In the civil service also, similarly, whenever I have a contrarian or different point of view, I will speak up in that room because I think the room needs to have diversity of views. I’m not saying I’m right, I’m saying if I see it from where I’m sitting, this is how I see this policy, and this is how maybe some others might see this policy. Right or wrong, how someone perceives something is unique to them and you can’t invalidate that right. It’s called lived experience and you can’t dictate how someone chooses to perceive something. - David Thian
Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hey, David, welcome to the BRAVE show.
David Thian: (00:32)
Hey, Jeremy, thanks for having me, it’s nice to be here.
Jeremy Au: (00:35)
Well, it’s always good to hang out with you again after how many years already we’ve known each other.
David Thian: (00:39)
Jeremy Au: (00:41)
Yeah, since the Conjunct days…it’s like ten years ago, actually. They’re celebrating their ten-year anniversary soon.
David Thian: (00:47)
Yeah, time flies.
Jeremy Au: (00:48)
Yeah. So, I’m excited to share your journey because you’ve had an interesting transition, not just as a consultant, but as someone who has joined the civil service. So, very much the opposite direction from many of our peers. As well as doing some very good work in the social sector as well. We would love to talk a little bit more about your point of view, what you’ve learnt along the way.
David Thian: (01:09)
Sure, I’m happy to share.
Jeremy Au: (01:10)
So, David, how would you introduce yourself professionally?
David Thian: (01:13)
How I usually introduce myself is – I’m someone who has spent time in all three sectors, the people or public and private sectors. I generally think of myself these days as someone who builds capability both in the people sector through Conjunct and in the public sector, my day job is a civil servant…generally, I’m a policy maker type role because there are many jobs in the civil service. So, I’m a policy maker. But, aside from the day job of policy making, I realise a big part of the value that I can add is also strengthening the organisation. So, not just doing the day job, but also making sure the organisation can carry on, even after I’ve left because my role is I’m an administrative officer, an AO in the civil service which means I change jobs every few years which means the organisation has to be stronger after I leave it and that’s one of the things that I find is interesting about my role.
Jeremy Au: (02:03)
Awesome, David. So, let’s go back in time. So, there you are at Duke, a student and you decided to become a management consultant. Did you have any idea what a management consultant was and why did you choose that job?
David Thian: (02:17)
Yeah…as you know, my background at Duke is I majored in English Literature and Economics. I love English Literature, I love reading. When I was a kid, I was a big nerd for all kinds of literature, especially poetry. At one point, I thought about becoming a professor and then I realised that academia is really tough in terms of employment because it’s tenured so you’re professor for life and professors don’t die very young so the employment rate, the on-ramp is not that great. That’s what I just realised. I looked at the numbers and, yeah, it’s not that great. I think nowadays kids know what consulting is, but at that time I was a bit more uncertain. But in my third year of uni, one of my friends took part in the case competition. I did not know what that was at the time, but she wanted to make a team of five or six people so she invited me to join in and I said I’ll help out and I took part in the case competition, whatever that was at the time, and it was actually really fun. They give you a stack of fake documents and you sort of help the client and I presented to Deloitte which was the sponsoring consulting firm that did that and I think we came in fourth which was really exciting and really fun, and that’s when I started to look into this profession called consulting, and the more consultants I met from the various firms, the more I was impressed by the calibre and the structured way that consultants think. I could ask them any question and even if they couldn’t answer it, they would respond to it intelligently.
Jeremy Au: (03:39)
Yeah, and that was enough to get you hooked and start recruiting for management, consulting, and BCG?
David Thian: (03:45)
Oh, yeah, yeah, definitely. I was so excited that I applied for internships. So, between my third and fourth year, I did do an internship at Bain in Atlanta Georgia because it was the nearest city to Duke. Unfortunately, I graduated during the ’08/’09 financial crisis, so, after that, employment in the US was very hard to come by, but I came back to Singapore and that’s where I had my first job at BCG Singapore and had a great amazing two years with the partners and associates there.
Jeremy Au: (04:13)
What was it like, those two years? What were your fun memories from that time?
