Malaysian Leaders Must Build World-Class High Impact teams

When I joined Malaysia Economic Development Corporation (MDEC) in February 2015, I took on the role of Vice President of Enterprise Development. It was a new division created to identify and catalyse Malaysia-based companies into the global arena as eventual world icons. This was and still is one of MDEC’s four strategic pillars – to build world class tech champions.

It’s usual for MDEC to move people around internally to lead teams to drive various corporate objectives, so my MDEC story moved through different chapters. Currently, I am leading a laser-focused team using MDEC’s GAIN (Global Accelerator and Innovation Acceleration) initiative to elevate Malaysian companies onto the international stage, starting with the ASEAN region.

World-class ambitions demand a high-performance culture, which is a fast-emerging trend in many key organisations. Personally, I point to football teams (mysteriously called soccer by Americans) as examples of some “secrets” of what it takes to successfully develop and drive high performing teams.
Malaysia has already seen several inspiring success stories, moving in the right direction and gathering momentum. Just to run through a few:

  • Vitrox Berhad is a global player in automated vision inspection solutions. Founded by Chu Jenn Weng and Steven Siaw Kok Tong, both graduates from University Sains Malaya. Vitrox was first admitted to the ACE market in 2005 and moved to the Main Market in 2009. On 19th March 2018, their market capitalization stood at RM2,755 million.
  • Aemulus Holdings Berhad is another listed MSC status company. Founded by Ng Sang Beng and Yeoh Chee Keong, it listed on the ACE Market of Bursa Malaysia in 2015. Co-founders, Ng Sang Beng and Yeoh Chee Keong were colleagues at Altera Corporation in Penang. Their market capitalization stands at RM107 million.
  • Other MSC-status champions include Inmagine Group, now 16 years in operations, best known for their stock image business (123rf.com) and Piktochart, which produces visual stories from charts.
  • Green Packet Berhad is a Malaysian company that started out in Silicon Valley in 2000 and achieved listing in 2005. In true Silicon Valley style, the company evolved, selling its wireless broadband business to Telekom Malaysia to focus on the Internet of Things (IoT) and fintech.
  • iflix, a video on-demand service, was founded by Patrick Grove, who also built the hugely successful Catcha Group, a leading internet player in the region. In 2016, iflix secured a US$45 million investment from pay-tv giant Sky Plc.
  • MDT Innovations is the leading innovator in the region for IoT. Driven by Liew Choon Lian, CEO and Sim Hon Wai, COO, its revenue is 95% export driven. It was listed in Gartner’s Cool Vendor and featured as top 25 IoT companies by APAC CIO Outlook Magazine in 2018.

Passion, Diversity and Innovation

There are several other Malaysia-born companies that are now serving customers around the globe. All of them started with a core team of founders, who recruited their team and infused it with a mission, and – as they say – a dose of passion to achieve performance. As well as performance, they developed and continue to maintain high performing teams: It’s easier when you start from scratch, but if you don’t – you do need to continually add to your talent pool.

That means having to be in a location, which is attractive for talent, like Malaysia. MDEC has played a major role in making this possible, as one of the benefits of MSC (Multimedia Supercorridor) status is the ability to bring in talented staff from around the world.

In the corporate world, managers don’t have the luxury of building their teams from scratch. They join an organization, work their way up the ranks and if all goes well they get to run a department, division, etc. It’s fully staffed but nonetheless it is incumbent upon the leadership team to ensure diversity and inclusiveness. That’s how you get innovation – new ideas are needed from the outside: New blood to enable a fresh perspective, so to speak!

Incentives and a common goal are key to building a high-performance team

What does it take to build a high-performance team? A common goal is clearly important. Incentives also work, as you can see with football players and sales people, in general.

However, one should be wary of incentives driving the wrong behaviour. When too ‘significant’, incentives can sometimes cause problems. Most recently the big four Australian banks were hauled up by regulators and told to stop their product-based incentive payments, as customers were sold products they did not understand or need. The independent commissioner, Stephen Sedgwick said, “some current practices carried an unacceptable risk – of promoting behaviour, which is inconsistent with the interests of customers”.

In my earlier article, I talked about the need to have a strong story. If the story is clear and meaningful, and shows purpose, then you can actually recruit and motivate a team without relying on large monetary incentives! A high purpose generates powerful energies that will drive high performance: That is indeed the practice at MDEC, because working in MDEC is more than a job or a career, it’s about ‘serving the nation with your hand over your heart’.

Coming back to the issues faced by most managers, who after climbing up the corporate ladder have a team to lead: It is often assumed that they have the skills to manage a team, but in practice that might not be the case. A great salesman might not be a great sales team lead, where his job is to motivate, assist and plan for his salespeople to perform. This is where mentoring and coaching is required.

The other point to understand is that in a team, there will some who perform and others who don’t. If you have team members who are not contributors and in fact turn out to be disruptors, they need to be removed quickly and in an open and visible manner. Unfortunately, a lot of line managers prefer to keep these staff on the payroll and avoid uncomfortable conversations. When there is confusion about responsibilities, and no one is really held accountable for performance, managers will struggle to have an open and fair conversation about an individual’s performance. Without accountability, you cannot build a high-performing team.

“Well Done!”

Managers who want to build high-performance teams need to really understand this. If I could borrow again from football: All top Premier League teams are packed with talented, committed athletes, but the reality is that at this level, you can’t build a winning team without a superstar. Liverpool might have discovered one such star in, Mohamed Salah, who just turned 25 years of age and joined the club in June 2017 from A.S. Roma.

In his book, “Leading” Alex Ferguson (with Michael Moritz) said, “the two most powerful words in the English language are ‘Well Done!’ Much of leadership is about extracting that extra 5 percent of performance that individuals did not know they possessed.”

In building a high-performance team, you need a powerful story, committed team members, a couple of superstars and an evaluation system that is fair and open. What’s good for the goose is not always good for the gander, so rewards and expectations must be specific to each member. Add to this a courageous leader and you will have a winner!

Gopi Ganesalingam, Vice President, Enterprise Development, MDEC.

This article first appeared on 27 April 2018 at Leaderonomics, titled “Malaysian Leaders Must Build World-Class High Impact Teams

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