I got up super early this morning so I could catch my 6.10am flight to Melbourne – skipping coffee and still feeling tired, I made my way to join the queue as the cabin crew called us to board the plane. Among the folks looking nice and respectable, ready for their meeting in Melbourne, I recognised a face as being a prominent academic leader at the University. Along with her, there was also another staff member, whose face I also recognised. I saw them chatting earlier as well so I presumed that they travelled together.
As the cabin crew told us that frequent flyers and business class travellers could board the plane at any time, the professor walked brusquely, presented her boarding pass and walked towards the plane without looking back. I glimpsed an ironic smile on the other staff member as inched in the queue and waited to present her boarding pass. The incident amused me at how people would believe their sense of self-importance. I contrasted what I saw this morning with what I experienced around seventeen years ago as I started my career in a large multinational bank in Jakarta, Indonesia.
I started as a Management Associate, another name for a Management Trainee – all of the MA’s, as we were fondly called, were groomed to be the future leaders of the bank. I started my career in Marketing Department (perhaps a sign for the things to come!) *grin* and due to my analytical skills, I was involved in numerous strategic planning projects even from the early days of my career. I still won’t forget an evening where I was asked to help the Marketing Director to prepare a stack of presentation for the regional team. Along with another Vice President, the three of us had to stay until 9pm, just to prepare the presentation deck. We meticulously went from one slide to the next, ensuring that every sentence was perfect and every figure was correct. By 7pm, I was already feeling tired and hungry – the Marketing Director offered whether I wanted something to eat. I politely refused and said that I could get some dinner myself. He refused my answer and asked whether burger, fries and some soda would be alright. Before I said anything he took the lift down and went to the burger joint in our office tower complex. He came back with a tray with some burgers that he carried all the way from the burger shop, up the lift and into our office on the 23rd floor. He bought my dinner.
It was a simple gesture – and nominally it was nothing. He might even have the expense reimbursed – it didn’t matter. The gesture wowed me with his attention and humility. That and a lot of other small things that he did earned my loyalty. I stayed at the department and the company because of the challenges and the exciting nature of my work, as well as the great atmosphere in the department under his leadership. I still stayed with the department after he left and experienced several leadership changes as well. At the end of my first episode of my career, I was getting restless – by then, my first boss had moved on to a different country. My continuous good performance earned me salary increases and stock options, but unfortunately that couldn’t buy my loyalty.
Many years later, after I moved to Singapore, I bumped into my first boss who by then had moved to a major competitor. He asked me whether I would consider moving under his department in the regional office. Along with the nature of the work, his attitude and leadership made it so easy for me to say yes.
When I started my career, they said that it’s good to stick around at the same company for around two years – these days, the period has shortened to a year only. Many blame this on Generation Y’s attitude and the supposedly lack of work ethics. I disagree. It’s just sad that leaders and managers forget that a simple attention, respect, care and humility could go a long way in earning their staff’s loyalty. Of course this has to go hand in hand with remuneration and the nature of the work, and so forth. I can’t remember how many times I got my stock options and the double digit salary increases that I experienced – but I always remember the humble burger that the Marketing Director bought me.