David Thian: (04:17)
Oh, so many. So, of course, the consulting lifestyle is pretty jet setting. It can be tiring, which is something that I’ll talk about later, and why I eventually left, but the problem-solving aspect of it is really fun. And when I join consulting, I actually told, my final round interview was with one of the partners, and I actually told him, actually, I’m not super interested in business, to be very blunt. But I enjoy problem solving and you can probably see it in the way that I talk through the cases in a very logical fashion. I don’t have a lot of business jargon, but I’m just trying to think through it logically and I think he laughed because I was being frank. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea or not, but he had asked me basically, where do you see yourself five years from now? So, I actually told him – Actually, I’m not a huge business person, but I really enjoyed the problem solving and I really like the way you guys consultants think and I want to learn that. At BCG, in those two years, I definitely did learn a lot of how do you structure your thoughts? How do you break something ambiguous down when you don’t have a lot of experience as a young fresh grad advising a CEO who’s two times your age and in a company that you have…a sector that you may not have a lot of experience in, but you will learn fast, you apply some common sense, you take guidance from your partners and managing project manager, you piece things together and, of course, finally, you learn how to distil your thoughts and communicate clearly to a client in a way that they understand. That’s also another major skill that I picked up with me and still carry with me, every job I go to. How to distil six months of work into 6 minutes of clear talking to someone who has not spent six months doing that work that you just did? Useful skill.
Jeremy Au: (05:53)
Useful skill indeed. I definitely remember those days. And I think that’s something that is interesting because I remember my rate of learning was really fast because they were really expecting you to ramp up really quickly and this really wonderful training academy dynamic where just pumping information to you. I still remember they drop in and like “Okay, here’s all the things you need to learn and you’re going to get your first project in two weeks” and you’re like “What?”
Then you go shadow someone who has a very strong performance, management system, feedback cycle, and I think there was monthly feedback sessions, quarterly sit downs.
David Thian: (06:28)
Yeah, could be every couple of weeks, even. Depending on your project manager.
Jeremy Au: (06:32)
Yeah, just lots of feedback. It was interesting because I think going in as your first job after army, it feels like it’s almost like the norm, right? And then you leave and then you’re like oh, that’s not the norm at all. What did you take away from that experience and looking back, what were the things that you learnt from being at BCG?
David Thian: (06:50)
One of the…actually, I took a lot of skills with me that I still find very useful today, so the first one is actually breaking things down into a structured manner. In nowadays outside the consulting bubble, I call it ignorance management because as I mentioned just now, I change jobs every few years and so what happens then is I end up in an organization where almost everyone knows more than me about that, their job or that particular role, because in the civil service a lot of these people have been there for years, if not decades, and these are people that I have supervisory…like I’m their boss. It is not easy and I come in with humility knowing that I know a lot less, but I need to learn very fast and learn to enough of a degree that I can value add very quickly to justify the organisation sort of parachuting me at a middle management level in charge of a team of junior staff but who have been there for a long time. So, ignorance management is something I learnt in consulting like what are the key questions I need to know so that there’s the 80-20 rule. I know these key facts I can kind of not fit my way but like know enough, about this sector to discuss it intelligently. If I talk about, when I was in consulting, we did a pharmaceuticals case right? Like okay, I need to know some things about the pharmaceutical sector so I don’t sound totally dumb in front of my CEO and client. Pharmaceuticals, the research, the R&D cost billions and the pills take like 1 cent each make after that, so it’s different. It’s a very different cost structure from hotels or any other industry, so we have to know like five key fact, ten key facts and every new case you know the knowledge management people send you the dummy deck for this sector, so you at least get to speed on the sector. And if preferably even the clients’ basic financials and basic situation they’re in so that, again, you can parachute in and immediately or very quickly start value adding to the whole situation. That sort of frame of mind is very useful in my particular role in the public service. Trying to like I mentioned build organizations, I need to understand the context, to understand the context, there’s no way I can cram decades of experience into a few months, but, at least, I know what are the key facts – what are the key challenges this organization faces, what are the key constraints, what are the key bottlenecks. Okay, let me try in my short stint of two to three years in this organization to address these key bottlenecks again. 80-20 rule, in three years’ time, I’m out, but I’ve made something of a difference in this organization.
Jeremy Au: (09:04)
Well, I love that phrase, ignorance management and problem solving. So that was something that you in parallel also made decision to join the civil service. So why did you do that? I mean, it’s very contrarian because in Singapore with a scholar program, there are so many people who went to university expecting to join the civil service and then they kind of realize and kind of plop through university feeling like some of them are happy and some of them, more reluctant. They do a couple years in civil service and they head out often into the consulting world. So, you’re one of the few swimming up-river.
