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Robert Walters Leadership Podcast E1: Conversation with Kenneth Choo, HEINEKEN

In our very first Robert Walters Leadership Podcast episode in South East Asia, Joanne Chua, Regional Client Development Director – Asia of Robert Walters, sat down with Kenneth Choo, Managing Director, Asia Pacific, HEINEKEN, in October 2020 to learn more about how he and his teams are navigating the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting ‘new normal’.

From better use of technology to drive productivity to really empathising and having in-depth discussions about employees’ concerns when it comes to their health and safety, hear from Kenneth how the professional work landscape has been drastically reshaped.

Kenneth also shares how he believes business leaders and managers (especially younger leaders) should take this time of uncertainty as a great opportunity to learn, step up, try something new, and lead with courage and creativity.

Our Robert Walters Leadership Podcast is part of our Powering Potential series, where we feature different leaders from diverse industries and the sharing of their experience, advice, and insights in the world of work. Watch the videocast here.

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Joanne Chua
: Hi, I’m Joanne Chua, Regional Client Development Director at Robert Walters, and I’m your host for this episode of Robert Walters Powering Potential, a leadership series where we invite leaders to share their experiences, advice, and insights.

Today, I’m delighted to have Kenneth Choo, Manager Director, Asia Pacific of HEINEKEN, join us. Thank you, Kenneth, for making the time for us.

Kenneth Choo: Hi Joanne. Thanks for inviting me.

Joanne Chua: You are very welcome. It’s our pleasure and delight. Now HEINEKEN is in the business of crafting and supplying award-winning beers. So when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, I suspect, I suspect though only, like many F&B businesses, HEINEKEN was impacted as well. As Managing Director of the region, how has your professional and personal life been disrupted by COVID-19, if any?

Kenneth Choo: Hey Joanne, thanking for the questions. Over the past nine months since COVID started, we certainly have a lot of things happening for us. So some good, some bad. The good thing is that over time and space, we are able to reach out to our operating companies. And what was seemed unthinkable that we are not physically present is now really doable.

Give you an example. It’s most unthinkable to me is board meetings on listed boards and we’re now able to do so and we even have AGMs of a few hundred shareholders that are now attending. So there’s one big thing that we’re a lot more productive going from there.

And two, some of the countries, for example, in Japan, where we normally have board meetings over dual language. We have translators that translates Live, etc. And it was also unthinkable to have virtual meetings. But now, because of COVID, life goes on and then we have to make things happen. So one, in terms of meetings, for me, that is something that the impossible becomes possible.

Two, is in terms of reaching out to our colleagues. It has been really a story of time and space. It has been restricted by the physical traveling that you reach out and then you try to reach out to the whole company. So I’m looking after 10 countries. So, for example, going to Taiwan. When I go to Taiwan and then we basically have meetings with my colleagues, and it ends up with a dinner for about maybe 50 to 60 people. And that is all restricted to one night. But now we can do that is a month and the entire company can all log in. And then we spend an hour talking together and I’m able to basically tell them what’s happening with their business, what happening outside Taiwan, and share with them what our practices, etc., that is good things to learn. So a lot of communications are happening when it wasn’t happening before. In terms of the business part, I think it is positive, in one sense.

What I miss a little bit is when we have the informal meetings over dinners, we start to talk shop, you start to talk about the family, you start to talk about your kids, you start to talk about US elections. And those are things that you actually have more bonding. And at the end of the day, that’s the part that is missing a little bit that I think is that I would certainly want to have more human one-to-one contact from them.

The other one is productivity has really increased. As we talk, the clock on our computer is actually ticking. Tick-Tick. And then everyone is watching, when is their next appointment coming out? So discipline is coming on. And everyone said, yeah, I’ve got ten minutes more as a result. So as we go along, conversations and meetings are getting more structured. Everyone knows what are the points they need to talk to and keep to half an hour or forty-five minutes. So I think that is one big progress in terms of productivity. Everyone goes straight to the point and have more discussion going from there. So yes, the positive comes out professionally. I think in that sense, more rich. I would say we have more interactions. More interaction opportunities over more people. So in a shorter time, productivity certainly has increased.

