Remember Me

This story didn’t quite go to plan. I didn’t get the reactions I was expecting. I underestimated the awkwardness of the subject. The self-deprecating parts elicited pity, when I had been going for laughter. My mind blanked and I fumbled in quite a few important places. There was applause in a part that I totally wasn’t expecting. I even had a heckle (which, to make matters worse, was entirely justified).

But I’m still happy that I did it. And I’m sharing it in case it’s a story someone out there needs to hear this Christmas.

Thanks go to Clara and the team at Unravel Shanghai, for the amazing community they have built around their monthly storytelling series. Thanks to Lisa, Fred, Shaun, and all the friends (and strangers) in the audience. And thanks to Denny, to Jennifer, and to my family for all their love and support.

The Secret Life of a Podcast Junkie

Here are my secrets to getting the most out of podcasts:

1) Subscribe to podcasts liberally, including those that you’re not sure about. Turn off the automatic download setting, and only download the individual episodes that pique your interest. If you’re not convinced after listening to a few choice episodes, unsubscribe.

2) Simply listen to all podcast shows in chronological order as they are published, if you like variety. But by sorting them into channels, you can listen according to mood, avoiding jarring jumps between the intellectual and the inane.

3) I always start with the news and other time-sensitive podcasts; everything else can wait. Since that’s usually morbidly depressing, it requires an immediate antidote of comedy and pop culture. With my mood reset, I can first venture into light chat, before flexing my empathy muscles with some storytelling, then finally ending with the most cerebral and thought-provoking content. At this point, I’m ready to go back to the news and begin the cycle again.

4) There aren’t enough minutes in the day to listen to all this content. So let the podcasts build up, and binge-listen on your next train journey, long-distance run, or vacation. Don’t feel bad about deleting the ones you never get around to. And for the truly obsessed, you can save time by listening at 1.5 or 2 times the speed.

Job-Seekers In Your 50s: What Your Headhunter Isn’t Telling You.

I was recently contacted by a Global Chief People Officer, who was utterly perplexed. He had been in touch with a dozen top executive search consultants, but none of them had introduced him to any new roles. And he had an immaculate background for a global executive.

Being in his mid-50s, he had started to fear that he was experiencing age discrimination, since nothing else seemed to make sense. And it was at this point that he had come to me as a referral from a mutual friend, another Global Head of Human Resources with whom I had previously worked. She had recommended me as someone who would give him the unvarnished truth, and we had a great dialogue about some personal factors relating to his situation. Out of this conversation came two general factors that I wanted to share, in case it helps others in a similar situation.

If a Company is Looking for Someone as Senior as You… Something has Probably Gone Wrong.

In the past, if not quite the norm, it was still relatively common for companies to reach out to the external market to hire even their most senior executives. But since the 2000s, we have seen the market for top corporate hires gradually decline. Largely due to the proliferation of talent management practices at the corporate headquarter level, most top roles are now backed up by a comprehensive internal Succession Plan. Long gone are the days where companies would scramble to hire positions at high levels from the outside; nowadays, there are a handful of internal hopefuls vying for these roles. And in the case of multinational companies, these hopefuls could be sitting anywhere around the world, ready to relocate to the corporate headquarters when the call arrives.

So if there is a senior leadership role on the market (in this case, a Global Chief People Officer role), there’s a high chance that something fairly unexpected has happened. Perhaps there was a recent exodus of talent, clearing the bench of all potential successors. Perhaps there was a sudden industry shift, leading to a requirement for new skills that hadn’t previously been nurtured. Or there might be a cocktail of personal and performance-related issues behind a decision to bring in new senior leadership talent.

To the individual job-seeker in their 50s, the experience of not being approached for these roles might feel like age discrimination, particularly if they didn’t encounter the same situation when seeking jobs in the past. And who knows, in the case of some individual decision-makers, that’s exactly what it is. But in my experience, the reason they’re not being approached is largely due to the relative scarcity of senior roles at their level. And even when such a role does exist, company decision-makers are under pressure to hire someone with specific attributes to fix an esoteric problem. No compromises.

The ‘Cooling Effect’ of the Corporate Matrix.

The scarcity of the top job in his specific field doesn’t itself explain why this Chief People Officer wasn’t being considered by executive search professionals. Alongside the rise in corporate succession planning, the last decade has also seen a shift in corporate culture away from single-minded ‘top-down’ decision-making, and towards the gathering of a diversity of viewpoints. The process of hiring top senior talent has not been immune to this shift. In the past, it was quite common for executive search professionals to work with a very small number of decision-makers when hiring even the most senior roles. These days there are many more stakeholders, both top-down and at peer-group level, who are brought in to have a say about who should be hired above a certain grade. And the reasons for this are logical. The new senior executive can develop a three-dimensional view of the situation they’re getting into, and the people they would need to work with. And the corporate stakeholders can themselves bear an element of personal responsibility for ensuring the success of their new senior colleague.

