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In pursuit of dreams

Published on Saturday, 11 Oct 2014

Colourful telecoms entrepreneur Ricky Wong shares the secrets of his success at HKIHRM sharing session

Ricky Wong Wai-kay sits firmly on the list of exceptional Hongkongers who have built up enterprises from scratch and generated a faithful following. 

Wong set up City Telecom in Canada in 1991, HongKong Broadband Network (HKBN) in 1999, and HKTV in 2012. He never fails to motivate a large team of followers who are willing to put in hard work and long hours in pursuit of their goals.

Wong shared his insights recently at a talk organised by the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM). Here are some of the highlights.

Dream and Deliver

Wong says dreams are the greatest motivators in any organisation. “This is the single factor that distinguishes a highly effective team. This is the ‘why’, as opposed to the ‘what’ and ‘how’ in a business. The ‘what’ is the product or service, and the ‘how’ is the business process. On the other hand, the ‘why’ is the spirit of the organisation, the common goal and the reason for its existence.”

Wong cited the iPhone as an example of the spirit of an organisation shining through.

“Why are there so many loyal fans? Because they admire the person who masterminded it – the late Steve Jobs – for his determination and ability to change the world. The degree of admiration is such that the fans are ready to forgive any shortcomings that the product or its creator may have.” 

“For myself, I know I am a bad guy in many ways. I am arrogant, and I speak foul language in meetings. But I think even my female colleagues will forgive me, because they know who I am and what I am up to. They also understand why I behave like this – because I am under great pressure, or did not have enough sleep.”

But Wong admits dreams do not come naturally for some of his staff. He hired a full-time neuro-linguistic programming practitioner to talk to his staff and elicit their dreams. 

“I think to get the most out of a colleague, we have to bring out his or her dream. Many people say they have dreams, but seldom do they think about how to implement them,” Wong says.

“Actually, we have had colleagues who left my company just because of this – they wanted to leave to pursue their dream outside my company. But they do thank me for giving them a chance to overcome their constraints and pursue their dreams. I have no regrets around this – after all, people have to leave eventually.”

University Express

Wong previously masterminded an education scheme that provided solid support and encouragement to help his colleagues fulfil their dreams. 

“About five years ago, I launched an initiative called ‘Next Station: University’,” he says. “In HKBN, we had people who did outreach work in the street. They might not boast very good academic results when they were young. 

“So we joined hands with the University of Wales to develop a university programme to enable them to get a degree after five years, with the company adjusting their working hours to enable them to study. 

“A total of 50 colleagues registered, with 38 graduating. This programme was not just for the 38 who graduated, but for the entire workforce of 3,800. They will reflect on whether they would like to do likewise, or just stay where they are. They will think.”

Delegate and Disappear

Wong says one of the biggest mistakes he made was to hold on to authority. 

“In the course of my EMBA programme from 2006 to 2008, I realised the reason why my company HKBN did not perform very well was that every decision had to come back to me,” he says. 

“A lot of bosses in Chinese enterprises, typically in their fifties or sixties, still hold on to a lot of authority. They want to make every decision, even regarding trivial matters like changing the brand of toilet paper. 

“I realised this did not work, so I made a conscious effort to delegate authority, to such an extent that I could leave my company for two months and let the company run itself,” he says.

This letting go was put to the test when he travelled to the Antarctic for two months and went mountaineering in Nepal, “climbing to heights where I had to use ice-axes for my ascent. I wanted to make sure that my staff members could not reach me.” 

Making Mistakes 

Wong noted that it is important for a leader to know when to allow staff to make mistakes in trying out new ideas.

“During the start-up period, I make sure that staff follow my instructions faithfully, because as time is critical, there is not much room for mistakes. But when the business has been running for a while, I can relax a bit and let the business cruise along. 

“Sometimes what I thought was a bad idea can turn out to be a good one. The other day, a member of our digital team, comprising members mostly under 25, took a picture of me in a pensive mood, like a lonely old man. And without letting me know in advance, they put it on our website. 

“Normally I would have complained, because my public image has predominantly been bright and energetic. But it turned out that the picture generated a lot of ‘likes’ – because people were able to see the human side of me.”

“The digital team members got only a low salary; why did they choose to stay? It’s because they get respect, and from respect they get authority. 

“There seems to be a bit of contradiction here, because I am (or at least used to be) a person who is arrogant and does not respect people. So when I started to give people respect, they will notice and be pleased.”

Recommend a Book 

Wong admits that some people think of his establishment as a cult. 

“This is why I insist on writing a column for two local newspapers. They convey the doctrines of the ‘cult’. The target audiences include the staff members in my company, because these articles are circulated to all staff daily, and I guess they read it every day – they would look bad if they don’t, because they may bump into me any time.” 

On the other hand, Ricky Wong has a special suggestion for people who wish to get an idea across to their bosses. “If you have any advice you wish to tell your boss, one effective way is to give him or her a book or recommend a film. 

“This may be better than speaking in words, because a lot of bosses do not directly listen.”

Adversity and Attitude 

Wong has had more than his fair share of adversity in his ambitious endeavours, most recently the failure last October of his brainchild HKTV to acquire a licence to operate. 

 However, he is sanguine about the setback. “If I had succeeded … I would have become even more conceited and arrogant. I am grateful to providence for the opportunity to further develop myself in the face of adversity. By the same token, I tend to hire people who know the taste of adversity and have become wiser for it.

“Indeed our generation has done a lot of harm to our children. We tend to shield our children from adversity and even difficulty. No adversity, no growth. So our younger generation does not grow. 

“In recruiting, I sometimes prefer picking graduates from the ‘less prestigious’ tertiary institutions, because they tend to treasure more what they have. I also tend to pick people who grew up in public housing, instead of those who come from wealthy families.

“It is of paramount importance that we hire people with the right attitude. Attitude cannot be trained, while all skills can.”

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