By Sean Huang, Managing Consultant, Organisation Solutions
Consulting Manager Sean Huang spoke to Wilf Blackburn, CEO of Prudential Assurance Company, Singapore, about the most important things he has learnt about leading growth and transformation over his career
Sean: Wilf, tell us a little about yourself and your career.
Wilf: I have spent my entire career in the life insurance industry and I’ve been in Asia for almost two decades, working in seven different countries and holding the position of Country CEO on five occasions. For a large part of my time in Asia, I’ve been involved in leading change and transformation, and that has really become my brand in the companies that I’ve worked for.
There are three things I focus on as a leader: customers, people, and technology. A successful organisation puts customers at its heart, is passionate about investing in people and their development, and invests in technology to make lives better. These are the three things that have stayed with me throughout my career.
Sean: What have been the most important lessons you have learned about driving growth and transformation?
Firstly, remove the roadblocks to change, whether they are structures, mind-sets or perceived constraints. I’ve learnt to focus on destroying all the obstacles that are obstructing progress before creating anything new. It’s really hard to build new things unless you remove obstacles. Like driving a car, you need a clear road to go fast.
I’ve been fortunate in my career to have had many opportunities to lead change and transformation. Through experience and practice, you learn how to identify the roadblocks early on and how to remove or navigate around them. For example, our industry is heavily dependent on technology, and people often think that we don’t have the budget to invest in technology. So, I encourage my people not to think about the limits to our technology budget; if it’s worth spending, we find the money to invest. What I find is that once you remove constraints, it is very liberating for people; they begin to expand their imagination and aspirations.
Secondly, find a compelling case for change. People are creatures of habit and they will only change if there is a good reason to do so. It is absolutely essential to find that compelling case for the people you lead. Lead them on an excavation journey of self-discovery to find out what the problem is. Your people will not be convinced if you get someone from the outside to identify what the problem and solution is—it is better for the team to find out for themselves.
Thirdly, I’ve learnt how important it is to engage everyone on the change journey and to build a strong communication capability. Organisations often underestimate the amount of communication required for change. I’m reminded by John Kotter’s change model - decide how much communication is required to bring everyone on board the change journey and multiply that amount by ten.
Other than learning through experience, I read extensively on leadership and leading change. There is so much great information out there about these topics, but you also just have to practice on-the-job to see what works and what doesn’t. Have the courage to try and not be afraid to fail. The more ideas you apply, the more you learn and build a repository of best practices for yourself. Feedback is really important to the learning process, so I always surround myself with people who are willing to give me direct and honest feedback.
Sean: Your industry is changing so rapidly! How do you ensure your leaders strike the right balance between maintaining focus while remaining agile enough to adapt to external changes?
I generally encourage my leaders to do both. For them to lead effectively, it’s important to know what’s happening externally.
As leaders, we should lead more and do less. I often urge my leaders to delegate as much as they can. If they are doing work that could be delegated to their subordinates, they are actually stealing resource from the company because they are allocating the wrong level of resource to get the work done. By delegating, leaders create the capacity to drive focus in their teams, while keeping abreast of the external environment so that they can respond and adapt appropriately.
Transformation usually involves an element of speed. One question that I ask when I see a plan is “What would prevent us from executing this in half the time?” This relates back to removing roadblocks because there is usually something that holds people back from fast execution. To drive focus, speed, and agility, we need to keep pushing and to remove resource constraints as an excuse. As Mario Andretti, a former racing driver famously said, if people are not feeling that they are losing control, they are not going fast enough.
Sean: What is the one thing you’ve learned about pacing yourself and your business for growth? When do you go faster and when do you go slower?
I’ve learnt to keep pushing the pace and increasing the capacity of the organisation to get jobs done. I like to hold off the conversation about prioritisation until it is really necessary. People always say that they don’t have enough resources and we need to prioritise, which involves stopping some things or missing out on opportunities. Usually, it is a capacity and not a prioritisation issue. So, we will first look to increase capacity by bringing in the right people with capabilities that we do not have or increasing existing resources. We only get into the prioritisation conversation in the later stages.
If you want to grow, it is essential to keep pushing the pace. But at the same time, also having the empathy and the will to slow down when needed. You need to tune into the signals by getting feedback from employees, customers and stakeholders. You need to be plugged into the pulse of the organisation to help you determine whether you need to create some breathing space for the organisation.
Sean: Our company has had the opportunity to work with you over several years and we’ve seen you drive transformation in very different environments. What are the things you do the same across cultures and what do you adapt?
The core lessons I have learnt about leading growth and transformation such as removing obstacles, finding a compelling case for change, and focusing on communication have been consistently important everywhere. There are also universal truths we can adhere to. For example, people like to be respected, and we always need more collaboration or more innovation. No one will say they don’t want to be respected or that more collaboration or innovation is bad for the company. In leading change, finding common ground is important. That is the same regardless of the country you are working in.
Before I get into a country, I read extensively about its history, politics, people, try to understand the culture and, if possible, learn the language. The most important thing is to respect the local culture and be sensitive to its nuances. Typically, it takes people approximately six months to assimilate into a local culture. I find it useful to take this time to blend in and get a firm grasp of the local culture, before activating any change in the organisation.
Sean: Thank you Wilf! These are great insights. What would be your one piece of advice for a leader who wants to become great at leading growth and transformation?
Push and challenge the boundaries. Ask why can’t we do it, why can’t we do it bigger and better? Don’t worry about being popular, be different and get comfortable with being told that you are crazy. Humans are very resilient. You will be surprised how much we can accomplish if we push beyond our comfort zone.
Sean Huang was Managing Consultant at Organisation Solutions based in Singapore. He provided Growth Services to our clients globally. Sean has extensive experience in conducting psychological measurement, leadership and organisational development as well as talent and performance management across a number of industries.