“Be There. Make it Matter…”

Isyia

When I left her for my studies, she was only 3 years old.

Every attempt at talking to her over the phone ended in failure : my daughter would refuse to talk to me. She was that upset.

Interestingly however, when my family visited our other house in Telisai, my wife told me over the phone that Batrisyia would go around the house….calling for me.

My wife would tell me how she would walk around alone in the big house, going into every nook and corner, calling out for her dad.

Heartbreaking….

Isha never did talk to me over the phone, preferring to see me in person when I come home on vacation. She preferred it that way, I know now. No matter how many toys or books that I had gotten her – there was simply no substitute for fathers to just be there for their kids.

My 3 year old daughter had taught me an important lesson…

“Be there, and make it matter”

The thing is … how many times have we been with our family?  How often are we with them in their activities, or just by simply having dinner or an afternoon out?

Yes, we’ve been there right? We are present during those times. Or are we? How many times have we been present, but then found ourselves busy working the phones, checking our e-mails or focusing on our social apps instead? How many times have dinner been disturbed by things other than family? We’re distracted, distant, virtually somewhere else.

Reality check, please everyone….

And Reality does bite, doesn’t it?!

We need to put down those phones, lay to the side those e-mails, fb statuses and WhatsApp messages. Focus on what matters most.

Be present.

“Be there, and make it matter”

Advertisements

Mom and Understatements….

mom

‘Have you ever treated a person with a gunshot wound?’

I asked my Mom one night. She had been a nurse for the greater part of her adult life.

‘Yes’ came her answer.

I was impressed.

‘Several times I assisted the doctors in the operating theatre.’ she added.

I was very impressed.

‘Maybe around 10 cases or so’ – she was not finished.

Ok Mom. I was WAY impressed!!!

We’re blessed with peace, alhamdulillah : nothing of that sort happens in Brunei.

This had been….

‘….during the communist insurgency in Sarawak’ she said referring to that era in the 1960’s well before I was born.

‘Soldiers mostly’ she said in between carefully picked food. It was dinner after all. And now that I think about it, such a strange and rather inappropriate if not macabre subject for a dinner conversation.

‘Some communists too…’ she added, ‘One fellow escaped through the hospital’s toilet window.’

I raised an eyebrow. This was way past interesting.

‘How did that happen? Didn’t they have guards for that?’ I asked, focusing intently on her.

‘Oh, they did’ answered my mum ‘careless policeman!’

Apparently the communist who had been hospitalised for a gunshot wound to the leg had asked the attending policeman/guard to excuse him for a nature call. The rest was history: he had ‘naturally’ absconded through the toilet’s windows.

‘The next instant…’ continued my mum, ‘the Army ran through the hospital!’

In fact, the Army scoured through the hospital and then for good measure….the countryside for the conniving communist. But it had been quite futile…

‘Disappeared right off!’ She had concluded.

I watched her eat. She had worked in 3 continents including the UK in all sorts of situation. Yet these incidents no matter how extraordinary they were, were only described in her typical low key manner. She could as well be describing some mundane thing such as the act of folding a shirt for all I know.

Yet in the simplicity of her description, I manage to identify my mum’s methods of dealing with stressful situations: humour.

She was also adept at understatements, it seemed.

‘It was work’ she had once told me, smiling.

‘It was work…’

An ode to a luggage bag.

lojel

“Take that one,” my friend Redzuan Sane had said.

I stared at a big lug of a blue bag glaringly different and unique in an expanse of more conventionally styled and coloured luggages in the store. The name Lojel was prominently displayed near the handle.

“Seriously?”, I had asked perhaps a bit sarcastically.

“Yes,”, he had answered, “It’s easier to spot….and sturdy.”

$380 later, I went home with the blue bag in tow, already feeling the deadweight with hardly anything inside.

A few days later, I was in Pittsburgh. Sure enough, the bag was quite easy to spot as it made its way towards me on the conveyor belt. It was also in one piece and had survived the journey through Changi, Heathrow and JFK. My friends’ luggages were sadly slipshod looking. One had burst at the seams. Another looked as if it might not survive another trip. In short, the bag had delivered on all aspects brilliantly.

