The Art of Leading by Enabling

loading Boonsiri Somchit (centre) and her family.

Boonsiri Somchit casts a long shadow; she has spent almost two decades as vice president of US semiconductor giant AMD. In 2016 she decided it was time to write a leadership book: When the Chicken Dies Everyone Cries recounts how her childhood in the kampung provided her with leadership skills. How did Boonsiri overcome her challenges and what is the “Art of menggoreng”? Penang Monthly finds out.

What inspired you to write When the Chicken Dies Everyone Cries?

In May 2015 I was invited to speak at TEDxWeldQuay. The theme was “Momentum”. I decided that it was time to open up about my failure at the age of 17. Of course, I was terrified that the audience would peg me as a fraud when they heard that I could not even make it into any local universities. I was afraid they’d laugh at me. But that day, I shared how my failure to gain admission into local varsities became my strength and how it taught me grit and resilience. My failure was my momentum moment.

The strange thing was, no one laughed at me or thought of me as a fraud. Instead, one member of the audience stood up and gave me a standing ovation; others thanked me for my honesty. A professor invited me to deliver my talk at his university to teach young people that failure is not the end, but the beginning of learning and a chance for driving yourself out of your comfort zone.

Many have asked me to tell my story, and that was how the idea of writing a book came about.

You’re a corporate figure and an author. Which role are you more comfortable in?

It is about understanding your role and the expectations of the people you are dealing with, and then learning to adapt to it while keeping a focus on your vision and purpose – because in the end, when you know where you are heading, no matter what comes your way, you will always figure things out.

I always believe that no matter what role you are in, you need to get your hands dirty: start from the bottom, learn everything. I know many think that is micromanaging, but if you don’t know enough about the details, how can you help when there is an issue or when someone needs some advice?

From your experience, can you share with us the downside of the corporate world and how you overcame the challenges?

I was a young analyst, fresh out of college. I was afraid to speak up. I did not want to be thought of as dumb, stupid or ignorant, so I would rather listen than give my ideas. Once, I needed to present to a visiting vice president and in my mind, I was wondering why this was even part of my job scope when all I wanted to do was to work in the background, churn out data and let my manager do the presenting.

As I moved up the corporate ladder, I realised that without visibility in the upper echelons of the company, I would get nowhere. So my advice to every young person in the corporate world is to volunteer – volunteer for anything and everything! That’s how you will get noticed.

The second downside happened when I was in a more senior position. It was my first performance evaluation. My manager stated that although my performance was excellent, he could not give me a significant increment because I am a woman and a wife; I was not a bread winner and therefore didn’t need a big pay raise because it was my husband’s job to take care of my family and me. I stayed on in the company, though disappointed, as there were still things that I needed to learn.

Every challenge is an opportunity to learn, develop and to grow as an individual, an employee and a leader. This has not always been the case, but with professional maturity and age, you realise that “s**t happens”. You are left with two choices: either moan about it, or use it as fertiliser to grow a beautiful garden for everyone to admire.

How will your book inspire aspiring leaders?

Fortunately, there are no theories in my book to bore you, just stories and experiences. Stories allow us to be an open book and to share our pains, sorrows, happiness and triumphs with others – this is how we build connections and engagement. I am a big advocate of employee engagement because it gels an organisation together, but this needs to start with the leaders.

Boonsiri conducting training.

Great leadership starts with being human. A leader serves the people around them. When a leader is egotistical, the team members will not be willing to speak up nor will they go the extra mile. They may stay with the organisation for a while especially if the benefits are good, but they will leave because there is no connection, no relationship and no loyalty. Who wants to work in an environment where you are not respected and you have no voice?

Not everyone aspires to be leaders in the corporate world; some would rather contribute to the company according to their skillsets. Will your book speak to them?

When I was a young manager, I confused having a fancy title and a team reporting to me with being a leader. I could not have been more wrong. Anyone in any position can be a leader because titles and reporting lines have nothing to do with leadership.

You become a leader by enabling people to reach their potential when you help to make things happen. It’s not just about developing and empowering the people who work for you; it’s really about lending a helping hand to everyone you cross paths with without asking “what’s in it for me?”

I wrote about the “Art of Menggoreng” in my book – an essential communication skillset that everyone must have regardless if you are a manager or an individual contributor. Irrespective of position in an organisation, you must communicate well. If you are unable to communicate well, how will you be able to articulate your ideas and get your managers and customers to understand you? Remember, it’s not only about communicating so someone listens; it’s about communicating so your audience can relate to you.

Who inspires you, and why?

My Meh (mother) and Por (father) inspire me because they never gave up. When I was growing up, we had to be resourceful because money was scarce and came far between. They had ten mouths to feed. But they never complained.

Por worked as a mechanic at the Public Works Department, and Meh was a housewife. Por would take on extra work repairing cars while my eldest brother and Meh would be out there in our makeshift garage holding the light for him as he worked late into the night.

Boonsiri and her Xtrategize team.

We lived in government quarters, and the unit we occupied had a garden at the side, back and front. Meh and my elder brother and sisters planted sweet potatoes, kangkung and any vegetables that we could grow and cook to supplement our diet. We also had ducks and chickens that provided us with fresh eggs. Life was tough, but my parents made it work.

You seem very fond of your eldest sister, Che Che.

She gave me my earliest lessons in leadership and communication: to be specific in your instruction and to ask questions when youShe gave me my earliest lessons in leadership and communication: to be specific in your instruction and to ask questions when you don’t understand. When I was little, Che Che (or as I like to call her, my direct-line boss) told me to buy cinnamon sticks for her. She gave me RM10 and no other instruction. So I bought RM10 worth of cinnamon sticks, which was a gunnysack full! This was in the 1960s and she only needed one stick to cook with. I’m sure my family still used the cinnamon even after I had graduated.

What’s next for Boonsiri Somchit?

I am planning my next book, but my schedule has become rather crazy, so I will need to squeeze time to get cracking on writing in between everything else that I do. Unfortunately, I must focus on one thing at a time to make sure I get things done well by my standards, so time and energy management for me is now key to ensure I get everything on my tracker list ticked off by the target dates that I set for myself.

Emilia Ismail is a freelance writer, and snot wiper and bedtime story narrator for her two-year-old son. Her works can be found in The Star, Penang Monthly and most recently, Eksentrika.

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