Dream A Little (New) Dream For Me

About 3 months ago I was asked this question in all seriousness: if money, talent and time doesn’t matter, what would I want to do next? I had no answer then. I went uh, ummm and then went silent. The truth is, I have an answer and I knew clearly what I wanted. But I didn’t want say it out loud because these people have the power and the resources to make it come true (and for that I am grateful); but it came in a situation and with unavoidable conditions that were at odds with who I am and what I stand for.  It wasn’t their fault. In fact, they were trying to help me.

But I chose not to say anything and decided to bide my time instead; to wait for the right circumstance and the right people, the right investors, the right cause. Yes I am optimistic that way.

Please allow me to explain.

I was asked this same question 4 years ago at a lunch with a couple of good friends who were puzzled with the career choices that I made so far.

I told them, very frankly, that all my choices were deliberate and carefully engineered: it was advertising/PR, venture capital, a stint with a global company for international exposure (and what an exposure it was), financial services, FMCG and finally airline. Please note that this conversation took place when I was still with the investment bank; before I was with FMCG and airline. Prior to that I have done my tour of duty by interning for 4 straight years in a Japanese factory in Shah Alam where I was rotated to manage HR, Finance, ISO 9002, 6 Sigma and Kaizen implementation as well as procurement and logistics. And in advertising/PR I was in consumer research, broadcasting, then in nutrition and pharmaceutical communications, publishing and event management before leaving after assuming the role of managing the bottomline for the company that I was serving then for close to 2 years.

If I go even further back, I’ve worked in a chili plantation (the same one, I found out later, that was part of the MAGGI CSR chili plantation program), in a medical glove factory (yes I was a minah kilang, loud and proud) owned by Yee Lee Corp (which was how I learned about the mineral water business and about QA and QC processes – I still have the notebook where I interviewed the supervisors, engineers etc about the why’s and how’s, they were puzzled so I lied and said it was part of my school requirement but I was just, plainly and simply, curious) and temp-ed with a govt agency where I saw for myself the efficiencies, inefficiencies, corruption, honesty etc of earning a living as a government servant.

So, what was the golden dream? 4 years ago, I made these choices because I wanted to take over Sepang International Circuit when I turn 40. I wanted to market F1, because I think I can; nope, not just that I can but because I think I can do a bloody good job out of it. I think I can make F1 Sepang sexy and desirable again, and I think I can help SIC make a tidy sum of money too. It was a job that I wanted after I heard Carlos Ghosn gave his speech at the Khazanah Global Lecture Series. I voiced it out loud to the other people at the table. They actually thought, and told me, that I would be perfect for the role. I believed them. More importantly, I believed me.

However, back then I knew I wasn’t ready and did not have the capacity, experience or the skills I needed to market something like F1 Sepang. I had ideas. But I didn’t know if those ideas would work. I had an inkling they would, but I didn’t have enough insight to work out the odds in my head; and I didn’t have any opportunity or a field to test out my game plan. Everything was theoretical.

So, I told my lunch companions, I am going to leave this investment bank and work with an FMCG next, and an airline after that. Once I hit 40, where age and experience and connections (or lack thereof) will not longer be a burden for me to bear, I will walk up to the people in charge, introduce myself and tell them I want to run and market SIC. I even had the whole script worked out in my head. I would work for free, I’d tell them. Pay me whatever’s appropriate to cover the expenses that I incur in the course doing business and not a single cent more. I’ll figure out how to make rent and buy food. But, if I successfully market SIC and make them the amount of money I promised I could make them, I get to name my price.

That’s quite an ambition for someone so young, my lunch companions told me. Yeah, I told them, since we’re talking about dream jobs I guess I might as well go for broke. Why not. It’s how I get there that counts, right?

My career really did follow the plan, much to my lunch companions’ surprise. We had lunch again, this time when I was at the tail-end of my airline job. One of them told me that it was the first time ever in his entire life, and he has worked for a very long time across many continents, that he saw a self-fulfilling prophecy such as mine. I laughed and told him it was not an accident.

But I have changed my mind, I confessed. SIC is no longer my Holy Grail.

What do you mean? he asked.

