Asian Executive Presence: Kek Sei Wee

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Kek Sei Wee, CEO of IoTalents Pte Ltd, an HR recruitment firm, learnt about leadership through hard knocks. However, the self-confessed introvert was lucky to have mentors that showed him the way to building an executive presence by setting the right examples. There must be something about Sei Wee. When he took the plunge into entrepreneurship, his ex CEO was the first to place the bet on him. 

Today, after 2 startup experiences, Sei Wee knows that presence is not just about being physically present but also about having a presence of the mind. Practising mindfulness, empathy, building trust and deep relationships is Sei Wee’s path towards building leadership and presence.

1. What does leadership and being a leader mean to you? 

I feel the concept of leadership is dependent on the environment and situations.  While there are common attributes among good leaders, a different situational context may require different traits of leadership to excel in them.

Before I embarked on my journey on entrepreneurship, I was a project leader in a shipbuilding environment. Then, I was required to manage a construction team comprising of hundreds of personnel in achieving the project delivery. In such a situation, the leadership style of command and control is required. It is authoritative in nature and uses a top-down approach, but it was effective in getting the job done.

As I embarked on entrepreneurship (I’m in my second startup now), where I was required to build a team from scratch, a people-centric style of leadership is more useful. With small team size, flat organisation structure, a lot of uncertainty in our operating environment, and lean on resources: a people-centric style of leadership allows one to bring the best out of people while operating in an unstructured, dynamic and rapidly changing environment.

I embrace the philosophy of servant leadership. It puts the needs of the team first. This means needing to empathise, coach, mentor and inspire team members to work together towards a common outcome. This also means instilling a culture of leadership in every member of the team, where everyone is a leader: taking charge and responsibility for their own role and responsibilities while looking out for each other as a team.

2. What does having a “presence” mean to you? 

I firmly believe that every tribe needs a chief and a leader with presence. However, for me, the understanding of the need for presence has taken a deeper form with time.

The most fundamental need for “presence” takes a literal and physical form. The need to be physically there: be there to take charge, be there for the team when they need you, be there to rough it out with the team, be there to celebrate every success. As they say, a leader who knows the way goes the way and shows the way.

However, I realised over time that presence has got to do with much more than just being physically there. It is also equally important, to ensure “presence” in the other intangible areas. A good leader should also cultivate the “presence of the mind” on the rest of the team. Such a leader will fully engage the heart and the mind of the people around him.

To achieve, I believe it will require a blend of personal and interpersonal skills combined and built up over time by sending the right signals. This will allow a good leader to lead, even in the sub-conscious mind in the team members, as they know about, believe in, and execute the vision and mission that he has depicted.

This involves building up trust and deep relationship. It requires qualities such as confidence, credibility, charisma to be able to communicate and build connections.

3. How did you build your presence up to now? 

I firmly believe that the ability to build up trust and deep relationship (and ultimately presence) on an on-going basis is an essential trait of any great leader. This is what I actively do to build a presence.

There are many aspects to this, for eg. Have credibility (mastery in what you do, prove that you walk the talk), confidence, charisma, and ability to build connections.

I look up to my ex-bosses as mentors who are themselves established business leaders themselves, namely, Choo Chiau Beng, Michael Chia and Eric Sng. These are people who have personally impact and shaped my personal and professional life. They taught me the value of leadership and good decision-making skills.

Somehow, many of the people I look up to, have the unique ability to apply lateral thinking / dare-to-be-different attitude and perspectives to everything they do (can be business or life at large). I personally find such successful leaders inspiring. Public personas I look up to in this area are leaders like Lee Ka Shing and Robert Kuok .

Regarding personality, I’ve always been an introvert. Although I’m comfortable being in the spotlight, I’ve always preferred to be in the background, being an observer – being the introvert that I’m. 

I feel that this personality of mine, generally made me listen more than I talk. I guess this makes more sensitive and empathetic to people around me and how they feel, allowing me to do the right thing or provide the right response to build up my presence.

 

4. What knowledge/skill did you have to learn on your journey to leadership and building presence? 

I think mastering Mindfulness is the key. This allows one to remain focused when interacting with people and allowing one to make thoughtful decisions and leaving positive and powerful impressions on people around us as a result.

Thankfully I learnt Mindfulness from a friend who practices meditation and strongly believes that practicing mindfulness exercises leads to happier and successful lives.

There is a maxim that can be found across many religion and value system that says “Treat others as one would like to be treated”. This is a key principle that I’ve held in high regard in whatever I do. I believe that people around you will always remember how you made them feel, and this will result in creating a powerful, positive presence that can withstand the test of time.

 

5. How has having presence helped in your career? 

I started my career in a large local conglomerate as a management trainee. When I decide to quit the job to start my own company, I was very privileged to have the chairman of the company wanting to meet me as part of my exit interview.

When I shared my aspirations with him, he not only relented on persuading me to stay on but decide to be my first investor for my first business. That was a pivotal moment on my entrepreneurship journey. Apart from being extremely lucky, I think having established a positive presence in that organisation might have helped a bit!

 

6. What was your greatest challenge? 

 My greatest challenge in business was when it went through a very rough patch during the global financial crisis of 2008 triggered by the collapse of Lehman Bros. In the run-up to that, the business was doing well, and we expanded the team to cope with increasing workload.

However, I got to learn quickly about how businesses can be very directly affected by macroeconomic conditions. The financial crisis affected my pipeline of inbound sales and also impacted my existing projects too. 

I went without personal income in 2009 so that I can keep the company going. It was mental strength and self-believe was what got me through the difficult period.

It is essential to remain focused and optimistic during times like that.

I believed that every crisis has got opportunities that present itself. Since business conditions were slow then, I worked even harder to build up connections and network in the industry. It helped that many other business associates and partners had more time to meet me then too. The relationships I’ve built up during those days proved valuable, as I revived and continued to build up the company once the market picked up in 2010.

7. What was your moment of greatest achievement so far? 

I’m proud of the current IoTalents team that was formed. We have had our share of ups and downs as a young startup, but I’m proud to say that we have got a team of amazing people, creating a great place to work.

We have a good culture and we have set up for ourselves an environment that works. There is still much work to be done, and I’m sure, more obstacles to overcome. However, our team has excellent spirits, a healthy mindset and self-believe which I firmly believe will get us there. I’m so excited about the prospects for IoTalents, that there is nowhere else I want to be right now.

 

8. What advice you would give to an executive/entrepreneur aspiring to build his presence? 

From my perspective, it is vital to gain access to the heart and mind of people that are around. Be curious, be mindful and be a deep listener and observer of people and things around you.

After getting to know more successful people and trying to understand what makes them successful, I think there is no cookie cutter or standard template to success. 

I believe it is essential to be connected to one’s self: your personality, strengths and weakness to internalise a method that works for you. I realised that keeping things authentic and never compromising on core principle and values go a long way.

Leaders that I respect almost certainly have a very confident and commanding presence. However, it is not about being in the limelight, but it has more to do with the ability to attract and command attention when needed.

The Asian Executive Presence is a movement started by Dean Shams to bring an Asian perspective and voice to the topic of developing Executive Presence. The blog features Asian executives, entrepreneurs and leaders who exude presence. They are either hand picked by Dean or nominated by someone. 

(Interview edited by Dean Shams)

ABOUT ASIAN EXECUTIVE PRESENCE

The interviews are meant to gain a deeper understanding of how these individuals think about leadership and build a strong presence. 

You don't have to be a top executive to exude presence. Leadership can be displayed and experienced at any level of the corporate ladder. And the movement celebrates that. 

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