The bag – now affectionately called The Big Blue Lug travelled with me for quite a bit throughout the years, accumulating scratches, stickers of various places and contained diverse items from the usual clothing, books and electronics to …….

“….Mangoes!”, a Malaysian customs officer had exclaimed as the fruits were unmasked by the xray machine.

“Yup”, I had answered, “It’s from my trees at home.”

He was a bit puzzled as to the lack of smell emanating from the Big Blue Lug. I had scattered within the bag pieces of bread to absorb the smell. It had been a tip from my grandma Hajjah Jasmani and I had just confirmed that it worked.

I could see several principles at work with the Big Blue Lug – but the most stand out was that the bag was literally a Stand Out : I could spot the bag a distance away because it did not blend in with the other bags. When the US president Ronald Reagan gave his first few press conferences, a reporter keen for his attention decided to wear red. It worked. In a sea of blandly dressed reporters, she stood out like a sore thumb! … albeit an attractive one at that.

The Big Blue Lug eventually started to disintegrate as it clocked 10 years. The wheels gave way first and while I commiserated to have them replaced, the seals followed suit shortly. That errr…sealed its fate and my beloved bag was reluctantly retired soon after.

As a child, I had sat on these big boxes or shipping trunks as they were called. They came from an era where people go to places via ships. When you open them up, they have these distinctive whiffs of having being stored for a while. Some say it is the smell of neglect! But i say it is the smell of the ages, of going through different places and of travel.

The Big Blue Lug is a modern iteration of these trunks. In terms of space, it cannot hold its ground against them. But it had gone the distance and had always met the mileage with confidence in keeping its entrusted contents safe and dry from the elements.

Thanks, oh faithful traveling companion! Thank you for your years of service! 😄

Many bags have I used since…but none have come close to your calibre, character and downright indestructibleness.

Travel forth my dear companion.
Into the expanse of the Eternal Travel.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light! 😄

To Saturn and Back…

saturn

She looked like the manager who had just briefed us on the company that morning. Now she had the apron on in addition to her corporate suit, looking out of place behind the counter serving lunch.

As if knowing what I was thinking, she said “Yes, this is my other duty!” and plunked some gravy onto a staff’s food tray.

Apparently managers are expected to serve lunch as well in Saturn (by the way, I am talking about the Saturn motor company, not the planet)

“Ok”, I had thought. These things were supposed to impress upon me. Yet strangely I felt oddly detached and devoid of awe. In my opinion, it was fine for managers to serve their subordinates but it was not an earth-shattering fact. However, in an environment usually set for a pecking order, what Saturn did to turn the tables around and get the Managers to come down from their high horses and join the rest of the workforce, to serve them even, must had been quite epic.

When we came into their building that morning, the Spring Hill Tennessee, USA based company had displayed their latest vehicle models near the entrance: what else would they be doing? You would certainly not put them at the back! These cars were the reason for the company’s existence.

However, the story ran deeper. General Motors – the parent company had wanted to compete with the Japanese manufacturers like Toyota and Nissan. So enter stage right – the Saturn motor company that was run in a similar manner like the Japanese companies. The cars were smaller, heck…Saturn even called them ‘different’.

Spring Hill was chosen as the site of the factory with a sizable chunk of the population there supplying the labour. The initial core expertise came from General Motors of course. However from the get go, Saturn was run like a perpetual experiment in motion.

“We have a corporate university”, the manager had also said earlier, reflecting an uncommon method to retain staff. Corporate students sit for courses in the evenings and earned credits that could be used to enter external universities.

During lunch, we discussed about their methods and compare them to what similar companies were doing. Saturn was building an ecosystem for their workforce’s development. Its ability to compete was directly related to how dedicated its people were in pursuing success in the market. Dedication in turn was earned via a set of support systems that allowed the individual to feel at home, to feel encouraged in self development and to be immersed in a relatively non hierarchical culture. Heady stuff!

