Luminary

How To Become A CxO? Take Risks, Fail, Step Out Of Your Comfort Zone, Says CTO Of Microsoft Singapore

Many PMEs dream of being in the C-suite of a large corporation.

It is seen as the pinnacle of their career progression – the competition to get there is tough, and only a select few make it. That’s why many PMEs look for ways to gain an advantage.

We want to help.

That’s why we sat down with Mr Richard Koh, the National Technology Officer of Microsoft Singapore, to get some advice. From our conversation, we distilled down to three key things that can help PMEs get closer to being in the C-suite.

Image Credit: NTUC
Image Credit: Mr Richard Koh’s LinkedIn

1. There’s No Shame In Failure So Long As You Learn From It 

Mr Koh started out his career in HP (or what used to be called the Hewlett-Packard Company) as a software engineer. Early on in his career, he was tasked with a major systems migration project.

He recounted the incident fondly:

“I was still young and cocky. I thought I could do it all by myself. Subsequently over a period of three days and two sleepless nights, it failed. I didn’t plan enough, I lacked some of the technical knowledge of that system migration. At the end of the third day, I left a voice mail for my manager’s manager, and said, ‘You know what, I think I screwed up. It didn’t work. I’m ready to face all consequences, including termination.’ I was literally ready to get fired on Monday.”

But his manager’s manager did not fire him. She brought in other people with the necessary knowledge and skills to work with Mr Koh to rectify the situation.

From that rather spectacular failure, Mr Koh learnt to be more humble in asking for help. He learnt to plan more, particularly for contingencies, and also to look out for potential blind spots.

These lessons served him well.

Not long after that failure, the next big project for the team came. It was a massive SAP implementation that spanned one and a half years. His manager’s manager said, “Give it to Richard, he’ll make it successful. He’s learnt his lesson already.”

And Mr Koh proved him right. He led a team of his colleagues to complete the project, on time and under budget.

That experience was a turning point for Mr Koh:

“I realised that not all failures are career limiting or will lead to termination. If you have put in the effort and you also have good support from management and they have the right kind of mindset to support and guide you, then you will be in the right environment to thrive.”

2. Live A Little More Fearlessly; Take Calculated Risks

This mindset emboldened Mr Koh to take calculated risks throughout his career. And one of the risks he took was to switch from an IT role to a business development role.

Back then, such moves were quite rare. And Mr Koh did face resistance.

He was a computer science graduate. He did not have a degree related to business development. So you can imagine it was not easy, and his initial tries raised not just eyebrows, but questions and doubt.

But that did not stop him.

Mr Koh continued learning about business development on his own, reading up and researching, talking to different people. He just kept working at it relentlessly. His opportunity came when he was working in the Silicon Valley office of HP. A business development role within HP opened up. So he grabbed the opportunity and pitched to the hiring manager:

“I had to really work at it, to sell to the hiring manager that I was the best candidate amongst the hundreds that they were looking at. And this was through my own research, the way I presented how I was fit for that role. I prepared a whole bunch of decks with my research and all that kind of stuff, I went into the interview, not to just be interviewed, I wanted to prove without doubt why I was the best candidate. I demonstrated it.”

His effort paid off. The hiring manager took a chance on him and Mr Koh moved into a business development role. That allowed him to see how different roles contribute to the larger decision making process of the company and impact its business.

3. Step Out Of Your Comfort Zone – A Little Craziness Helps!

Mr Koh would most likely not have been able to get into a business development role had he not first moved to Silicon Valley.

While it may be fairly common for people to travel for work today, it was quite rare back when Mr Koh just started work.

“After working in Singapore for four years, five years, I moved to the States. I applied for a job within the company but in the States, and got a job there managing a new team, in a new country. Everything was new, except that the company was the same. A lot of people were just telling me, you’re crazy! So you kind of need a little bit of craziness.”

Even though the move paid off eventually, it was not a walk in the park. He had to adjust to the different culture in USA.

“In USA, you are expected to express yourself, your ideas, your convictions, your objections to processes or policies or decisions. There was an avenue for challenge. There was an avenue for brainstorming better ideas and it was done in a very professional way. Coming from our typically Singapore culture where it was nothing like that, I think that’s a bit of a challenge.”

“It was funny, because my first manager over there was like ‘You don’t speak up, you don’t talk a lot and yet you take the work and do good work. What does that mean?’ I attribute it to a difference in cultural upbringing. But after some interaction and coaching from him, and my next manager onwards, I realised that I didn’t have to just hang on to my cultural upbringing. I could also stretch myself in terms of my ability to interact with other folks, to share ideas, debate and even dissent, in a professional and respectful manner.”

And because he stepped out of his comfort zone and stretched himself, he had a very rewarding 12 years in USA. He went from working in HP in Silicon Valley to working in Microsoft in Redmond, Washington.

All the opportunities he had, all the chances he took led him to where he is today.

Grateful, And Looking To Give Back

Richard Koh at Singapore International Tech Week
Mr Richard Koh at Singapore International Tech Week

Mr Koh is well-aware that his success today was due to many opportunities that went his way (although we think it has a lot to do with how he took up the chances too!).

“I just count myself lucky, so I tell myself that I have to pay back for all the luck that has descended on my life. I think it’s important that as a person gains success, they’re not closing the door behind them as they progress, they are looking back and helping others, and reaching a hand back and say who I can help to also share that experience.”

On Microsoft Being A Part Of Innovation Exchange (IEX) By NTUC

That’s why Mr Koh is happy that Microsoft is a part of Innovation Exchange (IEX) by the Labour Movement.

This new initiative, Innovation Exchange (IEX), was announced by Chan Chun Sing, the Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) at the U Future Leaders Summit, a one-day conference that took place last Friday (18th Nov) attended by 1,000 local professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) where industry leaders discussed market trends that will benefit job seekers and working professionals.

While companies do not usually open up their innovation labs and share their cutting-edge or yet-to-be-marketed technology to outsiders, Mr Koh thinks this programme can help the working people in Singapore stay updated with market trends, and to remind them that it’s an ever-changing world where both organisations and individuals will need to constantly innovate.

Like what the Labour Chief had said at the Summit, “The theory that you do one job for the rest of your life, like my mother’s generation, is gone. Chances are that we have to learn, relearn, unlearn, learn again and so forth.”

Image Credit: NTUC
Image Credit: NTUC

That’s also why Mr Koh has agreed to continue to be involved in NTUC’s U Future Leaders Programme, including acting as a mentor to PMEs aspiring to future-proof themselves for the jobs of tomorrow.

He hopes to share his experience and help PMEs frame their mindsets to better progress in their careers and to rise to the challenges posed by the ever-transforming economy driven by technological shifts and disruptions.

We think it’s really awesome that someone as successful as Mr Koh, with his rich and diverse experience, is willing to give back.

From our conversation with him, we believe many of us will definitely benefit from interacting with Mr Koh and to have him as a mentor.

The Labour Movement is taking steps actively to prepare working people for jobs of the future. Have you signed up for U Future Leaders Programmes yet?

 

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