The Ancient Formula
Once upon a time, way back in 2007, after many years of conducting in-house management and staff engagement forums, it began to dawn upon the management that the interest and attention of the participants were beginning to wane. In that year alone, a total of seven sessions were conducted, targeting the different levels of the organisation — senior management, management, and executives.
Petronas, Malaysia’s only global Fortune 500 corporation with operations in multiple countries, began with just a handful of people in 1974, when it was founded. I joined the corporation in 1982, within the first 10 years of its incorporation, and was privileged to get to know many of the pioneers in the organisation.I have served the founding managing director, the late Datuk Rastam Hadi, in my capacity as the Legal Adviser and Company Secretary of Petronas Marine Sdn Bhd and Gerudi Satu Sdn Bhd, double- and triple-hatting with many other roles in Petronas Carigali Sdn Bhd.
I was also privileged to serve under subsequent leaders of the organisation at various levels. In those days, doing several jobs or holding different roles was common. Multi-skilling and multi-functioning were already practised and the norm back then, even before the terms were coined or made popular.
I would guess that Petronas would have close to 50,000 people employed in all their operations today. In such a big organisation, back then and now, it is a real challenge to effectively engage everyone so that they are fully aligned and very motivated to deliver on the company’s mission and vision.
A lot of efforts and time were therefore devoted to people’s engagement by the whole leadership echelon, from the chairman downwards all the way to the shop floor, as the expression goes. In Petronas, one of the ways this was done was through holding various management fora targeting the various levels in the organisation.
These face-to-face engagement sessions were powerful avenues to connect with as many people as possible. Physical interaction is a powerful platform to connect and interact directly with people in the organisation. The sessions were well attended and provided very powerful opportunities to engage management and staff at various levels.
However, over time, the excitement and energy levels were waning. The management was worried that if nothing was done to refresh the approach, we would run the risk of losing the attention of the staff, especially the younger ones who were joining or had recently joined the organisation. Obviously, they were of a different generation, probably learned faster, and were generally smarter.
In other words, the generational gap was at play, and getting their attention was a real challenge. I was approached by the Human Resources Division for my suggestion as to what could be done and, specifically, whether there was any fresh idea that the organisation could adopt under the prevailing circumstances.
After mulling over the question for a while, I suggested that perhaps we should change the format and “just tell the participants of the various fora stories.” Not just any stories, but real-life stories based on real-life experiences, with powerful and appropriate messages that would serve the objective and purpose of the various forums being held.
Early human story telling can be seen in the rudimentary paintings left behind by our cave-dwelling ancestors, which tell stories about what they did in those days and times. In fact, those stories served not only their immediate viewers in the caves back then but even modern humans, who can still read and ‘hear’ the tales told on those cave walls.
This article shares how story telling became a feature of Petronas’ wide array of tools to get the attention of the staff and how it provided an additional approach in the search for more effective ways to get their corporate messages across and get everyone fully engaged.
My rationale for proposing the idea was rather simple and based on basic common sense. I observed and reasoned out that the new generation joining the organisation was smart, intelligent, well-rounded, and also widely read. So by definition, an academic and formal approach may not have the desired impact or will have limited success. There has to be a different way to engage them, preferably something they have not experienced or come across.
My suggestion that management should tell stories or deliver narrations of actual, real life experiences was given a name. The term we used was “Personal Change Journey Stories” and was premised just on one simple idea: that humans seem to learn better by listening, observing, doing, and also sharing. And credit to the Human Resources Management Department at that time — they were game for a new approach.
Based on that premise, I was asked to share some stories about my own personal change journey. I must confess that when I was first approached to do so, I wasn’t so sure if I had any worthwhile ‘battle stories’ that were compelling enough to be shared. Maybe, in a casual social context, yes, it could be natural and fitting, but not to a large audience of experienced and intelligent people, many of whom graduated from top universities around the world and locally.
I soon realised that an ordinary, everyday experience shared in an honest and sincere manner can and does have a powerful effect and would get the attention of the listener. Notice how people or your friends pay attention to you when you share some everyday things or experiences with them — nothing that is earth-shattering or equivalent to a world-changing discovery; just ordinary occurrences about everyday life and ordinary conversation.
But told from a first-person perspective, such stories or narration can be powerful. The genuine feelings and real experiences are the key ingredients that make the stories come alive, and make the listener want to listen and keep listening.
Below, I will attempt to share some stories that I told to Petronas Management Forum participants in 2007. The stories have been captured and committed to writing in the corporation’s in-house magazine, “Senada,” to ensure a wider readership amongst the staff population.
Story 1: The Hockey Challenge
A story about the value of persistence and preparing oneself for a leadership role. I first learned what the game of field hockey was when I was about 17 years old. I was born deep in the interior of Borneo where there was no TV and radio was a rarity, a luxury. Anyway, in order to further my studies to Form 6, I had to come down from Marudi and then to Miri town to attend the boarding school at what was popularly known as “Tanjong Lobang College”, or “TLC” but by then the name had already been changed to Kolej Tun Datuk Patinggi Tuanku Hj Bujang.
