Never Too Old To Innovate
Mr Leow Siew Beng rejects retirement to reinvent himself as Senior Vice President for Organisational Development and Head of the Innovation, Creativity & Entrepreneurship (ICE) programme at CapitaLand
Issue: Jun 2011
Mr Leow Siew Beng uses his years of people management experience to engage staff of all ages, from all countries and walks of life
Senior Vice President for Organisational Development (Human Resource) of CapitaLand Limited, Mr Leow Siew Beng, is a relatively lean and sprightly 64-year-old. His warm and open manner makes it clear he is not one to pull rank or have airs about him.
"I can talk to anyone of any age," says the baby boomer who regularly engages Gen Y employees and Gen X managers alike. "I'm good at putting people at ease; I joke with them, make small talk, ask them about their family, etc. It helps to break the ice."
His sense of humour and affable manner has led to many younger colleagues addressing him as "Uncle Beng".
"I have a provision, if you're older than 40, you can't call me Uncle Beng," laughs the straight-talking man who is one of CapitaLand's 11 "wise men" -- seasoned silver-hair corporate executives personally selected by President and CEO of CapitaLand Group, Mr Liew Mun Leong, to head key positions within CapitaLand.
Creative Reinvention of Role
If creativity is defined as not only coming up with something entirely new but also applying old principles to new uses, then Mr Leow's move to CapitaLand is definitely creative.
He admits it as much, "Coming to CapitaLand has been one of the most creative things I have done in my life. And it has been worth all my years in the public service as well as in the corporate world."
Until his leap into CapitaLand, Mr Leow had been with a statutory board for 16 years and in the private sector for 21 years, with the later years spent as managing director of Eastgate Technology. Then, at 62, just as he was about to take a backseat, he was asked by his university buddy, Mr Liew, to join the real estate giant to help the group in its international human resource management and challenges.
"The scale and transformation of CapitaLand impressed upon me and being someone who wants to continue to be intellectually and physically active to have a meaningful life, I came on board," explains Mr Leow when asked why he took up the offer in his sunset years.
Despite the fact that he had never formally worked in human resource, he was soon won over by Mr Liew's assurance that he was not looking for someone to work on regular human resource functions but someone "experienced and wise" to look into the "people issues" of the company. Mr Leow decided it was all a matter of creatively applying his past experience to a new challenge.
"After all, I have been dealing with people everyday as head of a listed company for years," he points out.
Creative Definition of Work Scope
The vision may have been shared but the work scope in the beginning was very fluid. Mr Leow was given freedom and flexibility to define his work as he saw fit. In doing so, he was not afraid to employ a measure of creativity.
"When I joined, Mr Liew gave me a very broad work scope – anything related to international human resource," recalls Mr Leow.
He thus traveled frequently to visit CapitaLand offices across Asia Pacific to understand the operations and its people there. As part of his portfolio to engage the talents of the company, Mr Leow decided to look into the Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship (ICE) programme launched in 2007. ICE was designed to encourage these very attributes in all CapitaLand staff to give the company a comparative advantage.
"At that time, I was not responsible for the ICE Programme. But I was curious to find out why it was not taking off well. So I took the initiative and volunteered to re-invigorate ICE," says Mr Leow.
Mr Leow at an ICE Camp in China where he led the Corporate ICE team to develop locals to facilitate in ICE camps and spread the ICE DNA to staff in CapitaLand’s largest overseas market
"To me, innovation is exploring better ways of achieving a goal – application. Creativity results in the outcome of a new form or a new product. Entrepreneurship is transforming two of the above into profit," explains Mr Leow.
He believes that ICE is a useful programme to engage talents in the company. He first discovered that suggestions and ideas given by staff under an online suggestion scheme called ICE Berg were not very effectively and timely acknowledged. He quickly came up with a significantly improved process that immediately thanked and acknowledged receipt of ideas. He also overhauled the system to assess and reward the suggestions received every month and the process to follow up on the ideas with the relevant business units (BUs).
Then, he set his sights on ICE Camps. They are organised to nurture creativity and provide a unique platform for colleagues from different BUs to get together and engage in innovative thinking. Over time, though, they had gotten fewer and far between.
"I realised what the problem was in China. They didn't have Chinese materials for the camp and yet China is our biggest growth market with more than 5,000 employees," says Mr Leow.
Working closely with the Corporate ICE team, he soon got the material translated into Mandarin and started organising ICE Camps in Mandarin for China. To meet China’s long terms needs, a programme to train locals to facilitate ICE Camps in China was also initiated. Another idea in the making is an ICE Camp just for the young talents in CapitaLand.
"I am continually thinking of new ways of breaking the ice amongst colleagues to build the ICE DNA in CapitaLand," admits Mr Leow.
To date, 938 employees from Australia, China, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have participated and shared ideas at 29 ICE Camps in 10 cities.
Mr Leow's affable nature and age has enabled him to interact with staff of different generations and handle difficult people issues in the international offices
In Singapore, together with the team, he got creative with his contacts and managed to get major companies like Google, entrepreneurs like Charles Wong and creative experts like Swedish entrepreneur, author and speaker, Fredrik Härén to share with CapitaLand’s Singapore staff about entrepreneurship and creativity.
"There may be concepts and courses to inculcate creativity and innovation. But for entrepreneurship, I believe that apart from being able to identify and seize opportunities, exposure to successful entrepreneurs and networking with them can be motivating and inspiring. We thus organise ICE talks in hope that the entrepreneurial spirit of these successful and well known personalities will rub off on our staff," shares Mr Leow.
Creative Application of Talents
A good part of Mr Leow's job includes engaging with staff around the world and to deal with people issues from time to time. In this, he has had to creatively apply his talents to new uses. Knowledge of the country culture and norms that he had once employed to do business are now used to discern and overcome human relation problems. Skills he had used as a senior executive are now employed to manage people-related issues.
"I stay calm and use logic to handle them. I make them feel that I am there to help and not to create more problems," explains Mr Leow. "Sometimes, I am amazed at how logical I can be. Being older also helps as they would at least give me some respect for my age!"
For this man who never tires of trying something new and is always full of energy despite his age, Mr Leow says that in the last two years, he has gained much gratification from the work he has done.
"What I have experienced in the last few years cannot have been gotten anywhere else. Never have I thought my decades of corporate experience could be creatively used in the many situations I've had to handle at CapitaLand. There is such a sense of satisfaction and achievement. I've had the chance to engage so many people across different countries, cultures and age-groups," says Mr Leow. "I have never been in a company that is so people-centred."