David Thian: (09:37)
It’s a different direction, to be sure. When I say BCG and I’m sure in the other consulting firms, there are as well, ex-civil servants and I met them. The reason why they join, they share was I wanted to learn more and where in my organization I was from,I felt like the learning had plateaued off and I think that’s a perfectly valid reason to want to jump ship, it’s that hunger and desire to learn more. In my case, the reason why I went in the opposite direction was because, as I mentioned just now, I wasn’t super interested in business and business problems. I think people who enjoy them definitely deserve to be in consulting and for my batchmates who stayed there, some of them are already partner level and clearly they’ve thrived and that’s their jam. For me, business was as I mentioned, I enjoy solving these problems and intellectually taking these apart and asking the right questions and doing the analysis. That is not to the level of passion that’s never like, right? This is really cool. Let me spend energy on this, but consulting as you know it’s a tough physical profession. You work late nights, you fly around and to be willing to put up with those kinds of costs and those costs increases your age and your body is not quite like it once was. Those costs you only pay those costs if you're really passionate about business or value adding to your clients and at some level after awhile, I realize actually I enjoy it, but I don’t enjoy it enough to be willing to pay that kind of cost. And so I started looking around. To where else I could take my skill sets and put them to service somewhere else. And I found the public service to be somewhere where I really could. As I mentioned, the skill sets are very similar time, ignorance management - trying to solve problems, advising the ministers, trying to put the public interests - aligned with various technocratic considerations. That is also very consulting thing to do. They don’t call policymakers consultants, but internally in my mind I see a lot of similarities and of course I really enjoy the idea that I can build organization capability even better. It’s for the country. It’s for your fellow Singaporeans, so there’s the element of service which I found also very meaningful, being able to put these skills to something that I really am passion about. Not that there’s anything wrong with business, but like personally, I find it meaningful applied to charities applied to the public sector. These skill sets of solving problems that will really move the needle and help humanity or at least society or my fellow man move forward.
Jeremy Au: (12:02)
That’s something I remember us talking quite a lot about because the scale is very different because at a company, you’re helping a multinational corporation, a large company deal with its customers and operations and profitability. But, taking the same problem solving skillsets, solve problems for citizens, it’s a different dynamic because it’s a long multiple decade, infinite horizon where these policy changes that you’re building out are gonna stick. Yesterday, you told me there were decisions that were made in 1965 or before, and I think the decisions we make are going to cascade into the future. How do you feel about working on problems that are different like citizens not customers, much longer time horizon versus this year’s or next year’s public annual report, how do you think about that?
David Thian: (12:51)
Oh, I think it is a different ethos and that’s something I notice when I joined the the civil service and I met a lot of people that inspired by solid public service leaders here in the civil service in Singapore and Singapore’s lucky to have some of these guys, to be honest. One of the lessons I learned that really resonated with me is the idea that we are stewards of the system, and as you mentioned, the time horizon is a major factor. I am working on a project that previous generations of public officers have worked on and can look at files dating back to the 70’s, 80’s and I’m building on this opus of work; stand on the shoulders of giants and all that; and, sometimes, they’ve been working on this for decades and I’m the lucky guy who happens to be like the finishing…write the finishing touch, write the finishing paper and not that I claim credit for all that, but it happens to be me and, therefore, there’s some kind of glory or prestige or just credit. But I’m very honest in saying, actually, without the decades of papers that I have read and absorbed and the thinking that’s gone through years and decades before, I wouldn’t have been in this position to deal with the finishing blow, the finishing touch. So, there’s that ethos of someone else was a steward, and I’m just inheriting this system. By that token, I also must pay it forward ‘cause people’s past work has benefited me and I’m actually doing research, thinking, writing notes that will be archived and passed down for the next generation of public officers. Whoever inherits my job after me, for example, and the opus of work that I leave behind that may not be fully complete by the time I’ve left, but will be inherited by someone else. That person can take it and take it to the next step, and maybe in a few decades time it’ll be done and they can claim credit for it. That’s totally fine by me. I’m not here to claim credit, but I’m here to contribute to that larger system and if it takes years, decades even, someone else can take my fruit and claim it. I don’t mind because, to be fair, I did it to someone else from decades past and that is just the stewardship and that ethos that I find marvellous about the public service.
