“Organisations in Singapore Place an Informal Emphasis on the Mentor-Mentee Relationship”: Prof Kevyn Yong, ESSEC Asia Pacific

September 30, 201610:10 am
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As organisations in Singapore and Asia Pacific placing significant emphasis on creating a culture of continuous learning for employees to upgrade their skills, and train them for leadership roles, the mentor-mentee relationship has grown to become informal with time.

With rapid technological advancements, the role of a CIO has evolved from being a supportive function in nature to become a more proactive one. Hence, companies are required to reinvent possibilities and reimagine skills that will be required to maintain a sustained competitive edge.

In an exclusive interview with HR in ASIA, Professor Kevyn Yong, Dean of ESSEC Asia Pacific shares with us his unique experiences and ideas on the future of learning and development in digitally-empowered workplaces of tomorrow.

  • How important are executive training programs for career development and upgrading skills to excel in a job role?

I would say executive training programs are critical for career development. As people progress through careers, they will need to undergo retooling, which is the learning of a newer version of something you already know and upgrading of existing skills,and uptooling, which is learning something new. This is where executive training programs come into play.

Another reason why executive training programs are important for career development is leadership development. More often than not, undergraduate programs tend to focus more on imparting technical skills and knowledge.

However, when new graduates join the work force, they tend to be put in functional roles, and in such instances, they will not get that many opportunities to develop leadership skills. With time, an employee will progress in his or her career. Promotions come along and sooner or later, leadership roles will follow suit. Executive programs help to create a way for employees to pick up or revisit leadership skills.

Professor Kevyn Yong, Academic Dean, ESSEC–Asia Pacific

Professor Kevyn Yong, Dean, ESSEC Asia Pacific

  • Organizations are now focusing on L&D (learning and development) initiatives to groom talent to assume leadership roles early on in the executive career. Is the executive training curriculum at ESSEC designed to stay abreast of the industry skill demands?

Yes, absolutely. We work with companies to develop their leadership programs. We have several clients that we work very closely with and we customize the programs for their needs.

For instance, one of our clients is a well-known food manufacturer, and we are involved in the design of one of their leading programs, the ‘New-Gen’ program. This is a customised program for selected individuals with high leadership potential within the company. In this program, we cover the notion of innovation, which includes concepts like design thinking and digital transformation, to help leaders under the program learn and lead innovation.

For another client in the pharmaceutical industry, we work with them to customize a training program designed for executives in middle management who have been identified for top executive leadership roles. These candidates have the potential but possess limited experience in strategic thinking and leadership skills, so our role here is to help them develop these skills so as to enable them to ease into their roles successfully, with the eventual aim of helping the company grow and develop.

  • What are some of the critical challenges to learning and development faced by organizations in APAC?

There are 3 key challenges:

Leadership skills: A lot of employees are talented functionally, and they are good at technical skills for which they were hired for. Generally, employees at this level do not get opportunities for leadership development, and they need to be groomed before they are able to assume higher-level roles.

Innovation: In business, critical challenges and new competition will always surface through time. As the industry develops, new trends and technologies are introduced. No matter how successful you’ve been in the past, it will not be sustainable unless you continually learn to improve and innovate.

Digital: We are clearly in a digital age, so it is imperative for companies to understand “digital”. In some cases, it may be necessary for companies to transform digitally, i.e., introduce technology into their work process. In other cases, transformation may not be a necessity but they still need to understand the disruptions that technologies and digital changes can cause to the industry, and respond accordingly to those changes.

  • Do you think organizations in Singapore are placing emphasis on mentor-mentee relationship and the process of continuous learning for employees?

I think organizations in Singapore place an informal emphasis on the mentor-mentee relationship. From my experience, there is a fair amount of informal relationships between mentors and mentees in local companies. There are some organisations that have formal mentor-mentee programs but in my opinion, the informal relationships tend to be more effective and beneficial to the mentee. As the relationship is not formal to begin with, the mentor is intrinsically motivated to engage the mentee.

For successful mentoring to happen, a lot depends on the value systems and the motivation of the mentor, and vice versa. Informal relationships emerge without being forced by a formal program; they emerge from a certain chemistry that has been created with the mentee.

Often times, both mentor and mentee share similar attitudes about work, their vision for the company and future. Hence, there is a stronger connection here. The problem with organic mentor-mentee relationship is, while they are more successful, both parties run the risk of thinking too much alike. Instead of learning something new from each other, the relationship might end up reinforcing an existing approach, and innovative thinking is lost.

Separately, there is definitely an emphasis on the process of continuous learning in Singapore. Companies in Singapore value it and emphasise it implicitly. Singapore is an environment where you learn through experience so the idea is to go out there, get more new experiences and challenge yourself.

There are some organizations with very strong L&D initiatives, and they tend to have a range of programs that cater to each level of development. Companies with an in-house academy tend to have programs for every level of leadership, including the top management.

  • How are organisations now implementing the culture of “Experiential Learning”?

Yes, we’ve noticed that more organizations are open to the idea of experiential learning, and this is something that we inculcate at ESSEC. For example, through our Entrepreneurship Project, which is part of our Executive MBA program, we teach things like design thinking to enable participants to create new value, and to spot new opportunities.

We also teach business model innovation and entrepreneurship-related skills. Part of the entrepreneurship project is the idea of participants taking what they have learnt in the classrooms from professors and applying it to a real-life scenario, by providing free consulting for participating start-ups.

On one hand, the participants are putting their knowledge into practice by providing free consulting for the start-ups. On the other hand, the start-ups are providing a life business case for them to apply their knowledge.

