How a custom leadership program is helping Sarawak Energy power Malaysia
With ambitions to become a regional powerhouse, Malaysia's Sarawak Energy is preparing its executives to make the most of a very bright future.
Traditionally renowned for its rivers and rainforests, the state of Sarawak is now gaining fame for its strong economic growth, which has recently nudged five per cent a year.
Sarawak Energy Berhad, which powers the region, has recorded a growth rate of more than double that.
"Over the last 10 years, the growth in Sarawak Energy has been tremendous," says James Ung, CEO of SEB Power, one of three divisions of Sarawak Energy Berhad. SEB Power owns and operates the group's coal, gas and hydropower generation assets.
"We are growing at a pace of about 10-to-15 per cent every year. This process challenges me in terms of transformation of the whole organisation."
To cope with such rapid growth, Sarawak Energy worked with Melbourne Business School to create a custom leadership program for 50 leaders from across the organisation, bridging different levels of management and business units.
In order to create a strong sense of bonding between the participants, program facilitator Nancy Fortner took inspiration for the design of the program from the historical "one classroom" approach used in regional areas to teach students of different ages.
"When you think back to the 1940s and 1950s, there used to be – in the smaller areas – just one schoolhouse, and it was teaching everybody, so it could be your brother and sister in the next two aisles over," she says.
"The program was put together with two different cohorts, and the results that came out of it, the senior leadership was very pleased with – the analysis, the strategies and the actual thoughtfulness of the leadership that came from it."
Over eight months, participants came together for four experiential workshops in Malaysia and Melbourne and heard from industry experts and Melbourne Business School professors on topics including digitalisation, customer-centricity and business analytics.
Mr Ung says the program gave participants the skills to manage themselves, other people and the business more broadly. One of the exercises was to consider how Sarawak Energy might look in 20 years' time.
"In our learning through this program, we have been looking into the future disruptors and future technologies and preparing our understanding of where we need to be – where our business decision-making will be in the future," he says.
Having the top-two leadership levels of the company take part in the same program was a key benefit in the eyes of participant and Sarawak Energy CFO Alexander Chin.
"I've seen people grow. I've seen shy people who have blossomed," Mr Chin says. "I have a particular colleague who did particularly well. He is so nervous about presentations, but everyone commented that he's just done so well."
Throughout the program, participants encouraged each other and pushed themselves to do their best.
"We work very much like a team. You have this sense of camaraderie between us," Mr Chin says.
"I'd like to say that we have become friends. We have gone through some rough times together and pulled together and did quite well. That's part of the fun, I think, and learning has to be fun."
Fun is something Mr Chin's colleague and Baleh Hydroelectric Project General Manager Tan Hang Kiak wasn't expecting from the program when he set out.
"It was challenging for me, at first, to manage my work priorities while attending the MBS sessions. But as I began to adapt to the pace, I gained invaluable knowledge and skills," he says.
"Being hands-on during the sessions sharpened our leadership skills, while the close interactions with colleagues strengthened our teamwork as we strive towards a common goal."
Ir Tan's key learning from the program was to "look from the balcony at the dance floor" – a view shared by many people on the program.
"It was a difficult concept to comprehend in the beginning, but I learnt to see things through various perspectives to achieve optimum results. This was no doubt a worthwhile experience in my journey as a leader," he says.
Marjorie Bandan, Assistant General Manager, Central Engineering and Technical Assurance, agrees.
"Learning useful concepts, tools and techniques has helped me to better understand my leadership style and identify learning gaps in my leadership development," she says.
"In tackling difficult situations, I have learnt to get on to the balcony too – that is, to step out of the problem and assess the situation from a wider perspective.
"The program also gave me the opportunity to network with other leaders and learn from their experiences as well."
For Ngu Hie Hie, Senior Manager II, Customer Service, learning to look from the balcony has helped her to reflect more before making decisions.
"I am now more capable to think from a wider perspective and self-reflect when solving a problem. For example, I will ask myself 'what else can I do to prevent this from happening again?'
"I was also continuously learning, especially on the digitalisation topics. In short, this has been a beneficial program, and I am thankful to have been a part of it."
Group Company Secretary Lim Li Na has a broad view of the benefits of the program, which she says delivered on its objectives to learn to lead yourself, others and the business.
"A key learning for me was the 3Cs: communicate, concern and collaborate. With communicate, I learnt to be more assertive in taking the first step to communicate and connect with colleagues. With concern, I particularly like the NICE acronym, which I can now apply to better understand the needs, interests, concerns and emotions of others," she says.
"Collaborate applies to leading the business because it's important to know where we are and where we are going and set realistic and achievable goals. To achieve synergy and optimal results, we need to continuously improve our processes and work together in the same direction."
While program facilitator Nancy Fortner is happy to take some credit for the program's success, she says the quality of the participants was also a major factor.
"Sarawak culture is just so beautiful. The people are very supportive, very encouraging and very kind to each other. We had a great experience because people naturally wanted to help and support each other," she says.
Having now completed the program, Mr Ung is applying what he and the broader leadership team learned to the challenge of helping Sarawak Energy reach its ambitions.
"I will continue to improve the planning of these 20-year aspirations, and I'm going to roll them out to my company as a whole to ensure that everyone understands them," he says.