The downside to this consensus culture is that the ultimate decision-maker can be reluctant to put forward anyone whom they predict will not be accepted by the majority of these colleagues. This effect is further magnified if the decision-maker is using an executive recruiter, since they can be even more demanding with their requirements. If an executive search consultant veers away from their brief, the decision-maker can be justified in saying: “I came to you as the expert headhunter in your field, so I expect your suggestions to be more accurate. Why are you introducing a person who won’t be accepted by our stakeholders, when I could have found someone like this myself on LinkedIn”?

While it’s never the intention of the headhunter or the corporate decision-maker to box themselves in, there is an element of self-censorship when it comes to putting forward profiles where the senior job-seeker doesn’t have ‘10/10 boxes ticked’ from the outset. It’s not that they are bad people, or narrow-minded and discriminatory people; they’re time-poor, task-focused, and pragmatic in the execution of the role they’ve been allocated. And why is this particularly relevant to job-seekers in their 50s? It’s not necessarily that their age is a decisively negative factor. It’s because they are the ones eligible for the top positions. And with the hiring of top roles comes an increased level of scrutiny, a stricter application of this trend, and hence a disproportionately strong effect.

So What Should You Do?

There is no magic wand that can reverse these two general trends. But I would end this article with a few simple words of advice.

  • Most importantly, keep positive. You don’t need to feel like you’re constantly on the back foot; you don’t need to apologise for yourself; and you don’t need to waste energy blaming others. It can be emotionally bruising to encounter repetitive rejections, especially on the back of a long and fruitful career. Don’t let this happen. The truth is that some decision-makers do have an age bias. And they’re missing out on some great people. But ‘tune out’ those companies that aren’t able to give you a chance, and focus your efforts on those that can.
  • As an adjunct to this, be humble. You are not automatically entitled to a new job, the world doesn’t owe you anything. Think of being 75% self-assured, and 25% humble… any more humble, and you’re under-selling yourself. Those numbers mean absolutely nothing, but they’re a good check on yourself if you’re having a bad day and feel like you’re wobbling around the 50/50% mark.
  • Leverage your existing relationships to the max. Keep in touch with close colleagues and clients from the past, those people who can simply vouch for the work that you do. Personal recommendations from these people are the best way to convince corporate decision-makers to set aside any perceived ‘imperfections’ in your background, and focus on what you can bring to the organisation.
  • Be active in applying for roles directly and through job sites like LinkedIn. But maintain your relationships with executive search consultants. They still might have that illusive ‘10/10’ role for you. Find the right balance between being responsive without becoming annoyingly over-responsive. If you feel that you’ve been unfairly overlooked over a role, engage with them to explain what they may have failed to notice. And decide for yourself if you can trust their explanation behind what you’re missing from the full list of criteria.



The Letters A and U

The was easily one of the most nerve-wracking evenings of my life. But I’m glad that these stories are now preserved somewhere in the ether.

Notes and corrections:
1) Despite what you may think you hear, there are no rude words in this video. All the same, it’s probably not suitable for work or kids.
2) The first time I use the word ‘Homogeneous’, I meant to say the opposite word ‘Diverse’. Whoops.
3) I know, I know, Hungarians aren’t Slavs.
4) Kabanos is a Polish pork sausage.
5) #JáTaké is Czech for #MeToo.
6) 風穴先生 (Kazaana-Sensei) actually spoke great English. I used her to represent how the students sounded.
7) I mistakenly inserted the caption ‘Unraveled’, but the storytelling series is actually called ‘Unravel’. See

How Diverse Is Your Daily News Intake?

In order to truly understand different world perspectives, I regularly dip into various daily news sources. These are my Top 9 news apps, listed alphabetically and selected on the basis of diversity of opinion.

It’s like attending an advanced course in comparative media studies every day; to experience how different audiences are being presented with the same story (or, on many days, entirely different stories) is both fascinating and discomforting.

But how else to navigate today’s balkanised media landscape? How else to maintain empathy (and create foundations for meaningful debate) with others? And how else to challenge one’s own unconscious political biases?

Witchcraft and Sorcery

The future is here. So wait, why am I studying Mandarin?

