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There have been times in my life when candour has cost me. Small things such as invitations to outings and popularity to big things like friendship and love. Right now, it may cost me potential job opportunities.

You read me right. I’m job hunting. The Royal Armoury will still operate, but with no active advertising on my part. It’s time to get back to civilisation, so as to speak. It’s less to do with the fear of being displaced (I still try to keep up with current affairs and new technology and best employment practices and whatnots) than a desire to learn more things. I know what I lack to get to the next level where I want to be, and I need to hone those skills in an environment with people, not tapping alone on my keyboard at home. Being the introvert that I am, trust me when I say that I much prefer my keyboard. And my books. And the dogs I see when I venture out. And my neighbourhood cats. However, levelling up (yeah, gamer) requires me to venture out of my comfort zone and venture I will, despite the anxiety and the beating that my pride will inevitably take in the process.

Anyway, back to why candour may cost me this time. It’s a long story, but it has to do closely with my educated guess that many adults (and I’m using this term lightly here) are habitual escapists. I like to think that I’m a habitual realist and an occasional escapist. I think I’m someone who is candid but not tactless, by and large transparent about my motivations, and open to both giving and receiving constructive feedback. I’m also someone who questions a lot, and because of that, I’m not one who submits to authority at the drop of a hat. This doesn’t mean that I rebel against authority for no rhyme or reason; it just means that I’m a dedicated worker who thinks about her work (a lot), puts a lot of pride into her work, and cares about the outcomes and impact those outcomes (and the processes in reaching said outcomes) has on the people she works with.

I’m also big on improvement. Streamlining work processes and increasing the employee happiness quotient. If it makes things easier and people happier, while increasing long-term gains to the company, I’m on board. Heck, I’m probably sitting on one of the committee chairs.

I sound like a dream, right? A model employee. Well, if you’ve never thought about it before, you need to be aware that what is considered a strength in one particular environment or situation could become a weakness in another. That’s reality and so I’m a nightmare to some organisations. Or rather, to the-powers-that-be in some organisations.

Ever had a boss who wanted to keep the status quo even if it didn’t work because he was near retirement age and God forbid that he rocked the boat and anger his higher-ups in the headquarter office? Never mind that he was supposed to be the top dog in the Singapore office, and was responsible for the livelihood and development of the people working below him. What about that manager who’s here just to put in ‘20% of effort’ because he’s only here for a couple of years before going back to his motherland? Never mind that he’s on an expatriate package with accommodation and personal income tax fully paid for, and just by virtue of that fact alone, should be expected to perform because…why else would the company be paying so much if he doesn’t deliver? And don’t get me started on the manager who not only refused to have cents reflected and paid out in employee payroll (because the currency he’s used to in his home country comes without), but adopted an inconsistent rounding system that would provoke an uproar had it been allowed to be executed. Oh, and the minor disaster was evaded only because another manager from his same country dissuaded him. Same words, but…too bad that I’m a woman and a Singaporean to boot.

Put a reasonably intelligent woman who questions things and seeks improvement in a conservative, close-minded, male-centric, markedly different from and unexposed to the rest of the world, has a rigid vertically-inclined hierarchical system, and grants promotions based on seniority instead of meritocracy culture and you get…tension. Worse, you get tension that will remain unaddressed because saying anything negative is just not done in that culture. Questions terrify them, I assure you. Especially when they have no idea how operations run or even what they’re supposed to do, questions put them in a spot. Questions are not means to clarification and improvement; they are challenges amounting to slaps in the face, meant to be subdued forcefully when they occur and discouraged so that they’ll never happen again.

Picture this scene:

In a meeting with my manager for my performance appraisal, he read aloud my accomplishments and achievements during the appraisal period. Mental eye-rolling on my part because he was reading what yours truly wrote, and I don’t need anyone to tell me what I wrote, okay? He proceeded to heap praises upon my work performance. Three beats of slience. Then,

‘I know. But I would like to know about my problems, or weaknesses, or points that you think I can improve upon. Everybody has blind spots and I would like to know what you, as my boss, think I should work on.’

That was the gist of what I said to him. To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded if he had told me then and there that he thinks I need to work on my attitude. I would even have applauded him mentally. If you’re my potential employer, please don’t read this to mean that I have an attitude problem. Though brutally frank, I’m always polite. But you should probably read this to mean that I don’t take well to unclear vision, blatant mismanagement, and propensity to sweep things under the carpet. And to be frank (again), I think people who hold leadership positions and expect loyalty and respect, but refuse to do right by the people who work for them even when in their power to do so are the ones with a major attitude problem.

Anyway, my manager just said that to criticise is difficult for people of his culture. End of meeting. So this girl walked away with a good grade for her performance, but immensely unsatisfied with the way the meeting went. I could do more, I wanted to do more, but the management wanted me to remain stagnant. And silent. And preferably mediocre since it wouldn’t do for girls to outshine boys.