See: 5 Easy Hacks to Develop a Culture of Continuous Learning

  • With the entrepreneurship landscape booming in Singapore and most of Asia, how are training programs at ESSEC customized to encourage entrepreneurship development in the region?

At ESSEC, our training programs depend largely on the customised needs of the company. We work closely with clients to gain a clear understanding of their needs, before developing a training program that is customised to fulfil their training needs and learning outcomes. Generally, we focus on three key areas: leadership, innovation, and digital.

For instance, we have developed several open enrollment workshops that are designed to impart important entrepreneurship skills like design thinking, business model innovation, and digital transformation to executives. In this digital age, the way people do businesses has changed and evolved. Hence, it is imperative for businesses to pick up on this developing trend in order to stay relevant and manage competition.

  • Share with us some of the key lessons of entrepreneurship every entrepreneur should bear in mind before venturing into the current volatile economy.

One of the key aspects of successful entrepreneurship is to never give up and to always be up for the challenge. Starting up a company is not easy, but in order to be successful, there are two very important aspects that any new founder should focus on: to know the industry in which they are trying to start up a company, and to continually identify new opportunities.

A lot of start-ups tend to use a “me too” strategy, where they offer something that is just like their competitors’, with no differentiating factor. Often times, these strategies do not lead to long-term success due to lack of a good business model.

Hence, it is very important for entrepreneurs to understand the value proposition, they deliver to the market. A good start-up is one that has good fundamentals and ideas, a sound business model, a solid implementation plan, and an effective market access plan. This is basically how to develop good business in the long term.

Many times, entrepreneurs do not have all the knowledge, skills, and resources necessary, such that they can seek mentors or people to learn from. It is imperative that they learn about the industry, the technological changes,and innovations in the industry, from people who have more experience than they do.

They must learn from people who have failed too. And if they don’t have the skillsets, they must also be open to the idea of hiring someone who has those skills to join them to work alongside.

  • How are Asian entrepreneurs different from their global counterparts? Is the Singapore government supporting entrepreneurship development in the country?

When it comes to resilience, learning, and possessing good business fundamentals, there are no significant differences. Regardless of whether Asian, European, or American, all the successful companies share the same traits. They are willing to experiment, and they continually seek out true opportunities to create value for people and for the market. They are always thinking, “How can I deliver value in a better way?”

Generally,I would say European entrepreneurs fail when they don’t “think Asian” enough, and Asian entrepreneurs fail when they don’t “think European” enough. Research suggests that if you grew up in a Western culture, you’re more individualistic and more likely to come up with ideas that are different from others’.

However, we know that success does not just come from thinking differently. After thinking of new fresh ideas, you still have to do up a business plan, execute those ideas, and make it effective. Conversely, if you grew up in an Asian culture and are more of a collectivist, you tend to place more emphasis on developing harmony and team work.

Usually, these individuals place great importance on implementing proper processes and good business models.The point here is that to be a successful entrepreneur, you’re trying to do two contrasting things, but your culture only teaches you one, and therefore, failure tends to occur.

I think the Singapore government does offer great support for entrepreneurship, and they’ve pumped in a lot of investments towards supporting entrepreneurship for the long term. First, there is a lot of infrastructure in place – initiatives like JTC’s Launch Pad and the Action Committee for Entrepreneurship. Spring Singapore and IE Singapore both provide a lot of funding programs to support great ideas, locally and internationally.

The Singapore government has also provided special incentives to entrepreneurs (such as lowered corporate tax) and made it easier for interesting new start-ups to come to Singapore.

  • How does ESSEC work towards meeting executive training needs and customize solutions for businesses and companies in Singapore?

At ESSEC, we focus on leadership, innovation, and digital. We reach out to companies who have shown an interest in these areas, or sometimes, they approach us instead. When it comes to developing customised programs, we take on a very simple approach. We spend time with our prospective client to identify their needs and then develop the first iteration to deliver it to them. However, we don’t simply stop here.

The idea here is to engage our clients by going through several iterations until we get it right. Through experience, we find that the earlier drafts help both our business needs – for ESSEC to gain a clearer understanding of our clients’ requirements, and for our clients to understand their own needs better. This allows us to co-create the program with our clients. And that’s our key differentiator.

  • What are the future L&D (learning and development) trends you foresee for organisations in Singapore?

I expect to see a lot more L&D programs focus on the digital aspect, and I believe certain roles within companies will change – from a supporting role to a more proactive one.

For example, the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of a company would originally be responsible for the computer systems of his company. His role was to provide the computer infrastructure, and he played a supporting role. Today, with evolving technologies and the digitalization of everything (including companies, industries, and business models), the role of the CIO is no longer just supporting the company’s infrastructure. The role now involves the ability to strategise and develop new business models that leads to competitive advantage of every company.

Moving forward, another of the L&D trends I foresee is the changing role of leadership positions. Be it the CIO or Chief Marketing Officer, they are going to have to reinvent their responsibilities and reimagine the kind of skills and knowledge they need to possess in order to stay competitive.

Employees will gradually move away from following top-down instructions to utilise a more innovative approach. Every employee in the company is expected to be a strategist or an innovator, in order to drive competitiveness.

Further you can also expect to see more companies embracing the idea of continuous training across the entire organization, and not just in leadership roles. Currently, executive training programs are targeted mainly at the leadership positions. I think it is an increasing challenge for organizations to provide training for its employees at different levels. As companies get bigger or become more competitive, they need to retool and uptool every single individual that works for the organization.

Lastly, companies would gradually become more outward-looking, and they need to have more international outlook. Since companies need to become more global, the new focus for L&D initiatives will steer towards training their executives to become global business people, and be able to do effective business with other cultures.

Also read: Creating an Innovation-Driven Corporate Learning Culture