A decade of insights into managing and leading

One of my mentors is Michel Le Quellec, the CEO of Thailand's Wall Street Institute English School. We meet regularly to learn from each other and share thoughts on leadership. He's one of a few people I know who always asks great questions. Recently he got me talking _ and thinking _ about the work I've been doing.

"Khun Kriengsak, how long have you been doing one-on-one executive coaching?" he began.

"Ten years."

"And what have you learned during that time?"

"Michel, I focus my leadership coaching on three specific areas: coaching expats to work with Thais, preparing successors for CEOs and acting as a sounding board for CEOs. In each area, there are different learning points."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well, for example, when I'm coaching an expat, I learn the Thai workforce has changed in terms of demographics. We have more knowledge workers and more Generation Y people in the workplace. These groups are smart, assertive and open-minded. They speak up, they're well-educated and good at English communication. They don't care much about staying long in one place. These groups work well with an expat. On the other hand, we still have a large number of conservative Thais. This group still holds on to the Thai values of kreng jai, hai kiat, seniority, humility and so on. This is a group still creates frustration for a new expat."

Michel interrupts with interest. "Kriengsak, how much change have you seen from the expat side?"

"Not much. I see quite similar patterns to what I saw 10 years ago. Here are some of the patterns:

- Most new expats think they understand Thais in the beginning but after a while admit they're wrong.

- The newcomers are focused too much on creating a high impact on business and ignore the need to understand the Thais around them. Once the relationship is damaged and starts to affect the business, they start to pay more attention on how to work with Thais.

- The common misunderstandings about Thais are: yes doesn't mean yes; smiling doesn't mean I like you; the Thai definition of a promise and that of a foreigner are different; and the magnitude of kreng jai [consideration of others]."

"Kriengsak, what about dealing with CEOs' successors?"

"This is an interesting part compared with 10 years ago. At this moment, we have enough qualified CEO successors in most leading organisations. Some organisations have two or three candidates ready to replace the chief executive immediately. These leading organisations have done a tremendous job in preparing up-and-coming leaders.

"Unfortunately, the tragedy is in the talent pool for senior executives. Most leading organisations have enough good C-Level executives, but for these executives' successors the talent pool is very shallow. This will create a long-term problem, as we'll have leaders who are not as strong while the business environment is in greater flux."

"Interesting. What about your experiences as a CEO's sounding board? And by the way, what does that really involve?"

"As a CEO's sounding board, I listen to his or her agendas and concerns. I challenge their viewpoint whenever it's necessary. I ask them to think of more alternatives. Finally, I act as a 'thermometer' for employees when a CEO wants to implement a sensitive policy involving people."

"Exactly how do you act as a sounding board? What do you teach a CEO?"

"No, I'm not capable of teaching a CEO. As an outsider, I have no personal agenda to promote to the CEO. I'm not worried if he fires me, whereas an employee would be. I listen to the CEO's agenda. Then I help him to reflect on his judgement by asking critical questions.

"From time to time, I challenge his ego by asking tough questions as well. A great CEO needs to have a high ego, otherwise he wouldn't succeed. But it has to be the right level of ego. Sometimes, someone may have too high a level of ego, and I help to bring down that ego."

"You've met many successful CEOs. What are some of the surprises you've discovered?"

"A lot. Let me give you some examples:

- CEOs are people. There is no perfect one. He or she has the same psychological needs as the rest of us. They are great in a few things, average in a lot of things and also not so good in many things. They have great judgement in some areas and poor judgement in other areas.

- Most successful CEOs want to learn and improve themselves all the time. I've met several executives who've said to me, 'He's the CEO, he doesn't need to learn this.' That's not true. The world is changing so fast. A really great CEO doesn't stop learning. The people surrounding them have somehow bought into this myth that CEOs don't need to learn. Perhaps they should check with the CEO before they jump to any conclusions.

- People surrounding a CEO expect the CEO to read their minds. This is a common assumption I've learned from doing 360-degrees interviews around CEOs. The people who report to the chief executive assume the boss is supposed to know how they feel by reading their minds instead of sharing with the CEO what they feel. Most CEOs are busy with the business and could easily ignore some people aspects of the job. This gap needs to be managed."

Kriengsak Niratpattanasai provides executive coaching in leadership and diversity management under TheCoach brand. He can be reached at coachkriengsak@yahoo.com.

About the author

Writer: Kriengsak Niratpattanasai
Position: Writer