And the results showed: Saturn got to be so successful in its corporate approaches that they were able to compete with the Japanese manufacturers for a share in the US market.

However rather than just rattle the Japanese companies, Saturn actually did an unthinkable: it actually grabbed the market share from General Motors. Yes…it competed with the parent company!

And that sadly marked the beginning of the end for Saturn. General Motors closed down the company in 2010, effectively killing a competitor which it had helped create.

Oh, the irony!

Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to the manager in the apron.

I suppose she would have relinquished both her duties as the manager and lunch server. In an environment where corporate culture and experimentation coexist, it was good to see human factors and good will being exercised and considered. But by those same tokens but seen from General Motors’ perspectives, Saturn also paid dearly and unfairly for its efficiency in the market.

Companies come and go. Great companies sustain and stay around longer. Saturn’s demise was after only 25 years since its inception. It was a brief life, no doubt caused by an unclear vision of General Motors and the inability to decipher market dynamics. Saturn had the financial backing and muscles to implement its corporate culture and various workforce benefits and operating principles. But when it came to dollars and “sense”, its very success against the hand that fed it ultimately became responsible for its demise.

And no “corporate apron” in the world however well meaning and large can save it.

So here are the points to take home:

  • Check your basis and reason for being.
  • Check them always.
  • Check them well.
  • Make sure they map properly to your operating principles and culture.
  • Commit and persevere.
  • And reach out and sustain your successes!

Innovation – a Formula

subandi1

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Steve Jobs of Apple understood people and their wants and was able to orchestrate the creativity and design flair of those around him into innovative and highly desirable products such as the ipod, iphone, ipad and iwatch. But that capability came at a cost: Jobs could be a difficult person to work with. Walter Issacson – Jobs’ biographer described how brutally honest Jobs could be when confronted with designs, ideas or processes that were not up to his standards. Jobs was also not the type to “sugarcoat” shortcomings – doing away with niceness and coming across as abrasive instead to those who were ill prepared to deal with him.

Sir Jonathan Ive, Jobs’ longtime collaborator and Chief Design Officer at Apple can attest to the legacy that Jobs left behind when it comes to honesty. “We can be bitterly critical of our work. The personal issues of ego have long since faded.” said Ives in a Time magazine interview, referring to the process of giving honest feedback when going through the creative process.

Companies like Apple have a relatively closed creative process. Its innovation is achieved through a culture that utilises a pool of talented engineers and designers, and because the stakes are high and competition is stiff, product developments are shrouded in secrecy. “Innovation is the driving force behind every successful business,” said Max Messmer, the chairman and CEO of Robert Half International. “Managers should do their best to stretch and challenge their teams to combat complacency.

Messmer – also the author of Human Resources Kit for Dummies, lists six tips to get the innovation juice flowing in work teams:

• Engage the entire team
• Remove the red tape
• Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate
• Do not filter the brainstorm
• Take a break
• Seek inspiration

According to Messmer, when employees are empowered, they will be more innovative and dedicated towards the organisation’s success. It comes as no surprise that in environments where the bureaucracy level is high, innovation becomes a difficult trick to pull off.

Within the organisation, a healthy balance between competition and collaboration is also essential to enable team members to contribute their suggestions and creations. Think of collaboration as a way to leverage the differences in the group: different strengths, different knowledge and different levels or posts. Instead of focusing on the differences, they can be utilised for the benefit of the task at hand. However, managing such varying traits can be difficult particularly in hierarchical organisations that favour position and seniority over knowledge and capability: allowing equal participation would be very challenging. In such situations, there is a need for a culture of innovation and a paradigm shift towards embracing that culture. Too many ideas that are potentially groundbreaking have often been discarded or pre-filtered when differences come into play. It is a good idea to introduce ground rules that give everyone his or her fair share of time to be heard. It is also a good idea to give employees a break once in a while as well, since overworked employees tend to do more harm than good.

