Real People: How To Spot A Leader, A Follower, and A Rebel

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In the run-up to Malaysian Confessions: Real Entrepreneurs, Real Stories, we take a closer look at one of the highlights at the event: Michael Teoh and Kean Peng from Thriving Talents.

In our interview, we talked about the differences between leaders, followers and rebels — and why you need all of them in your company to have a thriving work culture.

A Brief Introduction to Thriving Talents

[Michael (left) and Kean Peng (right) together, lead Thriving Talents]

Michael Teoh has been one of the youngest board members in public organisations, where he had the opportunity to advice 4 Malaysian Education Ministers in the past, a Global Advisor for Microsoft’s Youth Spark initiatives, met President Obama, and in a funny anecdote he shared with me, he even has a written letter of recommendation from Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand during his university days.

The company he founded, Thriving Talents, is equally globally-focused, having offices in 41 countries aside from Malaysia, his home base.

Kean Peng is Head of Customer Success and Michael’s closest partner.

If Michael is the quintessential leader, Kean Peng is the second-in-command. Quiet, unobtrusive, focused, he lets Michael do most of the talking and interjects only when he needs to.

Kean Peng oversees the team in Thriving Talents and has been working with companies of all sizes, from startups to MNCs, and has been greatly involved with Industry 4.0 technologies.

First impressions

[Pictured: Kean Peng (left) and Michael (right) with the staff of Thriving Talents in their office in Puchong.]

My first impression of their main office was filled with colourful pictures of their staff on different company retreats, people bustling about making sales pitches, and the clack-clacking of keyboards.

Then Michael bounds up to me, all smiles, clad in a stylish purple suit.

“Hi! You are from In Real Life? Welcome!” He enthuses.

Michael shows us to the coworking space which houses Thriving Talent’s satellite office, and we were soon joined by Kean Peng. Reserved, but flashing me a warm smile, he settles down next to Michael, and we begin the interview.

1. Can you spot who among your team are the leaders, the followers, and the rebels?

Michael: Leaders do not necessarily have to be in a position to lead. Leaders are characterised by their qualities — proactive, resourceful, and able to make things happen.

Kean Peng: Leaders are the type of people who, when you delegate a task to your team, they’ll be very proactive. They’re resourceful, take ownership, and come up with more ideas for you.  You’ll find that leaders are the ones who’ll say: “This might work, why don’t we try this?”

Followers are people who — if you don’t tell them to do something, they won’t do anything— those are the followers.

You’ll find when you share tasks with your team members, followers will come up to you asking for more jobs, but they struggle to come up with more ideas and work on it themselves.

For us, we always encourage our team to show us ideas and execute them. Even if it fails and causes some losses, at the end of the day, you can learn something from it.

As for the rebels — they are those who give a lot of complaints and feedback (laughs).

Actually, I believe there are two types —  the bad ones complain a lot but don’t take any action. The good ones complain, yes, but at the same time, they are taking action to change. So there are good rebels and bad rebels, depending on how you see it.

2. Which kind of employee is good for the company?

Kean Peng: You need all of them! Even the followers and the bad rebels. Imagine if you had 11 Messi’s in the football field, can Messi be a good goalkeeper or defender?

Kean Peng: There are times where we really need team members who are proactive, and there are times we really need team members to be the followers.

Michael: If I may interject, the strength of the follower is they are the executors —  they complement and collaborate with the leaders, the proactive ones.

3. Who are the ones you consider bad for the company?

Michael: There are those who we call, the “toxic” rebels. They are easy to recognise: Those that complain a lot, who quarrel with others, who affect morale. If you ask them how to better the company, they may say:

“Aiyah, didn’t buy for me my car ah, walau eh!”

“Wei, I just met boss eh. Walau eh, I ask him ah, I need a car ah, he say back, “what can I do?” Walau, “what can I do?” Better I become my own boss lah.”

That’s the sort of talk you need to cut out.