It was the best school in the state of Sarawak at that time, and the best students from all over the state were selected to be sent there. While studying there, I first learned about and actually saw people playing field hockey at the Gymkhana Club in downtown Miri.
I remember thinking that this ‘stick and ball’ game was such an exciting and fascinating one. It incorporated swashbuckling and martial weaponry, as well as the concepts of daring and panache. The right game for an adrenaline-filled youngster. My cousin, the late Sigar Tidan, was a splendid sportsman and an excellent hockey player. He was my role model.
I decided then and there, that I would pick up the game and teach myself how to play it. So later, I bought myself a ‘Karachi King’ hockey stick and a hockey ball and started hitting and dribbling the ball around our school football field most days after school in TLC at that time.
One day in 1976, Ahmad Said, one of a handful of senior Petronas executives dispatched from Kuala Lumpur to oversee and supervise what Shell was doing in Miri, saw me playing on my own in the field.
While driving through our college, Ahmad Said saw me and observed how I was engrossed in playing alone with the hockey stick and a ball. He noticed the keen passion that I was putting into the game. Years later, he said he saw the potential in me and, on the spot, quickly offered me a place in his team, saying, “Come, you should join the Petronas Hockey Team!” I was ecstatic that Ahmad Said, a stranger to me then, offered me the opportunity to play the game of hockey and be part of a real team.
Unbeknownst to me back then, that was my first step towards getting into Petronas. The hidden hand of destiny saw to it that I was destined to serve Petronas. In fact, after my HSC examinations, and while waiting to apply for a place in the local universities, one day, a cousin called Osart passed me a scholarship application form from Petronas that someone had given him earlier.
Osart told me, “I couldn’t get a place from UPU in the local universities, so you can have this form and should try for the Petronas scholarship!” And in short, that was how I got a scholarship from Petronas, and by virtue of being a scholar, I ended up working for them for 31 years upon my graduation in 1982. Thank you, Osart.
And talk about coincidences. Coming back to the story, I did get into the Petronas team, and played well enough to make it to the Miri Division team. Call it talent, sheer determination, luck, or whatever you want to call it, there I was playing as the centre forward, the primary goal scorer, in the Petronas and Miri Division teams.
After the Higher School Certificate (HSC) examinations, I was selected to enter the University of Malaya to study law. Naturally, despite the demands on my time reading case after case of legal reports (Malaysian, Indian and English cases) and having to finish my assignments, I still made time to indulge in my favourite sport. I played hockey and was elected as the University of Malaya’s fifth Residential College Captain of the hockey team the second year I was there. Later, I also made it to the University of Malaya Hockey Team and became captain as well.
In those days, hockey was being played and ‘monopolised’ by our Indian and Sikh friends, it being their traditional sport. One has to be better than them or work doubly hard, to be accepted, let alone made captain. It would have been easier for me to not bother and do something else or play a different sport or game. But I decided that I would fight for a place on the varsity team.
Against all odds, my Indian and Sikh friends accepted the once skinny “outsider” to be part of the team. And not only that, being appointed captain was a first for a Sarawakian at the best university in the nation.
The University of Malaya gave me official recognition by presenting me with “half colours” for the effort. Those who contributed at the national level were awarded full colours. For example, to students who made it to the national team in any sport or relevant fields.
For me, the truest reward was my satisfaction in proving to myself that it could be done. I realised one just needs to put his or her mind and heart into what he or she wants to make happen or to achieve.
Success will follow the persistence and diligence that were invested. In explaining to the staff at forum, the management lesson to be drawn, so I deduced and as shared with the employees and participants at the Management Forum, was this: Success comes from sheer determination, focus, persistence, and hard work.
The outline of the story was given above, but the narration was made in more elaborative and emphatic form. I learned that we could succeed against ridiculous odds if we wanted something bad enough, and were also prepared to give our ‘heart and soul’, or all our best efforts, to it.
Secondly, I learned that we cannot hope to lead others unless we have been there ourselves. How could we lead someone or others to a happy hunting ground deep in the rainforests if we have not been there ourselves before? In other words, you need to lead yourself first before others will follow your lead.
This was the first story that I shared with the participants at the Management Forum way back in 2007. I hasten to add that the stories and lessons they contain are still relevant today. The story and new format of engagement were well received and seen as something novel, real, and about the narrator’s own experience.
It was a success, and from then on, it became very fashionable for management to share their own personal change stories, often willing to appear vulnerable, and thereby making them more authentic and humane.
The second story, “The Iran Deal” on leadership accountability and integrity, and the third story on “The Vision of a Simple Man” which touched on the power of vision will be shared in subsequent segments of this article.
Note: The stories, insights, impressions, deductions, and conclusions, as well as the opinions and views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.