On a personal side, one is that I simply spend more time with my family and, yeah, that’s one thing because I used to be traveling three weeks a month. So that’s one thing that I found that is really a gift for me. And the other one is that, of course, after a day of sitting down and having Teams and Zoom meetings, you are able to go out and have a run. So, during this period of time, my health has actually been restored and renewed. And I’m actually doing my best time run in the past 20 years. So there’s something. Wow, that’s a real positive that comes out. Youth is being renewed as we speak, and that is really a great thing.

And then in terms of personal, I go to church on Sunday and now we actually have a church service that is virtual as well. So this is one thing that I saw actually more people and I’m able to bring more friends coming to church and bringing the church to their house. So that’s something that I felt is also a positive sign of COVID that’s happening.

Joanne Chua: That’s really wonderful. Despite what people view as the challenges put forth by COVID-19 pandemic, the inability to travel because borders have been shut, etc., it seems that you and HEINEKEN as an organisation has risen above the challenges put forth by COVID. And you are as a team, as an organisation, you guys are growing from strength to strength, and that’s really amazing.

Now, I was actually going to ask you cheekily whether your wife was a bit like, “Hmm…you are starting at home a bit too much and I need a bit of my personal space.” Given that you are no longer traveling.

Kenneth Choo: I think you got to ask her that question. But I do get the signal. When I was having my Teams meeting inside part of the house, I got to shift, shift, shift, and suddenly I’m shifted to one corner of the house. And they said, yeah, that’s your permanent space, because when I have meetings, everyone didn’t want to be seen walking at backdrop and everyone has to keep quiet. So suddenly my space at home has been defined by my wife. So happy to have me home. But then, yeah, I know where my place is at home as well.

Joanne Chua: Well done. Thanks so much for sharing that little snippet. I’m curious to find out, Kenneth, you are a veteran, right? In HEINEKEN. And you have acquired different skills and experiences over the last 20 plus years. As a leader, have you seen your leadership style evolving, at least in the last 12 months or so? If any, would you be able to share any of this with us?

Kenneth Choo: Yeah, I always embrace this practice of leadership by Kouzes and Posner, and that’s basically “The Leadership Challenge”. That’s the book. And the five things that they explained so clearly. One is you need to model your way and then you need to inspire vision. You need to challenge the process. You need to enable others. And you need to encourage the heart.

So when you talk about these five principles of leadership practices, it’s always there. So even COVID or not COVID, virtual or real, you need to have that process that goes on. So in terms of the way that we do it, it is maybe a little bit more different. The way you contact now is not so physical, but then it’s how we talk on screen like this and then getting that relationship.

I think one thing is still about building trust between people and the part that is going back to basics is that you need to be authentic, you need to have lots of empathy, and you need to have your humility. So that’s the part of that leadership that is still there, that one, will you build trust with the person that you’re working with?

And two, Servant Leadership is something that is always part of me as I grow in my career path, it’s actually working towards the point of how you work with your colleagues and putting yourself in a way of how you can help them. So it’s always talking about “How can I help?” putting on that in front of them.

So, the communication part and the empathy part are big now because COVID is different in different markets as we have about 24 markets in Singapore (HEINEKEN APAC serves 24 markets in APAC from Singapore). Some are really actually not so much affected and then even doing better than last year. And some are really very affected because the government has totally restricted the business and have more lockdowns than we expected. So from there, when we are talking to the different business, a different place, it’s the empathy. It’s going in and telling them, “Hey, I’m with you, I have your back all the time”, and have a listening ear and go through with them what are the challenges that they have?

So, for example, there are some countries and operating companies where the healthcare in the country could be so bad that it becomes a real personal fear that what if I get COVID there is no medical care from there? How do we reach out and give that assurance to the person or to the team? And that’s actually part of my job, to basically be there and be with them and give them the assurance that we are always there for them. When it comes to anything that happened, we would have done what we can, including, for example, talking about having private jets if we have to evacuate, etc. So stuff like this happens in COVID. And throughout my career, I never had stuff like this, never had experience like this where, sometimes you talk really about life, death, dangers, concerns. And we don’t put people in danger. And that’s the thing. Then we have that discussion.