There are reasons why I’m not rushing to go back to such organisations, despite the fact that I have skills that are required by said companies. In my job search, I wanted to be upfront about these reasons as much as possible without coming across as negative and judgmental. That puts me in a spot because without specific examples, people who have never found themselves in such experiences find it hard to imagine the kind of idiocy that I, as well as numerous women that I know (of), have had to face when working with natives (predominantly the men) of this particular culture. Even with specific examples, many still find it unbelievable since they’ve always had good impressions of said natives; they are generally considered polite, efficient, and take great pride in churning out high quality work. My experiences and what I hear from others and read in forums found the first to be true with a few exceptions, but the second and third descriptions are way, way off. Let’s just say that many, many bubbles burst in this acquisition of knowledge.

As it is, some native recruitment consultants got offended by my analysis of why, instead of getting candidates to fit into the aforementioned culture, it would behoove them to educate such companies instead. Singapore has been shaped by her history, for better or worse, and she is the way she is because of that. Same with the mysterious nation that was mentioned in prior paragraphs. Making an educated guess on the future direction of both countries, the pool of local candidates who fit their culture is only going to get smaller and smaller. They may choose to hire natives instead of locals when that happens, but it’s only going to get harder to apply for work passes/permanent residency/citizenship. Add to the fact that some of these natives may not be proficient in English, may lack knowledge of the local customs and lingo that are good to have to facilitate work processes, and cost more to companies…well, you can see why I think it’s a good idea for these companies to be educated; it has a slow but sure effect on their productivity and ultimately their longevity.

So, it is a fact that feathers were ruffled in my succinct but polite analysis and I find myself with zero job recommendations from these upset consultants. Maybe it has as much to do with the less than robust economy as offended sensibilities. I’m not sure there is a point in speculating the reasons. I still get job recommendations, but I guess the whole process is taking longer than I want it to. Not unanticipated, but I guess I was hoping for a less drawn-out process.

So what is it that I want?

  1. I want a fair system based on meritocracy, not seniority.
  2. I want an open environment where questions and suggestions are welcomed. I don’t need my suggestions to be incorporated, but effort must be made to listen and understand why I say and do the things I do.
  3. I want team mates and comrades in arms, not liabilities who need babysitting.
  4. I want common goals that are clear to everyone in the team despite diversity in age, language, marital status, race, religion, sex, sexual preferences and other individual differences.
  5. I want to be stimulated intellectually.
  6. I want to be trusted to handle my work effectively and professionally without a keeper breathing down my neck or popping into my cubicle to tell me that he or she ‘just sent me an e-mail two minutes ago’. It gets old after the tenth e-mail. In the same day. I’m one of the most efficient people I know, so there is a valid reason why I don’t jump on your request immediately.

I asked two interviewers during one of my job interviews to give their thoughts on the most important attributes a boss should possess. They gave me ‘transparency’ and ‘compassion’. I liked that. But you know what I think?

A boss doesn’t need to know how to do everything in the company. Very few people I know can do that, anyway. Besides a basic understanding of how things move in his office, a leader needs to know his people. What motivates them, what challenges them, where their strengths lie, what their blind spots are. Being the one with the clearest vision of the direction the company should move in, he needs to direct his people to achieve that goal while not neglecting their personal goals. If it sounds more like a marriage to you, then let me be very honest and say that I’m the type who ‘marries’ my work. I like to spend quality time with my spouse, work on self-development through him, and enjoys mental challenges that he provides me with. Alas, I won’t hesitate to divorce him if love is deader than well…dead. Take the last with a pinch of salt, friends. I’ll agonise as much as the next person if it’s a real relationship, but let’s just say that I won’t give in to peer pressure and social conventions should they not align with my personal compass.

Knowledge is not enough though. A leader needs to apply that knowledge. In short, he needs to know how to use his people. Who is best suited to head a particular project? Who needs a stronger push in some areas but will blossom under enough guidance? Who is the best person to act as mediator when there is conflict between two other colleagues? Who is happiest working alone but is still reliable as a team mate? If you get the ‘who’ right, they will handle the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ for you.

That’s my two cents worth on a good leader. Understand people in general, know your people especially well, and all other things remaining constant, you’ll have the victory in war. You may still lose a few battles, but the war is yours.

Candour has cost me, and I believe it will continue to cost me, but I guess that’s where the last point for my list above comes in.

More than anything, I want to be taken on board as I am. I can be brutally honest, intensely private, frequently sarcastic, and I often work best alone. I can also be unfailingly professional, make-friends-with-everybody kind of charming, disarmingly diplomatic, and perform excellently in a team. I’m serious when it counts and silly when the occasion calls for it. It really depends on the kind of environment that I’m in and the group dynamics within that environment. I really can be that adaptable because of my varied interests and the different facets of my personality. They’re all me, just me at different times, and me with different people.

There are some things that I’m willing to compromise. This, unfortunately, is not one of them. In my twenties, I got ‘married’ without knowing any better. Now, I do know better and I want a ‘partner’ that, even if I don’t stay with him forever, will be one that I want to hang around with for a while.