So, who calls the shots?

Updated: Saturday May 10, 2014 MYT 10:44:45 AM

So, who calls the shots?


EARLY 1980, a raw and somewhat yokel lad from the backwaters of the East Coast rode his beat-up motorbike to Paramount Gardens in Petaling Jaya in pursuit of a job. Without the faintest clue about what the industry was all about, he knocked on the door of a medium-sized local advertising agency and was elated at the opportunity to meet with the general manager.

As luck would have it, he got the job as an account executive with the proviso that he had to get a car within three months or be fired! Happy, yet troubled by this predicament, the lad turned to his government servant father for a loan of RM3,500. He used it as down payment for a grossly-overpriced Fiat, which eventually spent more time in the workshop than on the road.

That, ladies and gentlemen, was how I started my career in advertising.

No, this article is not about me or my youthful bravados. It is about what the boss and the job demanded of employees back then, and how as an employee I understood and willfully complied.

Let’s fast forward to the current employment landscape. It is barely unrecognisable compared with that of the days of yore. Today, the boss man’s leadership role has somehow been turned into merely that of a provider. More often than not, instead of working to propel the company forward, bosses are kept busy trying to manage employees’ expectations. It is as if the partnership between employers and employees is non-existent! Aside from ensuring that people are paid fair wages on time, the employer is expected to provide all sorts of perks and benefits. From medical insurance to bonuses to incentive trips, you name it.

The Chinese have a pretty funny but apt way of describing a situation such as this. They call it the apom balik syndrome. For the uninitiated, apom is the Malaysian version of a folded pancake. The apom seller usually has 10 woks but only eight covers to work with. This mean he has to constantly flip and mind the apoms lest they burn. Although this saying usually alludes to one’s dire financial situation, it may be aptly applied to the challenges today’s bosses face.

Employers are expected to be some kind of magician and juggler all at once. They are caught between the trivialities of people-management and ensuring that the employees stay happy. Couple that with championing the company’s progress and meeting KPIs. To say bosses multi-task is a gross understatement.

In the past, I remember that when the boss tells you of a meeting, you jolly well get everything prepared in advance. From artworks to copy sheets, stationery to the projector, you get them ready and working. Bosses, literally, just have turn up and present. As the most junior person there, you had better be taking down notes of all proceedings. One of those early-day meetings comes to mind. There I was, sat amongst the seniors, and twiddling my thumbs. My boss, on the other hand, was busy jotting as he discussed with the client. When we got back to the office, he pulled me aside and casually asked where I schooled? Naïve as I was, I thought he must want to know me better. I proudly replied, “Clifford School, sir, why?” Unmoved, he calmly told me that he would like to enrol there. For it must have been a very good school to have taught me the art of memorising to the extent of not needing to take down notes during meetings! Whoa, what a slap.

Those days, it was also common for people to hang around well after office hours, and for good reason too. One is if the boss was still around and when he needed something, you were there. It would be bad news had someone else answered on your behalf. You might not be needed for much longer after such absence. Yes, that was the school of hard knocks. Did we suffer? Probably, to some extent, but did we die? No. Instead, it made leaders and statesmen of some of us!

Now, look at the present day workforce. Based on personal observations of attitudes across the industry and, candidly, even in my own shop, one word captures it all. It best describes the situation without being hurtful. Nonchalance.

There is no such thing as accountability being the order of the day anymore. Now, seniors have to double check that everything needed for meetings are there. Half the time they end up taking note of what transpires while presenting.

Back at the office, when notes are compared, lo and behold! The information differs so much, it is as if senior and junior attended separate meetings. As employer, you have to work out the strategies and directions with little or next to no input from the new blood. You would have to get them to arrange for the necessary internals and reviews before the next presentation. You have to put the deck together.

Notice it is all you? What about them? The “employees”. Are they not supposed to be your able assistants? Well, apparently not. So, in good faith, you decide to reprimand them. Guess what? Next thing you will see is a resignation letter on your table. Off they will go, scurrying to the next shop, worry you not.

So, how and when did it go so terribly wrong? What happened to good old loyalty? You know, all that growing together with the company stuff. Or is it too much to ask the young ones for patience? For them to take time to learn and excel in their trade before making the next move? The scary thing is that affluence may have created a generation that is beyond our taming. If we were to get to the root cause, are parents somewhat guilty? Simply for pandering a little too much to their children’s whims and fancies. Therefore, depriving them of the life skills they need to cope with challenges in adulthood and as professionals.

There are no quick fixes to this problem. Thankfully, we can take small steps forward together, first as a community, then as a nation. Perhaps then, the first step should begin with us at the senior levels. As they say, for things to change, we must first change. We need to lead by example. Roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. We need to inspire and inculcate in the new generation an attitude of gratitude. Let’s light up the fire in them and help them push their limits.

For employers, I know this is easier said than done. If we team up and play hardball, we can help these young people get off of that lackadaisical merry-go-round. We start by paying based on what they can bring to the table. Rewards must be earned. We keep staff-pinching in check, as this generally results in unwarranted salary inflation. The positives that may come out of this are encouraging. They range from the employees developing proficiencies when they spend longer time in an organisation. They hone their skills and become more confident and stable both professionally and personally. This in turn leads to better financial management. You get the drift.

So folks, it is really up to us. As employers, we pay to get quality, not heartaches. Knowing that we are in a large part responsible for this turnaround is both daunting and empowering. Choosing not to do anything to help right this deterioration tantamount to condoning it. It is time to crack the whip and get the roles right!

Datuk Johnny Mun, who has been an advertising practitioner for over 30 years, is president of the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents. He is also CEO of Krakatua ICOM, a local ad agency.

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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