At that time I could not tell him what I had in mind because I didn’t know how to explain it. I didn’t realize, actually “didn’t remember” is a better description, that I had drawn out what I wanted to do. Literally. About a year and a half prior, while reading the book Lemony Snicket and A Series of Unfortunate Events at Starbucks Amcorp Mall, a lightbulb went on in my head. It had nothing to do with the book, but it was the only thing I had with me at the time so I drew up what was on my mind in between the pages using a pink pen. A simple diagram, a simple idea. It had nothing to do with my (then) work and it was completely out of character. I showed it to a few people that I know; from their surprised reaction I knew this was one of those your-effing-crazy-out-of-your-mind ideas. We laughed and critisized the plan, and from time to time I would go back to it and change it based on what I’ve learned; I had no definite ambition to actualize the plan but it was a good exercise for my restless, sleepless mind. How to make this work? How to make this work? Puzzles, they fascinate me.

The funny thing was, by the time I was asked what I wanted to do by these concerned gentlemen 3 months ago, I was more than halfway into that plan. The circumstances surrounding my work (and other things, of course) were so tumultuous and so crazy that I didn’t fully realize that the projects that I was working on were building blocks of what I drew up a year and a half ago. It was only when Wade pointed this out, as we were walking to his car from a coffee session at Coffee Bean Bangsar, that I admitted that the coincidences were just too much to ignore. Up til then, I thought I was just imagining it.

So where does that leave me now? I guess you could say that today I am in a unique, albeit extremely delicate and difficult position, where I can finally do something that means a lot to me. I could see the how, the when and the why’s. I’ve done the math, I’ve tested the game plan. I’ve tried doing it other people’s way because that was what I was instructed to do. I’ve tried doing it my way because that was what I believed would work. I’ve played hard ball and I’ve backed off. It didn’t matter. The whole point was to see what works. It was to see what I was capable of, whether my ideas were sound or insane; to learn who I can trust and who I should be wary of; to learn what sort of a person I want to be and I could be; to see if I would fall into the pitfalls that I swore to avoid.

I have another lunch coming up soon. This time I know exactly what I want to say. I’ve changed my dream. SIC is no longer the Holy Grail. SIC is now only one of the many paths to the Holy Grail. Just like the plan that I have in my hand right now, they are catalysts and not the end result. Many roads to get to Rome.

So like before, I am seeding and putting this dream out here in the universe. I am casting my wish now.

I want to run a bank. Not an ordinary one. A bank like this one.  This is now my model and my benchmark. One that makes money and requires the principles and lessons and skills and experiences of running a large, profit-driven, multinational corporation. And also one that matters to me, and matters to the people around me. One that is sustainable. One that can bring changes to many people in many ways.

I used to  (and still do) read and follow news and activities about this bank and Grameen Bank with a lot of interest (Prof Muhammad Yunus, incidentally, was also featured in the Khazanah Global Lecture Series; his was  a very moving and sobering experience for me, and a testimony that you can be an agent of change. You don’t have to accept the hand you are dealt with. Did you know he modeled it after Amanah Raya?).  Both banks, they are an inspiration and an aspiration.

And about 3 months ago, finally, I came to believe that this is achievable. For me. That I can do this too. There are a lot of things that needed to be done to support this dream and to get there; things to do to fund and sustain it – to carve the blueprint and business propositions to make sure it brings in the returns, both financially and emotionally.

Most importantly, I want to ensure that it is built with and ran by the kind of character and people that I want to work with and I want to emulate. It is not true that you need to accept all the nastiness at work and characterize it as work politics. There’s work politics and there’s mean, nasty people. Politics, you live with; but accepting and continuing to work with morally bankrupt people that you don’t respect or want to become is not the kind of life that I want for me. I have had the honour of working with some really exceptional people, in awfully difficult but empowering situations, and knowing what I know now, I know I have a choice. I even know who I want to call up for duty (you know who you are). I have a lot of promises to fulfill; and I have been shown a lot of kindness, support, breaks and opportunities. It will take several lifetimes but  I’m sure gonna try to start repaying some of these now.

Sure. I know this is ambitious; it’s a lot more ambitious than what I have aimed for in the past. But like I said at the start of this post, I am optimistic that way. Besides, I have 4 years to figure out how to get there. I already know where to start, and I am already in the position that enables me to go forward. Might as well go for broke one more time. Don’t you know impossible dreams are the best kind?

So, if 4 years ago I asked you to come back and check this blog to see where I am at; now I’d like to ask you to come back 4 years from now to see where I’d be at. I’ve completed the original portion of my dream.  I have a new one now.

Wish me luck. I need lots.


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