Publication: Singapore @ Heart
For: National Population and Talent Division Singapore
Issue: Jul-Sept 2014
THE GLOBAL CITIZEN
An absolute pleasure to speak with, Chandran Nair gives us fresh and intriguing perspectives on Singapore and the rest of the world, on relationships and life. The world has no borders — at least not for Chandran.
There could not be a better phrase to describe Chandran Nair; he lived and worked in six different countries before settling down with his wife in culturally diverse Singapore. Now based here, Chandran is the managing director of National Instruments for Southeast Asia, a fast-growing company that specialises in creating intellectual property for local businesses and providing technological tools that companies require for testing their systems. Today, National Instruments is also known for its people-centric work culture, which focuses on creating value for all its employees and nurturing local talents. Chandran shares with us howthat National Instruments prides itself on creating value for engineers and scientists with equal emphasis on nurturing the local talent pool.
Having joined the company in 1997 right after he obtained his master’s degree from the Arizona State University, Chandran has been integral to the growth of National Instruments. He started off as a member in an applications engineering team in the United States. Later, the hardware product he was tasked to manage became the largest product line for the company. The enterprising worker then began looking for new learning experiences, particularly in running a business. His bosses suggested that he explore business experiences within the company in Southeast Asia, and so he did. “It was initially supposed to be a three-year stint in Singapore but I never left!” he laughs.
The Inclusive Leader
Chandran’s easygoing demeanour belies his position in the top management of a multinational firm and the wisdom he has chalked up in his career. In conversation though, it is clear why he holds the respect of his peers, colleagues and employees. Chandran makes the effort to engage and relate — qualities often said to be rare among senior management who may struggle to draw the line between boss and worker, superior and friend. In terms of growing the company in Southeast Asia, Chandran says it was through ensuring that every opportunity given was maximised “through hard work” and “growing really good teams.”
Chandran describes his leadership style as one that is open and inclusive. “It’s important to listen,” he says thoughtfully, adding, “it’s important to understand but it’s also equally important to act and get the team aligned on the action that you, as a leader, have decided upon.” He emphasises that listening and agreement are not the same, “I need to listen but it doesn’t mean I agree; I need to listen with an open mind and finally move in the direction that the leader believes is the best for the company.”
Chandran’s advice for the next generation of leaders is simple. He says, “Make sure that the people you work with are given the freedom to execute to the best of their ability, with guidance.”
Chandran certainly made it sound easy but it was not always smooth sailing. “I was a mathematician in a world of engineers,” he reveals. Life is full of hard knocks, but sometimes all it takes is a change in perspective and things start falling into place. It was tough for Chandran, having to pick up engineering after joining the company, but he laughs it off, joking that he probably learnt more in that period than the years he spent in university.
His positivity extends to other areas as well. On managing multicultural teams comprising people with different beliefs, cultural systems, habits and personalities, Chandran says, “I loved it. It was a fantastic challenge,” and he says he is fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with so many different people, from Thais and Indians to Europeans and Singaporeans.
It’s not a widely known fact but National Instruments has a reputation for being one of the best places to work in. The company made the list of “World’s Best Multinational Workplaces” in 2012 and 2013, based on the survey done by the Great Place to Work Institute. With Chandran’s open and inclusive leadership style, it is not surprising that the company has repeatedly made its mark in similar rankings. He says, “If you can make the members of your team successful, then you automatically become successful.”
Chandran says that National Instruments now has hundreds of people in the region, a significant expansion beyond the handful they started out with. To support growth, the company has a variety of programmes to nurture young engineers and maximise their capabilities in their respective roles. whilest ensuring that they understand what they want to achieve from their respective roles. Chandran sees it as the duty of senior professionals to train young talents and help develop the company culture. “We call it the ‘people advantage’ and that is part of our DNA. Growing local talent is part of our DNA.”
For Chandran, the right people go hand in hand with the job fit. “We need to look at what talent we have, optimise and maximise that, and if we don’t have that, we have to bring that relevant talent in.” He adds that Singapore is a regional and global hub for many companies, and management heads should be the best in the world — it does not matter where they are from. “When it comes to regional roles, I pick the best person for that position; it is about making sure that within the company, we use the best resources for the jobs.”
Singapore’s competitive edge is its people, he says, because there are no other resources. The only way to continue to succeed is by ensuring that our human capital is used well and wisely. He draws on the popular phrase — necessity is the mother of invention — to explain that the necessity of having to survive without natural resources has forced Singapore to be innovative. He continues, “It’s a good thing; if we want to keep the level of modernisation and growth that we have here, we have to make sure that our people are the best in their respective areas.”