When there is a fear of life and death, we’ll tell them, people first. If you feel really uncomfortable, let’s talk about it and let’s see how we can help you out. So as an example, I do have a colleague that is of certain age, is of high risk, and is in a country that does not have good health facilities. I took the decision and said, “Look, the next flight, please fly out and go home. We will deal with this and then we will do your job virtually from there”. So that is some of the things that we do that also give a lot of assurance to those people around it. We have their backs covered. It’s people first. It’s safety first. It’s life first. So, yeah, those are part of the leadership that comes out. And during COVID, I’m really proud to work in a company that backs me up on this.

Joanne Chua: Listening in there are some people in our audience who are probably going through this as the first, sort of crisis- the crisis of their career. Some are young leaders coming through, young managers in their late 20s. Some are early managers in their 30s. What would you say to be some of the key leadership traits that you think are required in this age that we are living in? Considering that they are operating in a landscape that is very different to the ones that you and I started off our career in, a world that’s very divided, where countries have turned inward, nationalism has arisen for various reasons. So they’re operating in very sort of uncharted territory.

What would be your advice and sort of the key traits that you would like to share that you feel will help them lead their teams and organisations into the next era, post-COVID?

Kenneth Choo: I think the first thing, the COVID experience is unique. No one has actually gone through an experience unless you’re talking about the 1930s depression. So in the recent world, we have the financial crisis indeed and we have the SARS. But the COVID part is simply new for everyone. So my advice to the managers or your clients who are in their 20s, 30s - take this as really a great learning experience, in the sense that when we look at this, how often do you have one that you say, “I really could not predict what is going to happen in the next six months?” “I really do not know what is going to happen in the next 12 months.” So this is a unique experience that true leadership comes out from there.

And what is that? What is true leadership? True leadership is your conviction on certain things that you can then say, look, I feel these are the big bets. I feel that these are the bold movers that we need to take, and these are the things that you can communicate more clearly. And it’s the time to make the difference. What are things that you can learn during this period of time - learn about agility. Agility is about how do we fail fast, learn fast. Do something that you think maybe I can try this and then work it out, and then, if fails, you come back. And then you say, look, how do I fix it from there? This is a time to really call on all the creativity that you have, and say, look, these are things that have not happened before, but I think certain trends are going to happen. And then we are moving towards that direction.

To give you an example, in my industry, what we could see, things that are clearly in trend is, one, is the emphasis on health. Due to COVID, we have not seen this before, but the demand for health products, the demand for wanting to be healthier, is straight off the roof. Two, is that the emphasis on actually staying more at home. What can I do at home? Can I bring my friends home? Can (we) party at home? Those are big trends. At home moments are coming up very clearly. And three is online. Anything that you can get online - fantastic. Three big trends that’re happening in the consumer goods industry, in my industry, is that, so when we talk about that, what can we do in this area to make progress?

So those are the ones that we are actually asking our colleagues, young and old, to think along that direction. But that is also a level playing field. It doesn’t mean that somebody who’s 30 years veteran will know any better than someone who is three years old in the industry. So that is great, great opportunity for the younger guys to come out and say, look, l’ve got a great idea. But the thing is, have the courage to step up, have the courage to suggest, have the courage to take on responsibility to say, “Yes. Yes, I can. I can do that. And I believe in this.” And this is a great opportunity for our younger audience here to move on to the next, to take this opportunity to move on and try something that is not tried before.

Joanne Chua: Fantastic. And to summarise, the key traits that you think will be required in future leaders would be agility; fail fast, learn fast. Two, leaning into your creativity, identifying key trends in the industry and coming up with ideas that will help propel the organisation further. And last but not least, courage; the ability to take on responsibilities. And hey, even if you fail, at least you’ve tried. You never know, right?

Kenneth Choo: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, that’s right.

Joanne Chua: Yeah. Excellent. Excellent. Well-summarised. And thank you so much, Kenneth, once again for taking your time to do this for us today. It was a lovely session and we’ve gained some insights through your sharing. And I hope you’ll benefit our listeners as they tune into our recording today. Thank you so much, Kenneth.

Kenneth Choo: Thanks Joanne. Thanks for having me.

Joanne Chua: You’re very welcome.

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