The Challenges of Moving versus Traveling

I’m in the midst of moving house here in SG. Even though this is my fourth time in four years, and I actually have lots of help this time (none in the past), I am not looking forward to it. For one, I love where I’m staying now, and am unsure about the level of comfort in my next place, and I’m also a little weary from the moves. Maybe its age…

That said, I’m still an avid (well, kinda outta practice) backpacker and low budget traveler, and have been so for the past 15 years. Often a single pack can last me through six (6)-nine (9) months…so why is a single move harder than an eternal move (backpacking)?

I thought about that for a while too, and after some rumination, I came up with the following:

  • Backpacking requires very little stuff, Being a CEO in Asia needs lots of nice stuff: When I first got to Singapore, I had 1.5 suitcases of stuff…and it covered everything from clothes and shoes to linens. However, it quickly became obvious that it simply wouldn’t do…I needed more clothes and stuff. For example, my backpacker sandals (keen newports) and flipflops were simply not enough anymore. I needed more grown up shoes, and clothes, and perfume, and grooming products that I had never cared to have before. The result is an extra suitcase of clothes and shoes.

credit: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/1461510/thumbs/o-BUSINESS-LOOKING-AT-WATCH-facebook.jpg

  • Backpackers have flexible schedules; Full time workers don’t and live on a good night’s sleep: In my capacity as a full-time worker and CEO, I  absolutely need a good night’s sleep. For 2.5 years, I survived on the mattresses that were provided to me wherever I went (similar to when I traveled), but my sleep was disturbed and I had frequent backaches, and I never had the schedule to allow me to sleep in. When I finally took as CEO, my reliability and availability in the office was NOT negotiable. I finally bit the bullet and bought a bed. So now I lug a queen-size bed around, as opposed to a sleeping bag and a pad, with every move. And with it come sheets, pillows and comfortable linens. You get the picture.

credit: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-BgfBggDC6k8/TtfIrbT384I/AAAAAAAABU8/xNEfVkG_LO0/s1600/planetbox.png

  • Backpackers can chill out in their eating timing, places and food types; Full-time workers need disciplined eating: In most of the places I lived in or passed through in the past, I could survive on anything that was provided to me so long as it was vegetarian. I rarely stayed too long in a place, so even if the food wasn’t great there, you could move on to a place where the food might be better, or atleast your options were different. As a full-time worker, you are more settled, you can’t afford to get sick from what you eat, and you have to maintain a schedule and discipline in your eating to be effective at work and in life. More than anything else, this lesson took me the LONGEST time to learn and come to terms with. But once I did, my health improved dramatically. This also translated into needing to lug around a whole heap of things I didn’t care to before…cups, plates, mugs, utensils, pots/pans, spices, ingredients…you name it! And you had to buy things in sets because you had the added pressure of entertaining. Now I have atleast 2-3 boxes of kitchen ware.

That’s how after four years, I have gone from 1.5 suitcases to 4 suitcases, 2 boxes, and a bed!!

 

Why I take a month-long break every year, while the rest of the company works

Taking a break to contemplate life and your place in it, along with your work can greatly benefit you and your company (photocredit: http://marketingdeviant.com/)

The more recent pause in posts has been because I took a four-week break from work and headed home to the US where I am from. I hadn’t seen my family in a year and missed them horribly. This “long break” was a clause that I had negotiated with the owners when they brought me on board (they offered me a low salary, so I needed other perks to make up for it): I needed a month off every year (unpaid), even while the company worked. Some people would say that it is both selfish and stupid, but for the company and myself (both as a leader and as a person), it has been invaluable.

Here’s how both I and the company have benefitted on the personal side:

  • It rewards and refreshes the mind, body and soul in a VERY necessary way: Good leadership is ultimately backbreaking servitude. My hours are long and, often, thankless, and leadership is extraordinarily lonely. This is not by choice. It just comes with the job (not asking for pity…I signed up knowingly). As you go up the chain-of-command in a company, you have fewer and fewer peers whom you can talk to and confide in. Many things are confidential, and you deal with much more “heavy” material – cases that no one else wants to touch, things that no one wants to (or can) take responsibility for, and in many cases, jobs that require a skillset that only you might have. This eats into your energy and time in a way I can’t express. Without a family or support system at home (or in the office) to balance things out, it slowly eats away at your system. This is why most CEOs are compensated so highly (sometimes I think its a bit much and unnecessary). I think its so that they can have the other perks to balance out the heat of the job. In my case, I get none of those perks, including pay. And I have no family and few friends (partially because the hours are so long and partially because I don’t really fit in here). My burnout rate is consequently, very high. These breaks keep me healthy, and consequently the company healthy and on the right path.
  • Mental and Emotional Rejuvenation Fuel Necessary Depth of Thought: The reason I need such a long break is because I need to be charged up physically, mentally, and emotionally. It usually takes a week for me to get physically recharged (mostly with good food and sleep); but it takes longer to get mentally and emotionally recharged. When the brain tires, creativity declines, and my greatest asset in my current position is to be creative when everyone else is not; and in a capacity that other people cannot be. As CEO, I am responsible for strategic planning and execution, overall problem analysis, goal orientation and direction. I have to both think out the goals at a company, department and individual level, and then figure out a way to get there, and then motivate my team to move in that direction. If they don’t see it, its my fault. If the company or department or individual is stuck, its ultimately my job to find a solution (either through or outside my team) and then move towards executing it. This is not physical strength, but mental and emotional strength, and this is what fuels creativity and depth of thought.

The break, for example, is what fueled the space to collect and write down my thoughts, and start blogging again. Similar to a cow chewing the cud, the break allowed for a lot of things that I had mentally filed away when I was triaging a specific case to come back and sift through. I am able to see things much clearer as a result…things that were done right or wrong, things that needed to be fixed or done better, holes that are still left and leaking within the company. It all comes back in moments of quiet, and it allows tremendous depth of thought and much more efficient action. I grow a lot in those moments, as does my skillset, and this makes the whole company grow as a result. My brain floods with ideas; problems I have long been contemplating suddenly have solutions. Its really exciting, and counterintuitive, but I often find I do my greatest work when I am on “holiday.” And its because I’m allowed the space to think deeply.

Here’s why on the company side:

  • It builds resilience in the firm: As the ultimate servant, people can get a little too dependent on you to do things that they can probably do themselves. So when I’m gone and my contact with them is curbed, it forces them to grow and step up in ways they haven’t before. I often come back to see depth of thought on the part of many members of my team, lots more questions and answers, eagerness to learn and grow, and greater levels of confidence. Its a beautiful thing to see.
  • Performance is glaringly obvious: Conversely, I’m also able to see the “holes” in my team, company strategy or structure, communication, etc. Based on this, I know how well we have been performing, how much more I can push my team and the company. At an individual level, I can see who all have grown as individuals or team players, and who haven’t…who fit in the company and who don’t. Everything becomes much more obvious.

This time, for example, I knew that we were doing good as a team, and company when I got back, and it was incredibly affirming.

Last year (eight months after I took over as CEO) when I got back from my break, I had a long line of people (juniors, seniors, and upper management, including the owners) waiting with a list of complaints of things to fix. I could see that while we had made a lot of progress in the first eight months, there were still LOTS of things to do. Had it not been for the break, I probably would have been overwhelmed and unable to sieve through the chaos. But it was soon glaringly obvious to me that there were still LOTS of HR issues. Communication and team-building, as well as the need for mature design leadership emerged as the key problems that I needed to solve. These became my priorities, and I only realized the results when I came back this time.

In contrast to last year, when I got back this year, the line of people to see me were mostly seniors (not the juniors or upper management as last year) and their lists were mostly happy/proud updating, and any key resources or things they needed from me in order to move forward. I could see that they had thought deeper about things, stepped up better, and that the team was MUCH stronger. Confidence levels were higher. Work was moving forward at a rapid pace. Most people were communicating and resolving differences between themselves. It was quite affirming…I knew we had done good over the past year, and it was time to move forward with the next phase of growth…time for me to step up yet again.

For those who ask how things had changed in the first eight months, and how I gauged progress there, here’s something for you. When I first got there at Month #1, only the owners showed up with a long list of complaints of things to fix. No one else wanted to talk to me or have anything to do with me. It took me several months to gain everyone’s trust and get them highlighting their biggest issues. The issues were at a fundamental, extremely critical level…there was a lack of vision, mission, core values, goals, and a complete lack of accountability; which I immediately set about fixing and implementing before I went on break. So the fact that everyone showed up to complain to me with a long list, was in and of itself a big achievement and showcased trust. Their complaints had also shifted from fundamental issues with the company to team-related issues they had with each other –  a HUGE shift (you want complaints to move from being heavily substantive to more trivial issues). Hence I knew we had progressed, but there was still great chaos in other respects.

In conclusion, I think these breaks are invaluable in multiple ways, and hopefully you might take this to heart in terms of your own productivity and that of the company’s.

And this is why I will hopefully continue to take long breaks while my company works.