Technology in Singapore
Chandran highlights two aspects of technology, the first of which he feels that Singapore has done very well in: nurturing the technologists and moulding our people. In fact, National Instruments has a part to play in fostering the growth of local entrepreneurs and startups. Chandran tells us about the Planet NI programme, which allows engineers and scientists to use and combine their tools to create things only seen in science-fiction movies: part-autonomous vehicles, testers for smartphone vendors, control systems for power grids, etc. There are also prototyping centres for entrepreneurs to test their products, reducing their risks of investment.
Singapore, however, has space to grow in the second aspect of technology, which Chandran explains as taking technology to market. This means growing a diverse ecosystem that supports technology commercialisation, which includes measures such as securing risk capital, finding best practices for startup incubation, working with relevant Government bodies to create value and profit for a technology product. “Regionally, we’re probably first-tier in this aspect but globally, we’re not.” The world is increasingly interconnected and technology is borderless. Hence, for Chandran, Singapore’s context should be more than regional; it must be global.
Taking a Global Perspective
Chandran believes in a world with no borders. He says, “I think people should have the freedom to go wherever they want to, to pursue their intellectual abilities or needs. You have to follow what you want to do.” Addressing the issue of how Singaporean youth aspire for opportunities outside of Singapore, Chandran stresses that we have a responsibility to where the investment for our education came from. “If a large amount of investment [into our education] has come from here, then we need to figure out ways we can pay back, at least for some time,” he says, perhaps through working here and applying one’s newly acquired knowledge and expertise. However, at the end of the day, Chandran feels it is about finding the right fit, be it in terms of challenges, skills set, job scope, culture or lifestyle.
That is partly why he ended up here. Chandran, the talented leader who thrives in a culturally diverse environment, fits in perfectly with multicultural and technologically advanced Singapore. “I like the fact that it is multicultural, that we are exposed to many different kinds of people, cultures and things. It became really comfortable!” For him, Singapore in particular and Asia in general is where the future of technology and business growth is going to be.
But Chandran is not one to take things for granted. He acknowledges that he has been blessed in his move to Singapore because work went well and he had the good fortune of making many good friends along the way.
The humble father of two says, “I know it is not the same for every immigrant. I am very, very aware of that.” Chandran and his wife have twins, a boy and a girl, born in Singapore and now in Primary Three in a local school.
The Family Man
“You have to make time and it has to be done consciously,” he says, adding, “If you let it go naturally, you either work too much or play too much.” That is worthy advice for the atypical workaholic. Already, he travels around the region two days a week. Typically, when in town, he tries to get home by 7 pm so that he has two to three hours with his family before the kids go to bed. He starts work again from home around 11 pm, but only if he has to.
The busy man cycles in his free time, waking up as early as 4.30 am on weekends before the kids are up, to clock a total of 100 km per week, and this is in addition to running about 20 km weekly. Chandran and his wife visit the parks with the kids, making sure they spend more time outdoors. “It’s because we all love to eat,” laughs Chandran, who then tells us his favourite food is bak kut teh– “the clear, peppery kind”.
Wrapping up the interview, Chandran shares his life philosophy. “As long as you do things you like to do, and those things create value, either for your family, colleagues or friends, you’ll be happy.”
Publication: PSD Admin Service Ezine (digital)
For: Public Service Division, Prime Minister's Office (PSD) Singapore
Issue: Feb 2014
THOUGHTS ON PUERTO RICO
Director of Social Programs at Ministry of Finance Jane Lim shares her experience at the MIT Sloan Fellows Program (Boston) and her thoughts on working in Puerto Rico.
Having served in the civil service for 10 years, this Cornell graduate with Masters in Political Science is certainly a role model for us all. Currently the Director of Social Programs at Ministry of Finance, Jane Lim is responsible for budgeting and policy in the social sector, which includes everything from education to healthcare. Her quiet energy emanates as she tells us more about herself, speaking eloquently about her last posting with the Energy Market Authority in which she was involved in building an electricity microgrid for Pulau Ubin – just one of the many projects she has undertaken with the civil service.
Jane is not only a successful career woman, the soon-to-be mom is currently expecting her first child but there is no chance this powerhouse is slowing down any time soon. We find out more about the MIT Sloan Fellows Program, which Jane attended for a year in Boston and about her hugely successful project for an entrepreneurial incubator in Puerto Rico.
To Infinity And Beyond
It is not Jane’s first time at MIT, having done her Masters there. But MIT certainly has not lost any of its magic. Just walking along the corridors is a stimulating experience, shares Jane, because there are plenty of science exhibits on display – physical manifestations of the cutting-edge technology and thriving innovative culture that characterises MIT.