This is where inspired leaders can come in and make a difference. Support from the top and setting of the right tone have been described in various situations as being vital for getting the rest of the organisation mobilised to a particular arrangement, standpoint, understanding, approach, perspective or even culture. Organisations come and go. However, the survivability and sustainability are also dependent on the ability of the organisation to reinvent itself. There are inherent risks associated in leading an organisation through difficult but necessary change. A lot of the time, it requires moving out of one’s comfort zone – made up of long held habits, perspectives and ways of working. However, in return for such sacrifices, one does get the possibility of a better future, which in itself is such a profound reason for achieving innovativeness in the first place.

This article was published in the Apr-Jun 2016 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!

To Be or Not To Be

Ayah London

The bus stopped, dislodging me at a rather nondescript part of an English town in front of a plain looking food-shop. Curious, I walked into the smallish shop; only then realising that it was a pizzeria. Inside, there were no tables or chairs: just a counter, a cash register and a bald, bearded tough looking man.

That had been my first encounter with Abdullah. Beneath his seasoned exterior was an enlightened survivor. Abdullah had arrived in the UK as an Afghanistani child refugee. He had braved through the initial culture shock in very trying conditions, adapted, grew up and became owner and proprietor of the little shop that I had just entered.

Such resilience was a characteristic I would know too well as I attended the town’s Loughborough University. Academic life was already stressful enough with its scholarly obligations. To complicate matters, international students were transplanted far from their familiar environment and their usual support structures of family and friends. Those who could not cope would mull badly over trivial matters such as sorting out their accommodation, paying bills or even completing assignments. The resilient ones knew how to roll with the punches. These were the ones who would reach out for support and continue functioning despite experiencing anger, grief or pain.

In the University of Minnesota’s study on developmental psychology, Professor Dante Cicchetti found that resilient individuals usually had good self-esteem, were able to control their ego and impulses, and were flexible in adapting to their environment.

I could observe those traits when I worked for a local publishing company early in my career. The owner – Hj Zainal Bin Ibrahim was indeed a study in resilience. His company had gone through several difficult business challenges but he was determined to plow ahead. He was courteous, seemingly unfazed, had endless patience and an exemplary “Never Say Die” attitude. He was creative in reinventing his company, and in continuously adapting to the local business situation. He made posters and signboards, published magazines, and even produced 3D advertisements for television. But it would take some time and phases before he could find the right conditions that matched his creative ability and business dynamics. His textile company Batik Mas is a fusion of his artistic expression, mastery of medium, and creative collaboration. It is also a testimony of his hard work and persistence.

There are patterns from the experiences of such individuals that we can adopt to improve our own resilience. Here are a few:

Relationships:
Resilient people have a good support base of people they can reach out for support. This acts as a pressure valve and helps them to cope.

Lessons:
We can learn from past experience, and apply it to our future actions. Think of how you have dealt with a previous difficulty. What skills or approaches have helped you?

Adaptability:
Resilient people know what works and what does not: they reinvent themselves to adapt to the situation.

Goals:
Goals help in facilitating accomplishments, and they give a sense of purpose and meaning.

Positivity:
Change is unavoidable. Accepting it patiently and dealing with it the best way you can makes it easier to adapt.

Stephen Covey – The acclaimed author of the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” once said “We are not a product of what has happened to us in our past. We have the power of choice”.

Like the Shakespearean soliloquy “To be, or not to be….”, resilience can be seen as a choice. Being resilient is not easy, but the intrinsic rewards are certainly worth the effort.

This article was published in the Jul-Sept 2016 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!

Superman

superkid

We were running in the old school field during break – a group of 8 year old boys and girls. We did not have any set objective – these things rarely do. I recall somebody wanted to play tag and so it started that way. But before long, it became a race. And there we were – running without a care in the world, in the middle of the soccer field flanked by the school and the mosque.

And that was when it hit me – this notion that I was Superman. I raised my arms, gave a burst of speed and flew off…

I felt the wind blowing against my face as I embraced the air, looking expectantly for the horizon to change as I leave the ground.

