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CEO always in learning mode

Published on Friday, 20 May 2011
Eric Chong
CEO, Siemens Hong Kong
Photo: Berton Chang

For Eric Chong, running a successful business is important, but what matters more is the chance to use technology to improve people's lives. The CEO of Siemens Hong Kong has seen that happen specifically with the development of machines for  magnetic resonance imaging and computer tomography and, more generally, through the company's focus on energy-saving products and carbon reduction. Chong studied engineering at the National University of Singapore in the 1980s and then worked for British firm GEC's health care division, involved in operations and customer service functions. Initially surprised by the sophisticated level of technology, he soon realised this was an area to build a career. He talks to John Cremer.

What do you feel is the best way to lead and manage subordinates?

The top-down, directive style is not for me and it truly doesn't work these days. Instead, I aim for *guided collaboration'. I want people to take charge and I expect them to go and get things done, but I will always give my perspective and closely check the progress. You have to find the balance between giving control to others and micromanaging, and where someone needs more *hand-holding' I'm always prepared to jump in. To be a good leader, of course, you must be ready to use different styles at different times to set the direction, give people confidence, and get them to achieve what they can. 

Which period of your career was the most challenging?

The transition from engineering to sales wasn't easy. Being an engineer, you have a certain way of doing things, which is to look at the inside – the nuts and bolts – of a machine. But when you go into sales and marketing, it is about looking at the *outside'. Customers are more interested in what a product can do for them, not how it works, so you need the skills to present a convincing argument and persuade. Engineers learn from first principles and follow logical thought processes. But in sales, I learned you can't just say, *this has three bolts, the other guy's has two, so we are better'. 

What would you say is the toughest part of your job?

It is attracting the right people. We see a lot of bright and talented candidates out there, but the question is will they really make the grade with us? We set high standards and expect recruits to be forward-looking, results-oriented and innovative, and to understand the demands of a high-performance culture. At the end of the day, that is why we are where we are today. 

Which achievements give you real job satisfaction? 

The best thing is to know that what you do benefits people. For example, I can go to a small place in the middle of China, maybe 500 miles from the nearest city, where we have installed a machine for computer tomography. You can’t imagine the satisfaction from seeing the faces of the hospital staff and the patients coming in for treatment. We see then how the equipment is used and how it is saving lives.   

How do you keep improving as a manager and leader?

I'm always in learning mode and have this simple rule that if I go to any meeting, symposium or seminar and learn one new thing, then it has been time well spent. I have gone through different phases of, maybe, reading a business book a week and I always encourage young people to take courses. But I now find that the informal approach – and having an open mind – is more useful. 

Which newer areas are you now focusing on at work?

The company is very involved in the push for sustainability and saving energy. Hong Kong has more skyscrapers than any city in the world, and we can play a big role in providing technology for building automation and reducing power consumption. For such projects, we typically look at things like chillers, air conditioners and insulation to see where buildings can save and will then offer solutions and give a performance guarantee. Usually, the energy savings in the first three years will pay for any retrofit or upgrades and, thereafter, the customer has long-term savings and a smaller carbon footprint.

What are your views on networking?  

For sure, it is important as you move higher, but the relationships you form must have “substance”. If they are just superficial, that doesn’t work. I try to speak to people I know on a regular basis and, like any good networker, to join new forums. That can mean the chamber of commerce, industry groupings of people with like interests, or the different clubs we have in Hong Kong. For someone like me, it is essential to network actively and, at the end of the day, it really helps. 

In the broader business context, what should be done differently?

To get a bit philosophical, I would like to change the way change is handled. There is a lot of talk about change management, but it often amounts to very little. You don’t need to commission studies [of operations and processes]. Change has to begin at the “attitude” level, with the way people think. For big companies like Siemens which are always adapting, that is the secret to long-term survival. 

How should young people approach the early years of their careers?

They should keep an open mind and not be too picky.  No one should be afraid of working hard. Life doesn't present things on a silver platter. You have to work for success.

Keeping up

  • Admires the ideas of Peter Drucker whose management theories from 40-plus years ago are still relevant today
  • Hopes to pass on his knowledge as a teacher or university guest lecturer
  • Keeps up with technology as a user, but other than that is “lost”

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