“It’s a cool place,” declares Jane enthusiastically, “with a very open culture”. She tells us about the Infinite Corridor, which connects all the buildings and faculties, such that you can – theoretically – cross from one end of the campus to the other. Professors welcome you to sit into classes that you did not sign up for even if the class is full. Jane adds with a laugh, “it just depends on whether you want to sit on the floor!” The open culture that fosters collaboration and communication across faculties such as business and science encourages the creation of new enterprises – one of the hallmarks of MIT.
Taking A Systems Perspective
The MIT Sloan Fellows Program, which Jane was fortunate to be a part of is a highly established 12-month, full-time executive MBA program designed to prepare an elite group of about 120 global mid-career managers for leadership that makes a difference, The core curriculum includes typical MBA topics in finance, economics, management and strategy but because it is MIT, the core includes systems dynamics, which is what MIT is known for. Jane affirms that it teaches one to think beyond the linear level, to consider both positive and negative feedback loops that one might not otherwise anticipate, that could make something so much better or worse; particularly for complex institutional systems that involve a wide range of stakeholders with a network of connections and issues. She cites health care as an interesting example of a complex system for public policy makers to apply this sort of perspective.
“It's important to practise systems thinking, almost as if it's a discipline.”
Jane brings up other modules like operations research – which proved to be quite useful for the amiable individual – and another called data management, which trains Sloan fellows to analyse data without losing sight of the intended management decision and the competitive position that the business needs to be in. Jane adds that the weekly talk by a leader in the public or private sector helped her to better understand the pressures leaders undergo and encouraged her to think about her own leadership and management philosophy.
Of significance in Jane’s experience at MIT is the chance to work in their renowned Labs. “It’s really a distillation of what MIT is about; in a lab course, you get to work on a particular issue and prototype. You form a student team about an idea you’re passionate about, conceptualise it and learn how to put it into reality,” Jane explains, “It’s probably the reason why MIT has so many entrepreneurs, it’s part of their ecosystem.”
Turning Concepts (and dreams) Into Reality
Jane had the opportunity to work with Grupo Guayacan in her Puerto Rico Labs class. Grupo Guayacan is a non-profit organisation that has been around for more than a decade with a mission to promote entrepreneurship on the island. The group had done so for years, through a flagship business plan competition, similar to MIT’s entrepreneurship competition, “The 100k”. The company wanted to increase its impact on the entrepreneurship ecosystem and help more start-ups “survive the Valley of Death” in a Puerto Rico entrenched in severe recession. But it was unsure of the next step to take.
Jane and her team consisting two other Japanese and an Indian, worked intensely on the consultancy project, first in MIT in Boston then on site for three to four weeks. The team helped to analyse the needs of the company and how it could restructure itself internally to meet new demands. Jane and her team mapped out the ecosystem from the interviews they conducted with stakeholders ranging from high-profile individuals and government officials to venture capitalists and academia, right down to the underbelly of the organisation – its staff – to figure out if the company had the capability to move forward with its current talent pool. Funding and financing were also considered. With the realisation that everyone wanted Grupo Guayacan to move to the next stage, to be an incubator of start-ups, Jane and her team presented the strategic plan to the board who has since integrated it, much to Jane’s personal satisfaction and delight. “It’s fulfilling when your client feels like you’ve done a good job and if it’s something that makes a difference to them, that they can agree with and execute in a practical way.”
In a program with a curriculum as diverse as her course mates, Jane admits that she has learned a fair bit not just from Grupo Guayacan but also from Puerto Rico. Leading into her point about how she has learnt to manage diversity, Jane lights up as she tells us about her course mates-turned-friends, who are professionals from approximately 30 different countries, each with working experience of about 10 years. There was a serial entrepreneur and survivor of the dot com bust; one who works in the United Nations and runs elections in places like Afghanistan; some from MNCs like General Electric and two from the United States Armed Forces who were deployed to Iraq. “The concentration of talent and diversity in one place for one whole year is not something you can otherwise get.”
Dealing with diversity may sound straight-forward, after all, Singapore is choke full of people from a myriad of cultures and countries whom we interact with daily. But it is not that easy, Jane says, especially when you have to work together. At MIT, she shares with a laugh, they were put in diverse teams to cause frictions; “my team had an American, an Indian, a Brazilian and a Japanese!” She admits that it is a huge difference from working in the public sector, especially in Singapore where everyone has similar educational backgrounds and experiences. “It forces you out of your comfort zone, when you have to figure out how to work with people with different working styles from distinct cultures,” Jane adds that a good team is one that communicates openly with one another to get a project done but it is “the unsaid part that causes things to work successfully or not, and it is what is unsaid that is important in figuring out how to get a team to work.“
“It’s about bringing every team member’s strengths together to complement each other, rather than having them become a source of friction.”