Instead, I saw a flurry of green as the ground connected with my face. I tasted grass, earth …. and blood. I pushed up with my hands and lay on my back, eyes closed.

“Oi….”, I heard the voice of a concerned classmate.

I opened my eyes and found the faces of 5 kids above me. One grabbed my hand to help me up. Another touched my lips.

“Oww, oww, oww”, I said as I felt my bloodied lip.

A girl – Latifah gave me a handkerchief for the bleeding. It was embroidered and edged with laces. I took it gratefully, and walked slowly back to class. Nobody asked why I decided to “embrace” the ground, thank God.

But no thanks to Superman!

In a few days, I would return that handkerchief – laundered and ironed back to her. She smiled. I think she knew.

I’ve told this story to my kids several times when they were little. It’s funny to see how they look on in disbelief as the story progressed. Unlike me, they have more common sense and wouldn’t just “fly off” on a whim!

“That must have hurt bad, Daddy”, said Danial.

“Yes, it did…”, I answered.

It was an example of situations that some people might refer to as “being lost in the moment” – characterized by a temporarily pause on reality. It caused me injury, definitely.

But there are those who could tap into the “moment” utilising it to reach a certain objective. Steve Jobs was one of them. His “Reality Distortion Field” or RDF was a term to describe Jobs’ charisma and how it affected those working on the Mac project at Apple. With RDF, Jobs’s could convince himself and others to believe almost anything via a slathering of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence. It could also distort an audience’s “sense of proportion and scales of difficulties” and made them believe that anything was possible.

Interestingly, the term has also been used  in industry to describe managers and leaders who try to convince their employees to become passionately committed to projects without regard to the overall product or to competitive forces in the market.

But back to me….  yes, it hurt when my face connected with the ground.

But hey … for a moment there, I was Superman!

The Man who Fell from The Sky

Hang Glider

“So, you would like to go on the paraglider?”, my friend Abdullah had asked.

I was quiet, weighing it in my head.

Unperturbed, my friend went on “It’s a bit risky. But fun.”

Visions of me breaking a leg…or two flashed in my head. I heard a virtual Mona Harris ‘ cautionary voice (The Mrs’) faintly playing in my ears. I reached out for an equally virtual switch and muted the sound of reason abruptly.

We were approaching the site of Abdullah‘s friend who was about to bring me up into the air. I could see the paraglider in the sky swinging magnificently in the 16c desert air. It looked like an epitome of freedom.

“Ok”, I said making up my mind “let’s go for it!”

As if on queue, the paraglider already airborne and quickly gaining height veered sharply to the ground….and dropped like a stone into the horizon.

Alarmed, Abdullah gunned down our Toyota Tundra towards the spot in the Qatari desert the paraglider had disappeared into.

“My friend!”, he said as we sped across the sand. “My friend! ……I hope he is ok!”

We raced into a fenced-in area. There – just barely missing the fence was the paraglider, it’s pilot grinning as he saw us approaching.

“Power failure!”, he said, gesticulating with his hands his unexpected flight path.

“Are you alright?”, I asked

“Yes, I am fine! It’s nothing”

I looked at his recovery crew entering the fenced in area. They didn’t share his opinions and enthusiasm. They also looked slightly shaken.

“So Subandi, you still want to go up?”, on my right – Abdullah was insistent,

“No thank you!” I had answered. In my head, Mona’s voice had just gotten louder.

Besides, I have a plane to catch that evening…and I wanted to go in that other air contraption in one piece. Later on in the relative safety of another friend’s backyard and in front of his barbecue fire, I learned about Abdullah‘s “a bit risky” assessment of paragliding.

“Oh, Abdullah….yes…. he nearly died a few months ago.”, said my other friend “..broke both his legs when his paraglider dropped off a dune!”

Indeed.

I digress.

I have been guilty before of going forward into unexplored territory, disregarding the risks involved. The thing is risk taking is something akin to having blue eyes or curly hair : either you are born with it … or you don’t have it. However, not having such features is not the end of the story. You can always put in some artificial blue contact lens or wear a curly wig. Nobody will know the difference most of the time between the genuine item and an artificial one. The trick is not to tell them.

