When I’m asked about what influenced me, the answer has nothing to do with work. Sometimes life forces you into situations that can lead to seismic change in your life. In this case, it prompted my transformation from an entrepreneur to a consultant.
During 2009 to 2011, I’ve was working the hardest I ever have in my life. I was a hungry entrepreneur chasing the dream. I started several businesses from scratch, living between Singapore and New York, travelling every week. Being constantly on the road living in Airbnbs, became very destructive for me; eventually, it all started becoming too much.
I put on a ton of weight – 95kg – and I was physically and emotionally exhausted.
Then my second son was born.
Putting family first
I know it’s a cliché, but having kids really is a life-changing experience. I used to think I was invincible – until the first moment I laid eyes on my first son. It made me realise my own mortality. He almost died within his first couple of hours of life and has delayed development that still gives him challenges at the age of seven.
There’s a photo of me falling asleep with my second son, just five-week-old. When I look back at that picture I reflect that it captured a life-changing moment in time: it’s the moment I promised myself and my family that I would never compromise myself to that level again.
Cradling my new-born son forced me to reassess my priorities in life. I knew I had to find a job still offering interesting work but without the same high stress levels.
From then on I’ve been making lifestyle choices around what I want to to focus on.
At the time I had already started getting requests for my advice. And after taking up an offer to become a voluntary advisor to Singapore’s National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre for a digital transformation project, I managed to shift from being an entrepreneur to a consultant working with a number of top brands. And in doing so achieved a far more manageable work-life balance.
Challenge your reality to benefit from a fresh perspective
I can also relate how a similar principle – of forcing someone into a new and unfamiliar situation to change their perspective – lead to my big breakthrough in my advisory career.
It’s the moment I essentially found my niche in helping the financial services sector through some very complex challenges in a conservative, often very disconnected industry.
I’d been contracted for a somewhat conservative, set-in-his-ways financial services client. I was asked to tackle issues around effective branch staffing, digital media and other complications. Eventually I challenged the bank’s CEO – let’s say ‘encouraged’ rather than ‘forced’ – to step out of his office, onto the street, approach complete strangers, and do some first-hand customer research himself.
If you understand the emphasis on strict hierarchical order and deference to authority in Asia, you’ll appreciate this this was somewhat bold. Even for me.
I took him out a branch, where he found a long queue of people and he started speaking to them. What were their issues and concerns, their priorities; what improvements would they like to see made? After a while, he realised: ‘Hang-on! No one is here to carry out banking transactions – they’re here for social reasons.’
That particular bank had for decades positioned itself as a trusted member of the country. The people’s bank. Most of the people queuing were aged over 55 and it had gradually become part of their routine, an integral element of their lifestyles, to go to the branch and check in with someone about the goings-on in their lives.
The bank’s CEO realised that their choosing the branch to meet at could be translated into a positive – it illustrated that people trusted the business. They were just seeking someone offering cordial customer customer service, who would say ‘Have a seat. How can I help you?’ and talk over their problems.
An innovative (caffeinated) solution
That very same day he approved an experiment of setting up small tables with tablecloths and hired a local coffee vendor to serve fresh coffee in the branch. Branch queues went down 74% in less than a day – and the experience changed the CEO’s outlook for the running of that bank franchise from that day on.
That example has become my primary case study for all of my customers; it’s been a key anchor for convincing other brands to realise that, actually, a lot of decision-makers are completely disconnected from their customer. They have no idea what problems their customers are facing.
Since then one of my core missions for my consulting practice has been closing the gap between decision makers and customers.
Sometimes it takes a memorable moment to force you to think, see and act differently for the better of those close to you – and yourself.