The Bargaining Power of a Good Employee

What has become extremely obvious to me in the position of CEO, is that I spend a heck of a lot of time on HR. We don’t have a dedicated HR person, which might have something to do with it, but I do believe that a LOT of being a CEO is knowing your people well, and working closely with them to make the magic happen in the office. That’s generally the role of any manager, but as CEO, you are the ultimate manager (or ultimate servant, depending on how you see it).

Here’s a secret that most employees don’t understand. If you are a really good employee, most employers will do just about anything (within reason) to keep you.

Good employees have incredible bargaining power, so long as they stay in reason and know their worth. (credit: BusinessInsider)

What constitutes a “good employee”?? Simple…have a good attitude and fulfill the mandates of your role really well (become indispensable to your company in your role). What makes you negotiable is knowing your worth and being reasonable within that. The key is again, to be reasonable. I know too many employees who get ahead of themselves, think they are more important than they really are, make the employer dance to their tunes, and then are shocked when the employer pulls out. No one (not even Steve Jobs!) is that invaluable to a company. Know your worth and stay within reason. 

White House CTO, Todd Park (image credit: fedscoop.com)

Todd Park, CTO of the White House (a new job in and of itself), showed that recently. Even he needed to walk away from a dream job that was literally changing and having a huge impact on the world. Rumor has it that his wife supposedly gave him an ultimatum – family (in Silicon Valley) or job (in DC). He chose family, and walked away. But he was such a good employee, that even the President of the United States worked around his needs. So now for the first time ever, the CTO will be working from Silicon Valley. Does this mean even the White House will have tele-commuters? How will this change the future of our governing officers? Definitely something to think about…but the key again is that good employees often have a lot more power than they think they do.

Its not about how bad you mess up, but how hard you work to fix it!

After a long year away, I’m finally back home for a much-needed break.

Yesterday in my zeal for doing the family’s laundry and saving the planet, I happened to hang a bunch of clothes outside to dry as opposed to using our dryer. My parents were initially against the idea (there were far too many clothes for the outside rack to handle), but relented after I made a logical argument.

They were right (as always). There were more clothes than space on the drying rack or indeed any obvious line, so I decided to make use of the ample garden space and hang some clothes on the branches of some of the larger and well-established bushes in our garden. One of the bushes I used was a seemingly sturdy plumeria in full bloom, and I hung a single T-shirt on its branches…which seemed to hardly alter it. Or so it seemed…

Twenty minutes after I left, when a gust of wind came through, the seemingly large, and unwieldy branch that held the shirt came crashing down and took down another large flowering branch with it. My dad and mom who take such pride in their garden came running out to see what the noise was. They didn’t see the T-shirt, and were standing around puzzled, when I came by. For several minutes, I teased with the idea of covering up my tracks (acting like I had no clue either), but that idea went away quickly when my dad finally saw the offending T-shirt and stared me down. They said nothing, but I knew what they were thinking. Dad went inside to get a drink of water before attempting the clean up.

While he was gone, I set about fixing the mess I created. I apologized to the tree, removed the offending T-shirt and placed it in a safer location to dry, then proceeded to clean up the mess and fix it as best I could. In a few minutes, I pulled out all the flowering buds and flowers and had them in a vase; the fallen branches were cut down and put into the composting bin, and the main trunk was bandaged where it had been badly bruised from the branches being ripped off. I even pruned the rest of the bush to ensure the wind wouldn’t injure it further. The floor was then cleaned, and the place looked as good as new.

credit: backyardnature.net

When dad returned a few minutes later, he was surprised to see everything back in order so quickly. I looked him in the eye, apologized and walked away. I could be wrong, but I saw a glimmer of pride in my dad’s eye as I walked away, probably from having raised me right. No more was said about the incident, and that was that.

What I’ve learned over the years is that its not so much screwing up that matters, but how you set about fixing it that matters. We ALL screw up (people who don’t understand that are NOT the norm), and sometimes we screw up badly. What matters more is how you deal with the situation…take responsibility and set about fixing it. That’s the key to being forgiven and moving on.

Ten Books that Made an Impression

There is a chain going around Facebook (FB) that I’ve been tagged in a few times already. It asks the question about the top books that you dote on. Rather than answer it there, I’m answering it once here and then getting the link out. It just seemed more efficient.