But then again – what is the point of doing something that does not come naturally to you?

Mostly, it is about growth and about exploring the limits of your boundary. Some people are natural risk takers. Others prefer to play it safe. Most of the time, there needs to be a balance between taking risks safely and taking risks indiscriminately. 

Business people would probably tell us risk needs to be weighed-in in the context of opportunity and impact.

Risk Scoring matrix

They have tools like the risk and opportunity / impact matrix above to find and justify a certain route or decision, and they go through the motion to reach it. Some people are instinctive and may forgo utilisation of such tools. Either way, outcomes  may vary and may not be as what we initially expected.

Thus the terms “bad decision” or “bad instinct” when things go awry.

For me, that day …. my instincts were telling me NOT TO GO on the paraglider, after seeing it fail. I also liked to see the paraglider operator’s track record! But hey, that’s just me.

It also shows that sometimes wanting to be realistic and having fun do not exactly go hand in hand.

There needs to be a balance between having an informed decision and daredevilries if ever you want to have specific elements of fun.

But only do it if your life is NOT HANGING IN THE BALANCE!

🙂

The Coconut

coconut

I had been playing with the drooping leaves of a not so high coconut tree after my 2 elder relatives – Haji Daud and Haji Hashim had finished putting up The Arch or a Gerbang in our driveway. Back then in KB – people coming back from the Haj would be greeted by a decorated arch when they had reached their homes. Ours would be no different when my mom got back from her Haj.

Leaves from the coconut tree had been used to beautify the wooden arch. It was a brilliant and highly creative job utilising natural materials – something you don’t see much nowadays. After the adults had gone, I remember going to the nearby coconut tree, and pulling the coconut leaves down from the shortish tree in some pretend game. I was 9. That was a good enough excuse for it!

In the next instant, I remember a rustling sound overhead. I looked up and saw a green orb growing steadily larger and larger. My curious mind was trying to determine the nature of the object, in an apparently over-analytical mode – fascinated at its increasingly large size by the second. Obviously I had failed to realise that it was a fairly heavy water-laden coconut on its way down.

Less than a second later, it had connected with my forehead. I saw stars (not sure about the constellation though!) and heard a honking from a car on the nearby road. Somebody had actually witnessed the whole thing…..and was laughing.

A minute or so later, I was upstairs lying back on my Grandmother’s rocking chair, sweating and closing my eyes trying to breathe through the pain. An aunt was beside me trying to determine the extent of my injury but only finding a steadily growing bump above my left eye brow.

My uncle had other ideas.

I heard him ask, ” Bandi, is this The Coconut?”

I opened my eyes through the pain.

I saw the smiling face of my uncle.

He was asking me to identify a fruit.

Apparently he had gone downstairs to the lawn, picked up the offending coconut and carried it upstairs. It was a scene straight from the movies with me being interrogated by a cop. The cop who happened to look eerily like my Uncle seemed to be asking me The Question ….

“Is this coconut the weapon involved in the incident?!”

That week, I wore the scar of the incident with pride. When kids at school asked what had happened, I simply answered,

“I fell down. I got stitches”

The look on their admiring faces would buy me a few moments of being identified as a tough guy/hero. I was only truthful to a boy about the real incident, while waiting for my mom to pick me up from school.

His response?

“A coconut fell on your head? …..Really?! …A coconut…a coconut fell on your head?!….HAAAAAA HA HA HA!”

I learned to keep my mouth shut from that moment.

I also learned the following:

  • Move away from the trajectory of a falling coconut.
  • Do understand that it is not a growing green orb. It is a coconut. Get that straight.
  • It hurts when it connects with your forehead.
  • Do not overanalyse the green orb. Move away! Prioritise the moving away! Analytics can come in later! Self preservation first!
  • Be truthful about what happened to you…. otherwise, keep your silence!

Years later, I also found out that a lot of those realisations and lessons do apply at the work place. Go figure!

But that’s Life 🙂