As PMEs somewhere down the hierarchy in a company, many of us may wonder how to improve our leadership skills. It can be difficult when we don’t have a team to manage, a project to lead or an initiative to spearhead.

Although our titles can range from junior/senior/lead executive etc, we are nowhere near the level of C-suite executives.

How then can we practise effective leadership in our middle-range roles (or even entry-level roles for fresh graduates)? How can we get ready for the day we are officially given leadership responsibilities?

I had the opportunity to interview Er. Chong Kee Sen, Immediate Past President of The Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES), on a plethora of issues revolving around leadership.

Chong Kee Sen
Photo: Er. Chong Kee Sen

Er. Chong started work as a young engineer with Randal Consultants in 1987 after he graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil and Environmental Engineering).

In 1989, Randal Consultants later merged with two other companies to become Engineers 9000 Pte Ltd. He was promoted to Senior Engineer. Eventually he was made a shareholder of the firm and is currently its Executive Director.

So in short, he rose from a junior engineer to become a shareholder, which is quite a feat!

Speaking to him on his career progression and philosophy was quite illuminating, and I’ve condensed his sharings in 5 things you can do to elevate to boss mode.

1. Be the decision-maker

Sometimes we are so comfortable where we are in our job we forget how to value-add to our company. Yet we wonder why we aren’t getting promoted or rising in our career as fast as others are.

We may have actually unconsciously let others make the decision for us on where our career is headed. Instead, we should decide for ourselves what we want to do in our jobs, and how to get that promotion.

Er. Chong shares that his philosophy is “I choose my destiny. I am the only one who can sack my employer”.

He explains that his work ethic is such that he works hard to be a valuable employee. Hence he can choose to replace his employer, instead of ever putting himself in a situation such that his employer can replace him.

2. Do more than you are hired to do

A distinguishing characteristic of a leader is her ability to lead or influence, no matter what position or designation she is given.

Er. Chong explains if your employer hires you to do Task 1, 2, 3 and you fulfil only these 3 tasks, your boss may think you’re happy where you are.

What if you choose to start doing Task 4, 5 and 6 on your own initiative (with the blessing of your employer) to prove you are ready for a bigger role?

 

Show your employer you’re willing to grow and take on higher responsibilities. Lead in whatever role you may be in.

3. Be prepared to exercise your horizontal skills

As a young engineer, Er. Chong had to learn how to clinch sales contracts.

This meant learning and honing a variety of skills from scratch without formal training. These skills could be sales, accounting, production, business development and negotiation, among others.

Although we learn specific deep skills in our tertiary education, going into boss mode means we should expand our scope of work.

We need to proactively develop our horizontal skills (like a jack of other trades). This helps us to see the big picture and be more useful than just being one cog in the company.

4. Networking and Mentoring Others

Er. Chong says many people today are too focused on just their jobs and their immediate network. He is a big advocate of networking which he says, allows one to see alternative perspectives and widen our view of the big picture.

He himself is providing industry peer-to-peer support for fellow engineers and those who want to join Engineering under the Labour Movement’s PIVOT programme. PIVOT aims to help jobseekers in their job search journey with career and industry support.

 

Graphic: NTUC PIVOT support for jobseekers

Mentoring opportunities are becoming more common now, via school alumni networks or even through informal networks. It’s a good opportunity to stay in touch with what other people think, feel and do. It also helps us develop empathy which is important to have as a future leader.

5. Build the industry you want the future generations to succeed in

If you think there are deep-seated issues affecting your community or industry, do you have the courage to step up and effect change one step at a time?

Er. Chong shared how he has seen the brain drain of good engineers to other fields. This is exacerbated by the prevalent mindset that Engineering is not as attractive as other lucrative sectors. Hence he made it a priority to create more opportunities for engineers to professionally advance, in order for Singapore to retain good engineers.

During his term as President of IES, he launched training programmes with the Labour Movement for young and advanced engineers to develop deep and horizontal skills. To date, 162 engineers have graduated from these programmes.

He is passionate about engaging the younger generations to see how important Engineering is in improving the community, cost of living and quality of life. Hence he is working with Science Centre to rebrand Engineering to young minds come next year.

Looking at the recommendations of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) above, we definitely need bright minds in Engineering to bring to reality the vision of Singapore’s future as a connected city.

Even if a person isn’t in a position of power, Er. Chong says anyone can step up to take the lead in creating the change he wants to see.

 

It can be quite daunting at first, but I think we just have to find that little voice of courage to stand out and know what we passionately want to change, because we chose to.

Featured image: Southeast Asia Globe

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