their base and gain competences in developing partnerships and new markets. And the most impressive ones have a people strategy along with business strategy.

Do we have it here? Yes. Do we have enough? Not with people strategy. When leaders are not able to attract talent, they should start asking themselves if they have looked into building a strong employee value proposition. Are they providing good career opportunities and rewarding adequately?

Mark: Leaders who are prepared for the challenges of today's volatile business landscape, leaders who can create a collaborative environment. The traditional command-and-control leadership style doesn't work when adaptability and flexibility are the key drivers of success. Leaders need to create organisational cultures that embrace experimentation and innovation and that are agile enough to respond a fast-changing environment.

4. Skills Development? How important is it for emerging enterprises here?

Deborah: Skills development is vital. With the ever-changing technological landscape as well as the rate of globalisation, it is imperative for people to refresh their capabilities and learn the skills that will be relevant and needed in the years to come.

Sovann: Emerging enterprises need to be more concerned with skills acquisition than skills development, especially in the early growth phase.They must identify talent which can grow with the business in the long run. This means looking for employees who are problem solvers, skilled in churning and analysing data and have real insights and act on opportunities.

Desh: It's critical in today's digital economy which is driven largely by technology. Indeed, talent management is now also very much about skills development. It's imperative that all emerging enterprises have a clearly defined talent management strategy which incorporates a skills development programme.

Christophane: Skills development is extremely important in this age of technological disruption and skills shortage.

Mark: Leaders must develop new skills and self-awareness to influence and inspire those around them. And in an increasingly international business environment, leaders must be able to adapt their skills and self-awareness to lead across cultures and borders and to stay relevant in a fast changing environment. Leadership skills development programmes can play a key role in shortening inevitable learning curves.

5. What kind of skills are especially needed?

Deborah: Strategic foresight is a critical leadership competency, alongside the skill to tap on resources and build the right partner networks to accomplish goals. The education system is evolving, and can provide these skillsets for young and driven entrepreneurs who are typically motivated to learn and uncover solutions to problems.

Sovann: The most important is the skill to stay agile and relevant and to embrace change. Also, to beat the competition, you have to learn to keep an open mind and go global to create your own market niche.

Desh: Skills that are needed for a digital economy: You need a chief technology officer who's not only skilled in tracking how technology is transforming the way business is run, but is also able to embrace and use technology to grow the business. You need a chief marketing officer who can promote the company's products and services and build its brand at the same time. You need a chief talent officer to identify, grow and retain talent in the company. And you need a data scientist to provide leadership in mining the mountain of data and information available today to help grow the business.

Christophane: You need skills in e-commerce, digital proficiency and soft skills such as strong initiative, resilience and high emotional intelligence. A 2016 SMU study revealed soft skills are lacking in many economies, including Singapore. Interpersonal and social skills are essential lifetime skills that employees can use anywhere they go.

Mark: First-time leaders in emerging enterprises can benefit from programmes that can help them transition from being great individual contributors to being a leader of others. Equally important are programmes that can offer guidance and tools to develop personal negotiation style or bridge the difficult gap between developing strategy and its real-life execution.

More senior executives constantly need to invest in their leadership capability in order to develop their strategic thinking and reflect in structured ways about how they exercise judgment at important decision points in their lives and career. In parallel, they need to improve their understanding of their leadership style, its roots and its effects on them and others.