Jeremy Au: (14:51)
Stewardship, I think that’s the best part about it. That’s where the critics charge in and say stewardship is just a code name for bureaucracy and bureaucracy is a code for “Traditionalism” and there’s this push by society for innovation, both on technology, social change…and you and I have interfaced with that, right? Based on our prior work as intermediaries, as bridges, and also as capitalists, but without going into the Conjunct Consulting side yet as we’ll get into later. How do you think government should balance the need for what you just talked about – stewardship versus innovation and what are the challenges and what are the dynamics to be thoughtful about?
David Thian: (15:34)
Yeah, that’s a very good question, and while there’s no straightforward answer, there’s a very clear response and direction that I think we need to move in and the concept that I want to lay out that will help answer this is the idea of polarity thinking anyone listening can just Google polarity thinking. It is a concept in organization development in OD, which is a field I studied for the last few years in order to try and help transform organisations. The concept around polarity thinking is that it refuses false binaries like we must either be stable and conservative so that we don’t screw up or we are either innovative and move fast and break things and whatnot and that can sometimes be a false dichotomy because there is no reason an organization cannot be conservative and safe for things where we cannot afford to fail like you can afford to have made a mistake when it comes to life or death situations. Now, when it comes to like the trains must run on time, there’s not a non-negotiable for making sure Singapore is well effective run country. The lights, the water, those are the basics. You can’t mess those up, but there are also other matters which are more negotiable. There is room for experimentation and there are smart ways to experiment in a sandbox fashion. MAS is famous for being able to do like sandboxes and align like fintech firms to offer products in an experimental way but it will not pose a systemic risk to the whole financial system because they have firewalled this experiment and that’s a smart way to experiment with products. Whether you’re a company or even a government, it’s just smart experimentation. Even MNC’s don’t want to mess up their core product and destroy their brand overnight so they find smart ways of testing. They call it the startup culture. It’s fail fast, fail cheap. Fail cheap means don’t jeopardize the whole systemic company when you’re when you power larger MNC or government and I think that’s how we balance. As I said, the conservatism, the fact that we cannot fail our citizens for certain key things, we have to deliver some of the obvious things like don’t screw up if there’re failures, those are inexcusable. Experimentation and lessons learned from experiments. Those are not considered failures. Those are called experiments. When the experiment has an outcome, whether it is the outcome you want or not, scientists don’t see the experiments as a failure. They just say that the null hypothesis was rejected or was not rejected. They don’t say the experiment was a failure. In fact, whatever finding your experiment comes up with, your experiment was a success. The only failed experiment is if the data is inconclusive because he screwed up the experiment and bias the results. Like you contaminated the bacterial culture. So, I think when you talk about experiments if they’re done intelligently, such as by ring fencing, such as by managing risk you can actually situate that in a larger so-called more conservative organization.
Jeremy Au: (18:06)
Amazing. It feels like at work with the government you can be a steward of systems and what we enjoyed most about consulting was always doing experiments on pushing forward, catalysing stuff for the beneficiary level, population level and the social worker level. It has been an interesting dynamic there for us to experiment. I’m wondering what you took away from working with hundreds of social enterprises and charities in Singapore, what would be your key takeaways from consulting and working with so many of them?
David Thian: (18:53)
Well this is gonna sound a bit like a cliché because this is something you live through and this lesson gets deeper but the thing that really makes a difference is the people and the relationships between people. I say this not to dismiss the need to be smart to have the right solutions and to analyze ‘cause that’s the part where, as a consultant and later as a policymaker type civil servant, I thought that was important, and it is important. But once you have the right solutions, you have rigorous and robust analytics and the solution, you actually need to cascade that to people. So, your communication skills and, more importantly, your trust building skills, which I think is distinct from communications as a skillset. Is actually really important because so many times in both professional consulting and nonprofit consulting, the consultant has the right answer, but the client doesn’t quite buy in for various reasons that they might or might not say out loud, so some resistances from the client might be like this solution is new, it seems radical and organizations whether government or not can sometimes be conservative, so if it’s a new idea, they may be a bit scared to try it. And The thing is, it’s the human being that makes the decision. It’s the human being that has insecurities, certain narratives in their own mind. Sometimes they’re not even aware of it. So, that’s where, again, OD and emotional literacy really come into play as a consultant or an advisor when you want to change someone’s mind, understand where they’re coming from. So, I call that professional empathy. People think empathy means touchy feely, but really, when you talk about professional, technical, executive empathy, it is understanding where that person comes from. Sometimes whether they say it out loud or don’t say it out loud. It’s better if you can tease it out, so it’s almost like...I’m not saying you’re a psychiatrist or therapist, but being safe enough a person that they confide in you and you unpack their thinking and help them come to the right decision. That is actually just as important as the answer itself, and that’s something I picked up from Conjunct from the many clients that we’ve worked with and spoken to.