While on the topic of diverse teams, Jane eagerly shares her thoughts on the diversity of talent in Singapore and global teams that characterise the make-up of many start-ups in the increasingly thriving local entrepreneurial scene. Jane tells us that investors and venture capitalists always look for great teams to invest in, not individuals. Even if there is support from the Government, Jane says that the youth still need to take that first step out in taking risks to test their ideas, with greater community and private sector support. Wisely, she states, “It isn't enough to simply have people with lots of ideas starting up businesses. It is also about who can actually make a successful exit. This encourages people to join the entrepreneurial scene because they can see a chance of success.”
Lessons for Singapore from the real Puerto Rico lab
Drawing on the similarities between Singapore and Puerto Rico, Jane tells us about what Singapore can learn from this other island, on the other side of the world. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth state of the U.S., which mean the people are American citizens but they have limited voting rights and they face political gridlock – whether to strive for full independence or remain a commonwealth state or become a full-fledged U.S. state. In the 1950s, Puerto Rico was the original industrialization miracle, giving tax incentives and attracting a substantial portion of the pharmaceutical sector from the U.S. They were far ahead of Singapore back then but their GDP growth has steadily dipped and the state now faces an extended recession, severe debt and talent exodus.
1. Looking Outwards
Puerto Rico became insular and conversations simply circle around happenings within the island. Jane tells us that there is so much energy and discussion focused on the political gridlock that no one is paying attention to the world that is changing outside. “You can be very successful at one point in time but if you don't keep improving and become too focused on internal issues, you lose sight of what's happening in the external environment. The world could have passed you by.” Singapore is a small island and we need to keep improving to continue to be successful or there is no reason the world has to come to us, says Jane, the world does not owe us a living.
2. Us Versus Them
What struck Jane about Puerto Rico was the degree of income inequality, “the higher strata are very rich, one of the largest malls in the Americas is owned by one of the famous families and these families send their kids to school in the U.S.” According to Jane, because their fortunes are not tied to how the economy of the island fares, the rich do not feel the need to help the rest of society and the result is a sense of disconnect, particularly between the elites and the regular folk. Income inequality is a worrying trend in many parts of the world, Singapore included. Although we do have progressive tax and we invest heavily in education, Jane concedes that it is a global trend and is an undesired but necessary consequence of technological change and globalisation. “It is a real public policy issue that we need to keep thinking about.”
3. Making Sustainable Policies
Puerto Rico took it upon herself to have the U.S. Federal minimum wage. Jane shares that they probably implemented this in their heyday but could not sustain it. Today, as a Caribbean economy trailing far behind the U.S. in terms of education and skills, this minimum wage that is set way too high could be a contributing factor to their high levels of unemployment. Jane says, “There needs to be greater collective responsibility among the individual, society and Government. We need to be mindful if the policies are sustainable, we need to think about the future generations as well.”
On Personal Growth
For Jane, the most fulfilling aspects of her MIT experience were firstly, how open people were. She was pleasantly surprised that interviewees in Puerto Rico for example, were willing to be so frank with what they wanted Grupo Guayacan to do, which allowed her to pinpoint the problems they had to address. Secondly, the fact that the client emerged from the consultancy project with a vision and strategy, which could be executed, was immensely satisfying as well.
Most importantly, Jane remembers the friendships forged over the 12-month program. “It’s a network that can help you in your career,” she says, because these close friendships with other leaders become a “sounding board” for advice on making decisions or leadership difficulties in future. Jane was fortunate to have been able to attend the Fellowship program with her husband, both sponsored by PSD, “we even became the godparents for one of our close friends’ kid!” She adds that the full year of “white space” helped her to recalibrate her interests and priorities, allowing her to explore new topics and be exposed to new ideas. “I had the time to reflect on what I wanted to achieve as a leader and what to do to be a better one.”
Jane was actually in Boston during the marathon bombings, she and her husband were supposed to head down to support a friend who ran the race (and crossed it five minutes before the bombs went off). Having lived through the crisis and the 24-hour lockdown of the whole of Boston, Jane is more appreciative of the sense of security we tend to take for granted in Singapore.
Words From The Wise
Wrapping up the interview, we ask Jane for some wise words for the next batch of selected individuals for the MIT Sloan Fellows Program. “Be really open to diversity, new ideas and people, and learn from everyone you meet.” Jane adds with a laugh, “And have fun!”