Kean Peng: But if you’re talking about the good rebels, they are the ones who will sometimes have to spark new initiative, new ideas to you. Sometimes, this feedback is good for us to reflect as a leader: Are we steering the company in the right direction?

Michael: Because if you are proactive as a person, even if you consider yourself a “follower”,  if you don’t like something, and if the company has a platform for you to share openly, then, you can be that “good” rebel as well.

Of course, we always ask them first “Why are you not happy?” So you can see whether they’re the good or bad rebel before jumping to any conclusions.

[Michael and Kean Peng with me and Ingrid, our videographer/intern]

4. What sequence of questions do you ask someone to find out their core motivation?

Michael: The secret towards understanding anyone’s core motivation is to be as specific, and as real as possible.

Number one: Ask them to describe “what makes a fulfilling day at work?”

So if the person says, “No la, I want to be happy.” — What is happiness to you? Is it money? Is it the experience?

“Oh, money lah.”

How much money?

“If I can get paid 50,000 ringgit a month I’ll be happy.”

What is that money used for?

“No need to work any more mah.”

Why don’t you want to work any more?

“Oh, I want to give my mother a better life.”

So you know now the mother is the key. Then, as the manager or boss, you have to capture all those points.

And then, to the best of your ability, you have to try to cater to their job description to match what they want.

5. Was there ever a time where you had to talk to someone who was seriously unhappy in your company?

Michael: It was last year. In our team, we had a breakdown from one of the crucial members of the team.

It was 11 am. One of my core leaders got fed up with it all — she packed her bag and just went back home.

All the other team members went and stood outside her apartment and begged her to come back. When she came back to the office, she was on the brink of crying.

I asked: “What’s wrong?”

She said: “You know, I’m very sick of my job! I’m always in the office doing client liaison.”

I said: “Okay. But that’s what you wanted to do, right?”

She said: “Yeah, but — No, I wanna be like you and Kean Peng! I wanna go out and meet clients! I wanna pitch!”

I was pleasantly surprised. So I said: “Okay, awesome! Follow me next week!”

So next week, we pitched to a company for a 300-people team-building event. I went there and she followed me as my assistant.

I pitched to the board, and after 20 minutes of pitching, they said: “We like what we hear. Okay lah, you get to do the training.”

Later, as we left the meeting room, she said incredulously: “All the board members, you saw or not? Out of eight, five were playing with their phone, three were looking at you with utter disgust, and yet, we still got the job?”

She was shocked. She had never expected pitching to be like this.

I said, “Oh well, welcome to the real world.”

Now she’s happy to stay in the office. Next week, I asked her: “You wanna come for the next pitch?”

She said: “No, no, no, oh my God, I’m sooo grateful that I’m in the office right now.”

I said to her: “Yeah but, that’s the people you meet sometimes.”

6. Is a company’s DNA derived from its leaders?

When it comes to company leadership, you can have many different types of leaders.

A company may evolve and adapt, according to the change of market, according to the change of the culture it has to adopt at that period of time, to remain competitive, and types of leaders that are leading it.

But, there’s only one thing that the company should not change at the drop of a hat: Values. Values are your compass. Whenever as a leader you are lost, always refer back to your values.

Thriving Talents has derived the lessons learnt in this story from Fortune 500 companies across the world that they have worked with and trained since 2012.

Come hear Michael Teoh and Kean Peng speak at Malaysian Confessions: Real Entrepreneurs, Real Stories

Event Details

Malaysian Confessions: Real Entrepreneurs, Real Stories.

Date: 7th March 2020 (Saturday)

Time: 9am – 6pm

Venue: UnionSPACE, APW Bangsar (Click here for location via Google Maps)

Facebook event page: RSVP here

For more information, check out our event webpage.

For more stories like this, read: 4 Inspiring Lessons We Can Learn From These Malaysian Entrepreneurs and Stress, and How to Handle It – by Raja Jesrina Arshad, Co-Founder & CEO of PurelyB.

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