Jeremy Au: (20:52)
Yeah, exactly. I think the superpower for these organisations is that they are doing that with their constituency, their core population, and they are able to channel that trust bottom up, acting not only as stewards, but as paragons or symbols or magnifying glasses where they focus the energy of the population into a very dynamic chunk. They are very able to represent a community on those dimensions they start to represent and that’s interesting because it’s almost contrarian, very Yin and Yang. So much of corporate or even technocratic government is about solutions first, problems first then people…and this is the opposite which is people first and let’s talk about the solutions second. Do you have any fun memories of our time at Conjunct consulting?
David Thian: (22:08)
Personally, the aspect of Conjunct that I really enjoyed was mentoring the students. Partly because my role at Conjunct was as the founding training director to drop the syllabus in training partly because that was one of my passions. Remember I did say at the start I wanted to be an English professor. Not just because I like English literature, but also, I actually do enjoy teaching, explaining, sharing my thoughts, not that I know more, but it's just that I share my perspective and if that helps people then I regard that as that's just very good. So, I enjoyed mentoring and teaching generations of students since Conjunct has been around for 10 years, that means our first Gen of students have been in the workforce for a long time. So many ex-Conjunct students are now working adults. In consulting, I think we’ve got some our alumni in McKinsey. We’ve got some of them in the government also, so that I’ve worked with before professionally now as fellow civil servants and some are actually now professionally working in the nonprofit sector as well. So that’s really amazing to see that as a I’m not a professional teacher, but I’ve had this teaching like effect and I get to see my ex-students do so many amazing things with their lives. So yeah, definitely memories there.
Jeremy Au: (23:21)
I think that was something we were dreaming about back in the early days. Theoretically, if we keep going, in the future, we’ll be able to create an alumni network where we are all in positions in power where we all collaborate, help each other like a Conjunct mafia and we’re starting to see stories of that nowadays where Conjunct alumni are just dealing with each other on issues in the social sector.
David Thian: (23:52)
Yeah, it’s because of the circle of trust and the reason why alumni networks work, in the old days, it was called the old boys network, now it’s called the alumni network, it’s because there is that trust. Again, it goes back to what I said – people don’t buy intellectually correct solutions. Even if you tell me something, if you are a stranger and I intellectually check your answer and it works out intellectually, but, if you are a stranger, I’ll take it differently than if you are my friend and it still checks out that the answer is intellectually correct so, it’s really that trust in relationship which I find there’s no good substitute for because humans brains are just wired that way back in the day when we were dealing with Sabre-tooth tigers and whatever, you do need interactions with your fellow man, we are social animals.
Jeremy Au: (24:33)
That’s so true and I always say Teach for America has 2 facets . One is the teaching of the students. The second is the alumni network is transformational in their ability to give people exposure to what disadvantaged population of Asia are facing on the educational front and giving the network for something to happen. Starting to think through some things here. I wanted to ask you about whether there had been times that you have been brave and had to overcome challenges in your life?
