Hi! Managers: Wisdom from senior Thai business leaders

Economy May 23, 2012 00:00

By Jean-Francois Cousin

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In our series of interviews with inspiring leaders in this country, meet our first Thai guest, Chroong Kanjchanapoomi, managing director of Akzo Nobel Paints in Thailand. With operations in more than 80 countries and 55,000 employees, Akzo Nobel is the la

When it comes to leadership, what are you passionate about?

The very competitive nature of leadership gives me the buzz! I like to draw analogies between running a business and managing, coaching and leading a football club to success. As a coach – in business as in football – you unearth talent, develop players, help them reach their ultimate potential and, hopefully, they become stars along the way. And you work to make the team gel. Those are the fun parts of leadership for me.

It is important to understand that being a coach, or a manager, does not give you the right to tell your players to do anything, particularly when your team has lots of veterans. An example, which you may recall, happened with the coach of the French national team in the previous World Cup in South Africa and is a clear illustration of wrongly managing senior players. Some of the very experienced guys have seen many coaches, and could feel they were much better than their coach at knowing what to do. The veterans rebelled against him, and the outcome made history… as the team severely underperformed. It was a pity because the talents were all there, with players who are superstars in their professional leagues!

--What should leaders do most, to inspire their people?Three things:

1 Most great leaders I have come across are superb communicators, and speak in very simple terms, no jargon, no technicalities

2 Always explain your logic and thinking in a simple way. To inspire your people, have them understand, believe and buy into your ideas first; if they do, they’ll go all the way with you.

3 Listen and empathise, be genuine, not fake! Some people fake and that turns others off. You can’t be arrogant and pretend you know it all: collectively, the team is smarter than you. “None of us is as smart as all of us”, as a boss of mine said. So listen and believe that something important can pop-up from every conversation.

--What were defining moments in your growth as a leader?

The first one was in 2001 when I was appointed the chief executive of Shell Autoserv, a car-servicing fast-fit retail business. I had done a lot of strategic thinking in my previous jobs, and could occasionally be labelled as “too strategic”, “thinking like a consultant”, “head in the clouds”…. So being given the operational responsibility of 60 retail branches and 900 people was really a great jump for me… And – funny enough – some people now say I am too operational, not strategic enough! 

The second defining moment was my first year here, as managing director of Akzo Nobel, formerly known as ICI Paints. I took on a very good business, with opportunities to accelerate its growth and make it an even better one. I had to refine performance-management, in a context where my people knew a lot more about the paints category than me. It was very similar to being a coach in his first year with a new team: making hard choices about buying new players, promoting from the “academy” and selling some veterans. Making choices about people are the toughest decisions. You must do it objectively and in a compassionate way.

--What did you learn from your toughest challenges so far?

The two economic crises in Thailand, in 1997 and 2009, were tough enough! In 1997, I was running a start-up, innovative “loyalty agency” (a multi-party programme called ‘Smart Bonus’, where customers can collect points by shopping at different stores) and we had to fight for survival. I learnt that cash is king, more than anything else.

Another lesson I got is that when you have to turn around an under-performing business, you have to cut your losses – through both assets and people –, as difficult as this may be. And you have to lead by engaging people, take them with you, inspire them, communicate in simple terms – face-to-face, not through emails! Fancy strategies are not enough.

--What advice would you like to give to managers?

To Thais working in a multinational company, I advise you to learn how to blend-in your Thainess with the corporate culture; integrate Western objectivity and assertiveness with Thai harmony, seniority and diplomacy. Worry less about your face, and you will be very successful. Don’t become too Western, or your fellow Thais will think of you differently; don’t remain “too Thai” either.

For foreigners, all the same: learn how to blend-in your own culture and values with the local ones. Don’t attempt to change a country’s culture.

--What are the top-three skills you would advice managers to excel at?

1 Have a core functional discipline, where you grow from strength to strength (in analogy with a being a superb striker, winger, midfielder or a defender in football!), so that coaches and players recognise you as valuable. For me, it is finance, the “language of business” which is my personal bias.

2 Develop influencing skills, upwards, sideways and downwards. We all find out that the more we move up, the more we have to influence upwards and sideways.

3 Grow coaching skills, to get the best out of people around you. Listen, ask questions and have people come up with answers themselves. That’s extremely important when you are leader, because you cannot be the best at every job and your people are not necessarily the smartest, yet you must get the best out of them.

Jean-Francois Cousin is an accredited executive coach (www.1-2-win.net) and the former managing director of a Fortune-500 company in Thailand. Follow his articles in Hi! Managers every fourth Wednesday of the month.