The Magnificent Power of “I Don’t Know”


Where Knowing Everything Means Knowing Nothing

In my early days as a consultant, it was always tempting to come up with an answer to any question a client would ask me. The classic Fake-It-‘Til-You-Make-It Strategy. Or there was the Deflection Strategy, where you can politely dodge a question with phrases such as “I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that…” or “Here’s what I can tell you…”.  I’ve seen plenty of other panicky nonsense too. The Give-An-Answer-To-An-Entirely-Different-Question Strategy works surprisingly well, especially if the client isn’t really listening properly in the first place. And then there’s the Buy-Time-With-A-Long-Winded-Answer-So-That-Everyone-Forgets-The-Original-Question Strategy. Sorry, where were we?

I am grateful to have been surrounded by mentors who demonstrated how to avoid these traps. And these days, I really enjoy saying ‘I don’t know’. When you confess to not knowing the answer to one question, it accentuates the credibility of all your other answers. So while there’s certainly a skill in being able to concoct intelligent answers to every single question, be careful not to bury your bright diamonds of knowledge under a thick layer of coal.

Maybe This Time I Should Shut Up and Listen

You’re a thoughtful, worldly, professional human being, and you have every right to express your opinion on any topic you choose. But there are times when saying “I don’t know” is a matter of deference to others who have more depth of personal knowledge or experience. There’s something powerful about admitting that you still need to learn from others on a particular topic rather than professing to know all the answers yourself.

Personally, I have loved sharing details from the fifteen years I have lived and worked in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. But when I’m asked questions such as “What do they think of this in Japan?” or “What do they do about that in China?”, I’m very wary to give an answer unless I’m sure that I can make an accurate generalisation. In this regard, saying ‘I don’t know’ can be a sign of humility, rather than a sign of ignorance. I wish that more news commentators would at least preface their opinions with similar disclaimers. Or indeed more privileged white males when asked their opinion of the #MeToo movement…

Authenticity, Vulnerability and Curiosity

In business as in personal life, we need to be our authentic selves. It’s just too tiring trying to be anyone else. So if you’re in a situation where you don’t know, admitting so can be a great way of breaking down walls and building trust. There’s a time for confidence and assertiveness, and then there’s a time for refreshing honesty.

The world is bewilderingly complex, and we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we can’t speak intelligently on the geopolitics of Syria, the effects of climate change, and the workings of Blockchain for a combined ten minutes. But there’s a difference between perpetual curiosity and willful ignorance. We need to be continual learners and embrace each ‘I don’t know’ not as a badge of pride, but as a prelude to discovering more.

Nerdy Narcissism

Like any other normal person, when I have a spare 45 minutes, I like to research how my name is written in various world alphabets, and then list them roughly in order from West to East according to a representative country where they’re written.


Should we stop using the word ‘Expat’?

I’m always wary when someone is referred to as an expat. It’s a term still commonly used by Human Resources professionals to refer to employees who have been sent on assignment overseas. But maybe it’s time to stop using this word altogether.

  • The Ickiness

My biggest complaint is the neo-colonial aspect to the word itself. It has been great to see how employees from every corner of the world have now been expatriated from their home countries. Let’s send more qualified Kenyans to Kuwait; Vietnamese to Venezuela. But to me there’s still a congenital ‘whiteness’ about the word. Why am I an expat, but a builder from Bangladesh is a migrant worker? Aren’t we both just different kinds of economic migrant?

  • The Detachment

Referring to an international assignee as an expat can create a barrier between themselves and the people around them. The title becomes an excuse for them to disassociate themselves with their office surroundings, and not truly engage with their host environment. It lets them group themselves with other ‘expats’, define themselves by their differentness, and engender an us-versus-them mentality. Before long, when an ‘expat’ has a bad day they might say ‘I hate this country’, rather than say… ‘I’m having a bad day’.

  • The Ego

The term brings with it a sense of elitism and entitlement. A company should certainly help an international assignee with their lives, be it getting through the pain of relocation, helping with schooling costs, or advising on tax issues. But referring to the assignee as an expat adds an extra layer of status, which once given can be hard to retract. The next generation of internationally-mobile employees should be taught that an assignment is just part of their job description, not a perk, nor a badge of honour.

I was inspired to write this article in part because I hear a loud drumbeat of nativism around the world, especially tied in with anti-immigration sentiments. I’m personally the son of political refugees, and have been an economic migrant in Asia for over a decade. I also believe that a migrant should do their best to assimilate into the fabric of their new society. But it never escapes my attention that we have double standards for migrants in the West versus Western migrants living in the East. To some extent, global multinationals and HR leaders can help to reconcile this double standard by limiting the use of this term.

What are your thoughts? If you agree, what terminology would you suggest we use? Do you disagree, and am I just yet another hapless victim of political correctness? Do you have any stories of ‘Expats behaving badly’? Your answers and comments gratefully received!