Goh Swee Chen was the Chairman of Shell Companies for Singapore from 2014 to 2019 and is currently a trustee of Nanyang Technical University of Singapore. Goh also sits as a non-executive director on the boards of Singapore Airlines and Capitaland. Goh has had a fascinating career, working globally and living in countries like Japan, Australia, the US, Malaysia, and Singapore. She has led large global businesses not just at Shell, but also at P&G where she worked previously.
We talked to Goh about what’s needed most from leaders in the current situation - what we should zoom in on and what we can afford to let go? - and how we can forge a positive path through difficult times by building a culture of curiosity, openness, and learning. Goh led us through her journey in a candid, thoughtful conversation that touched on stewardship, scenario planning, and the importance of ‘’effective worrying’’ to leaders.
Goh opened by referencing a book entitled “What Should we be Worried About? Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night,” by John Brockman. The scenarios that experts worry about include the rise of states run by ‘’grandiose narcissists,’’ the role of social media as the “de facto source for truth and fact,” the declining yet graying populations, and how “adequately hardened” our children are for an increasingly complex future.
There’s plenty to worry about, certainly, but can worry itself actually be good and effective? Yes, Goh says. Worry has evolved to give life direction and focuses attention on “genuine threats.” Therefore, it allows leaders to better anticipate potential damage and dangers.
A Black Swan is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and describes an event that is totally unexpected with unknown probability and causes untold damage. A Grey Rhino event, on the other hand, is slightly different. Coined by the author Michelle Wucker, the term ‘’Grey Rhino’’, refers to a highly probable event that’s high impact but nevertheless neglected. “Imagine a grey rhino right there in plain sight, it’s charging at you and you don’t take action,” Goh says. The COVID-19 outbreak could also be described as a Grey Rhino event, in that the world had been warned about such an airborne virus affecting the world for many years, and yet we were ultimately caught unprepared. For leaders, Goh says, the information we need is out there - more than we are possibly able to consume and understand. No one can be expected to know and prepare for everything, but what’s important is “we must be willing to learn and see things even if they are not what we want to know and see. We must be willing to recognize the problem, and to plan and act.”
As chairman of a huge energy company like Shell Companies in Singapore, Goh became well-acquainted with the importance and processes of scenario planning. However, Goh points out that “it’s important we understand scenarios are not predicting the future.”
In an increasingly complex operating environment, forecasts are inappropriate. A scenario is not a forecast, however. Nor is it a plan. Rather, scenarios stretch perspectives and allow for consideration of a range of plausible futures.
The past does not necessarily predict the future, Goh says, but scenario-thinking can help leaders build resilience. However, for scenario planning to work, leaders must “encourage a diverse range of viewpoints,” and facilitate a much deeper understanding of risks. By doing so, they can, as much as possible, try to mitigate this “crescendo of risks” that could give rise to a crisis.
Culture of curiosity, resilience, and trust
When building company culture, leaders should focus on curiosity, resilience, and trust. Goh added that complacency “erodes the resilience” of a corporation. It’s important to keep up the momentum, remain inquisitive, and open to ideas. According to Goh, a leader should also have humility. This involves leaders recognizing that they can’t always be right and “seek[ing] different and challenging viewpoints.”
Safeguarding corporate reputation - Steward Leadership
If there were only a few choices for leaders to make, life would be a lot easier. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Choices are abundant. According to Goh, choices typically come down to “impact in the short term versus the long term.”
Quoting a former Shell CEO, Goh compared building trust in an organization to a long, slow bicycle ride, one that takes time and energy to be achieved. However, “that trust can be destroyed with a single bad move,” Goh pointed out. “Reputations can be lost as quickly as a Ferrari drives.” Patience and timing are absolutely critical, therefore, and it’s up to the leader to set this tempo. Steward leadership - in which the leader leaves the company in such good shape it will outlast their own tenure - should be an ultimate goal when looking to make choices that have a long term impact.
When a crisis hits, Goh believes there are three things that matter in what the leaders do and how they will be viewed externally:
- How the leader communicates the company Value, how fast they will act to respond to the crisis.
- What the company will do to help others in the industry learn from them and mitigate similar crises. These are the Actions they take.
- Behaviour, openness and how you treat people “even if they are in the wrong,” Goh says, “we treat them with respect.”
Goh Swee Chen ended her talk by saying:
“In this day and age, leadership is for the bravehearted. But don’t despair - it’s skills that we can learn as long as we continue to be open.”