Yue Fei Statue in West Lake, Hangzhou

On Loyalty

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Loyalty is an under-valued virtue in the times of today. Yet it has helped me navigate the difficulties over the course of my career. In this essay, I explain why the virtue of loyalty is important to me and how I have incorporated the value into my tours of duty in my career. 

When I was growing up, the common narrative that I have heard from my father and people in his generation was that they were prepared to work for life in the same company. My father was working to achieve the aspirations of the middle class, having a stable job and ensuring that I have enough education such that I will live a better life. In the 1970s to 1980s, there were very few choices for my father. Singapore was starting its journey as a manufacturing economy and subsequently evolving towards a knowledge based economy.

There was one achievement from my father that I could never reach in my life. My father worked in the same company for 50 years, and retired at 68. That means that he started at 18 only with a primary school education. I knew of this because I saw a photo he showed me receiving the award from his company in his final year. That was the only time which he told me about his achievement. He was a humble man and I often felt that I fell short of. He knew the owners of the family business from father to son. I am proud of my father for his loyalty and will never be able to do the same for any company which I work for. Yet, I believe and think that there is something to be said and lessons to be learnt about what my father has managed to do. Loyalty is a virtue within the Chinese culture and I grew up with many stories in Chinese history how loyalty can be a virtue and a liability at the same time.

Unlike my father, I never envision my path as an employee working for many years in a company. The times I was living in were drastically different from the environment which my father was operating in. First, a knowledge based economy is rapidly changing and any business can be disrupted very quickly. I remembered that engineering was the course which the Singapore government were advocating in 1980s, and many of my peers went into engineering, only to be disappointed what they were eventually doing. Maybe I was lucky to grow up with a view that the only way to survive is to be ahead of the curve, and work on things that will become important in a few years later. It helped me to navigate my own career despite all the difficulties I have endured in the process.

Second, we do not have the luxury to be able to stay in a company for long. Unlike family businesses that may have a longer term view, most businesses were professionally run with the turnover of executive leadership happening once every three to five years. Any individual who has found purpose in his or her work within a conducive environment for those three to five years, may discover a drastic change in environment that ended their motivation to stay longer. I long held this view that people do not leave companies because of compensation, but the work environment and know the value of how your contribution will advance the company’s mission and vision further.

Third, technology and cultural changes also made it difficult for people to stay long in their jobs. By the time when I started my studies in the University, the media started advocating that any graduate in the next few years will discover that their average life span in a company is about three to five years.

Here’s how I have incorporated this virtue in my life which I feel that it’s the most important thing I have learned from my father. I have an entrepreneurial spirit. An environment or changing circumstance can take a man off from being an entrepreneur but can never take away the entrepreneur off the man. From startup to corporate life, I have adopted an approach that every job I take is a tour of duty similar to how soldiers in the military do in the course of their career, similar to what Reid Hoffman, Chris Yeh and Ben Casnocha described in their book “The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age“. Where I differ from the approach that the authors advocate in their book, is that I embedded loyalty into their framework.

I will tell a story in how my father’s loyalty helped me in gaining trust with the people operating in the front line of the business. During my tenure in SingPost, I was leading a small team of 15 as the head of the digital services, and was eventually asked to take over the post office business (which is their retail footprint) that shifted me from managing a very small team to a very large team of a few hundred people. I have to understand different business lines and the front line operations. Most of the people in the post office were front line service ambassadors and branch managers who were similar to my father and they have worked in the company for a very long time. Upon the announcement of my role, I was asked to give a short speech to the managers and also to some frontline staff who were there. At that point, given that I am heading digital transformation, they have fears that their jobs would be automated away. Hence it would be difficult to start the conversation with what I was specialized in. Instead upon quick reflection and thinking on the fly, I adopted a different approach. I started the short speech by telling the story of my father who have worked in the same company for fifty years, and told those in the frontline that I appreciate their loyalty to the organization. I added that I shared their aspirations to want to work and build a better life for their children, who I happened to be lucky and did well in my career. My position is that I will do my best to upgrade their environment with technology and ask them to learn technology at the same time so that they will be relevant for their work. What I learned after the feedback from human resources, is that they took it very well and was open to work with me. Over the two years, I spent my time working to improve their work conditions to the best of my ability and at the same time, work out what it would look like for them so that technology do not displace their jobs. Even though I have left the role because of my own career aspirations, I have maintained great relations with the frontline staff. From time to time when I visit any post office in Singapore, the staff will recognize and speak to me as if I am an old friend.

Loyalty is an under-valued virtue which many businesses do not value today. In any corporation I joined and worked for, I often take the view that I should respect and learn from the people who have been there for a long time. Where it really helps, is that they are able to give you advice and tips in how to work thru the environment. 

It is important to be aligned with the values and culture of the company you work for. Of course, your ethical backbone is part of how you build your own career. In every corporate role I have worked for, I stay loyal to the company after I have left. As a consequence of staying loyal to the company I work for previously, I often avoided to join another company in the same industry. That explained why I have worked in the postal, ecommerce logistics, aviation and now cloud computing. As a result, I paid the price for not being specialized in one industry. I see it differently from people who think that way. In fact, having worked in different industries, it gave me the perspectives which will become useful if I become a CEO someday. Last but not least I retain the fond memories I have for the company, whether the role has worked out or not worked for me. Loyalty often allows me to part with amicable circumstances and I do not want to burn bridges in the process. Loyalty has grounded me in a way and offers me insights from time to time in how I take an empathic approach to how I lead and manage people.

Story behind the picture: I took the picture of general Yue Fei, a well-known military leader known for his loyalty in the West Lake, Hangzhou, China. His story has a tragic twist where he was executed for the very same loyalty he has for his king who ordered him to death.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist

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