This is a HARD HARD question to answer because I’ve gone through different phases in my life when different books became more important. For example, as a child, I loved anything that Enid Blyton wrote. I grew up on her. As a teenager, I became obsessed with the Scarlet Pimpernel (I still think they’ve not made a good enough movie to reflect the story). And in adulthood, I went through a phase when I read/watched anything I could about Lincoln, and similarly later with stalwarts like Ernest Shackleton, Darwin, and Gandhi, to more recent entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, and Steve Jobs. I also get obsessed with specific management principles or thinking and read everything I can about them. So perhaps I’ll tweak it to just answer ten books that come to mind that left a big impression on me, in no order:

Tuesdays with Morrie (image courtesy: wikimedia.org)

Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom: Honestly, one of the simplest and most important guides on how to live life. This was the first book that made me bawl my eyes out and stayed with me in a deep, deep way. It has become a bible of sorts for me (Similar titles: The Little Prince, The Last Lecture, The Alchemist).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (image courtesy: icollector.com)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl: As a child, I felt this book (along with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) spoke to me in a way that no other book could. I had a wild imagination that no one seemed to understand or truly appreciate until I read this book and felt tremendous validation. It felt like someone finally saw into the deepest recesses of my imagination and made it ok. (Similar titles: Charlotte’s Web, and anything Enid Blyton wrote).

The Harry Potter Septology (courtesy: Harleysville Books.com)

The Harry Potter Series (if pushed, I would say Books 3, 6, and 7), by JK Rowling: Like all adults, I lost touch with my imagination until this series came along, and gripped me in its world. It taught me about the loneliness and price of fame, the burden of leadership, and validated the importance of family and true friends. I still read it often because of its deep wisdom in a magical world.

Good to Great (image courtesy: Wikimedia)

Good to Great, by Jim Collins: One of my bibles in the field of management, and one that I have referred to constantly when I am doing strategic thinking in the workplace. Exhaustively researched, this book presents five principles gleaned from hard data and factual evidence for turning ordinary organizations into extraordinary organizations. (Similar titles: other Jim Collins books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Anything by Peter Drucker and Malcolm Gladwell).

A Sense of the World (Image courtesy: Harper Collins)

A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts: Honestly one of the most extraordinary biographies I have read. This is the true story of a blind man who lived an extraordinary life…”known simply as the Blind Traveler — a solitary, sightless adventurer who [came from obscurity and poverty to serve in the Royal Navy and be Knighted], fought the slave trade in Africa, survived frozen captivity in Siberia, hunted rogue elephants in Ceylon, and helped chart the Australian outback.” A minor celebrity in his time, he also possessed an extraordinary sense of humor and was an inspiration to Charles Darwin. I was really inspired by James Holman’s story, and it showed me that you didn’t have to be famous or wealthy to lead an interesting life, and that nothing was beyond your reach if you wanted something. Really left an impact on me because of how unexpected, amazing and inspiring a story it was.

Autobiography of Yogi (courtesy: Amazon.com)

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahamsa Yogananda: Always interested in the lives of monks, and religious philosophy (regardless of denomination), I was moved and enchanted by the stories and experiences of a young man as he traveled throughout India in his search for The Truth, and becoming a monk. There is deep wisdom in this book. (similar titles: too many to name, anything by Yogananda, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rumi, etc)

The Scarlet Pimpernel (image courtesy: manofthehourmag.com)

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy : As a teenager, this story had a big impact on me. It was my first textbook on strategy, and taught me about the importance of being self-confident and knowing your worth, and the strength that lay in being underestimated. (Similar titles: The Count of Monte Cristo)

McMafia (image courtesy: amazon.com)

McMafia by Misha Glenny: This is a random book to throw in the middle of this pile, but it stayed with me because it opened my eyes to a whole new (under)world that I didn’t even know existed; and educated me on its intricacies…how powerful it was and how it interconnected with so many other things. Its what got me very interested in informal economies, and it all proved to be particularly useful in terms of background information when I started to work in slum and rural areas in emerging markets later. FASCINATING and highly educational.

The Places in Between (image courtesy: thecaptivereader.com)

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart: This travelogue captures Rory Stewart’s walk across Afghanistan, shortly after 9/11 and the American occupation, following in the footsteps of Babur the great Uzbek Prince who would forge a path into India and establish the Mughal Empire. Not only was I impressed by young Rory’s courage and fortitude, I was also intrigued by the juxtapose of ancient and modern history at such a tumultuous time. It further fueled my desire to attempt atleast one long distance hike or trail in my lifetime. Besides being educational and eye-opening, it changed how I saw long-distance travel in its simplicity and accessibility.

This is stupid, but I’d like to keep #10 open and dedicated to several books that should be on the list and didn’t make it….either because I couldn’t remember them, or I haven’t read them yet.