David Thian: (25:13)
Many times, both as a consultant and as a civil servant, but generally, I’ll give some specific examples, but generally I notice moments of courage defined when you are not sure how the other person will react. Usually, the other person is a superior officer or some boss, but you decide to speak because it is for what you think is the greater good and that you have some faith that the outcome will be positive because maybe your boss you think will understand or that, at least, your colleagues will understand and history will prove that you had good intentions. Whether you’re right or wrong is not really the point. It’s that you had good intentions, you wanted to contribute, but, specifically, I do remember a time when at BCG, we had a case where we felt the client was asking not quite the right questions. I mean, they’re paying us the usual fees, so we’re obviously happy to solve any problem they want us to solve, but we actually thought we looked at their figures in the financial business. Actually, instead of asking us to solve question X, you need to ask us to solve question Y? That is actually a more valuable question in dollar terms to ask even, even though that’s not the question you’re asking us, we think it’s a better use of your money ‘cause you’re paying us if you ask the other question and we’re happy to do the work, and we actually had to say this a few times because question Y, the question we thought they should be asking, was a bit more sensitive. Human beings are not completely robots. They had to consider whether or not they wanted to change some aspects of their company and, of course, when you are the founding generation or someone who’s been in the company for a long time, there is a certain bias or certain preference and it makes you reluctant to pursue certain avenues of enquiry. But, we actually showed them repeatedly, gently, and respectfully that if you ask question Y, it is really a more valuable question if we are able to provide with a good and solid answer to that, you can really increase your company’s growth. Question X is a fine question, but in terms of dollar value, you’re much better served if we helped you answer question Y. For us at BCG will still be the same either way, right? You're still paying us for our time, but we really wanted to add value to the client and we had the courage to speak out and actually advocate in our client’s best interest, even though, again, they were initially a bit reluctant but over time were able to persuade them around our point of view and, to me, that is an example of bravery. In the civil service also, similarly, whenever I have a contrarian or different point of view, I will speak up in that room because I think the room needs to have diversity of views. I’m not saying I’m right, I’m saying if I see it from where I’m sitting, this is how I see this policy, and this is how maybe some others might see this policy. Right or wrong, how someone perceives something is unique to them and you can’t invalidate that right. It’s called lived experience and you can’t dictate how someone chooses to perceive something. So, when I share that point of view is to help the room get more intelligent. It’s not to prove that I’m smarter than everyone. It’s to contribute to the discussion in the room, and one of the things I really enjoy about consulting is everyone is equal. Whether you’re a partner or associate, if you say something that’s based on data, people take that and the room sort of absorbs that information and discusses like some hivemind trying to achieve a better answer and I think that’s an act of bravery in pursuit of something greater. As I said, and I really enjoy those moments.
Jeremy Au: (28:33)
Thanks David. I really appreciate that. I love to wrap up by summarizing the three big themes. The first was thank you so much for sharing your professional journey about how you accidentally became a consultant. Based on the case competition. It’s like a common story, actually, because nobody really knows what a consultant is so everyone just kind of falls into it for some reason including myself, and I love what you shared about the key things you learned along with the way, right? For example, really talking about I love the phrase “Ignorance Management” I.E. - structured problem solving, which is how do you go about to learn what you don’t know and to learn what you need to know. I just love that. That was a great phrase I’m sure going to start using that phrase now. It’s impossible for us to all know everything all at once, but it is possible to manage our ignorance in a way that’s responsible, right? And get smart quickly on to the extent as needed for the project or the problem at hand. The second thing I realized was actually your obvious expertise on thinking about how government works and some of the things you have to learn/unlearn which is like thinking about moving on a much larger time scale. The stewardship of what has been done in the past and what will be done in the future based on your work. And I love that sense of time horizon. And also, I also love the acknowledgement that there’s that tension, I think by everyone, including within the government, for more innovation as a trend and it you frame it nicely as to avoid the false dichotomy and using the concept of polarity thinking as a way to make sure that whatever is mission critical continues to stay up and running versus those areas that we need to have more space for experimentation does actually get that space for experimentation. And lastly, I think I love a lot of the personal tips and advice from our shared experience together and I love what you shared about Conjunct Consulting and a nice brainstorm about reminiscing about what we envisioned was that larger alumni network all helping each other to make Singapore a better place together. And it’s nice to actually have the circle of trust, that exposure, the training by yourself by yours truly. Many generations of students and professionals getting trained into the social sector and the dynamics within it. And also, I love the dynamics around as a result, like a lot of our shared learnings about how to articulate problems, how to say this problem is something we should tackle. What is the lived experience? How do you perceive the problem versus what is the problem? How do I perceive the problem? And lots of small tips along the way so I really appreciate you, David, for dropping a lot of knowledge in this podcast.
David Thian: (31:18)
It’s been my pleasure. Thanks for having me on, Jeremy.