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Kwok Jia Chuan On Leadership

"Leadership is never about yourself"

· Podcast Transcripts

"It's about identifying that problem, but also making sure we get together people that are passionate enough to solve that problem. If you think about it, that's really the foundation for the biggest companies that are out there as well." - Kwok Jia Chuan

Jeremy Au: Welcome to Brave Dynamics. This is your host, Jeremy Au. Leadership is harder than it looks. As a proven founder and Harvard MBA, I interview courageous entrepreneurs, executives, and investors every week. I also share my frontline experiences, coaching insights and own professional development journey. If you are stepping up as a new leader, founding a startup or venturing into the great unknown, this is the podcast for you.

[00:00:34] I'm happy to introduce Kwok Jia Chuan. He currently leads payment product policies for Google. Previously, he was Deputy Director in the Singapore government's digital transformation office. He led a product team working on digital payment and identity products.

[00:00:53] He also led the project for PayNow, one of the world's first government-created peer-to-peer payment systems. He led its national adoption from 0% to over 75% in two years. PayNow now transacts over $12 billion annually. Today, Singaporeans now commonly say "I'll PayNow You," just like how Americans say, "I'll Venmo you" or " I'll PayPal you." He also happens to be a graduate of the London School of Economics and MIT, and is recognized as a World Economic Forum Global Shaper. Welcome Jia Chuan, and good to see you again.

[00:01:32] Kwok Jia Chuan: Great to see you Jeremy. Thanks for having me.

[00:01:34] Jeremy Au: I first got to know you because we were friends all the way back in secondary school and we were in the Creative Arts Program as two poets.

[00:01:46] Kwok Jia Chuan: Yeah, definitely a big change. It's been 15 years now? More than that, 17 years.

[00:01:50] Jeremy Au: Yeah, you know you're getting old when you can't remember the number of years you've been friends for. That's how you know you're old.

[00:01:57] Kwok Jia Chuan: Yeah, you know beyond the number of years, it's also about many memories. I think we've got a lot of different things that we've worked on together. So, I'm really happy to be here.

[00:02:06] Jeremy Au: Our friendship clicked back in the army together when we were army buddies in our commander course together. I always remember walking into the auditorium and seeing you, and I was just so delighted to see a familiar face. I had no idea that we would do some crazy stuff like digging a trench together, buddy up and tackle a ton of jungle navigation courses. I had no idea that would be the cornerstone of our working relationship ever since then.

[00:02:39] Kwok Jia Chuan: Yeah. I could always count on you to lead me through the paths where we were lost, and we could always count on having each other's back as well. I'm really glad that I've continued to keep such a friendship to this time.

[00:02:52] Jeremy Au: Yeah. Many of you may already know that Jia Chuan and I co-founded Conjunct Consulting, which is a platform deploying consulting services for Singapore's social sector. We started out in those early days with just an idea on literally a piece of paper and at that time Skype in doing our calls.

[00:03:13] It’s crazy to see how much we've grown in deploying millions of dollars of services. So, it's been amazing to see the growth in terms of not just providing incredible support for our frontline social services, we've also helped train thousands of leaders that will be the next generation of social change leadership in Singapore and Southeast Asia.

[00:03:38] Kwok Jia Chuan: Yeah. We started out in a small room just broadcasting a call for volunteers and I recall at that time saying "Oh, would this even work?" We both had our doubts during that time, although I think we trusted it.

[00:03:51] We built a good team around us. We got it up. I think what we have really built is something that has managed to stand on its own for the past eight years. It couldn't have happened without you, let's put it this way.

[00:04:02] Jeremy Au: It couldn't have happened without you either. We should talk a little bit about those early days, right? A lot of people often ask, "What is it to found a startup or a platform? What is it like to do that in Singapore or Southeast Asia?"

[00:04:16] Kwok Jia Chuan: Nowadays you hear companies like Grab, Go-Jek, Lazada, RedMart. Back at that time, the entrepreneurship scene really wasn't that mature. There was a lack of VC funding, and a lack of easy capital as well. So, it really took some guts at the time to try and start something. What was going through your head when you first started Conjunct Consulting?

[00:04:41] Jeremy Au: I really wanted there to be a solution for the social sector where so many large nonprofits, charities, social enterprises and even government agencies wanted support thinking through these tough questions around their operations. I wanted to support them and consult for them, but just didn't have a platform to do that effectively or efficiently. That's where you and I were discussing the problem and we very much agreed that problem existed. We couldn't figure out a way to plug ourselves in, so we decided to create a platform to plug ourselves in and ended up creating a platform plugging in thousands of people more.

[00:05:23] You are entirely fair to say that we did that based on a problem, yet we didn't have many role models at that time for what it meant to build something from scratch. I still remember that in those early days, there weren't any coworking spaces. There wasn't any infrastructure really for entrepreneurs. We built out that language for ourselves locally. It is interesting to see how things have changed rapidly ever since our founding.

[00:05:50] Kwok Jia Chuan: Yeah. I agree with that. You rightly pointed out that it's actually about the community. It's about identifying that problem, but also making sure we get together people that are passionate enough to solve that problem. If you think about it, that's really the foundation for the biggest companies that are out there as well.

[00:06:08] For Conjunct Consulting, what we really wanted to do was to get people with different skill sets, bring them together and create something that was greater than the sum of its parts.

[00:06:18] Jeremy Au: Yeah. It was interesting to see that initial growth of entrepreneurs and community. I still remember that in our second year, we started being the pioneer, one of the first ten, members of what was then called Impact Hub Singapore by Grace Sai, and now it's called Found8.

[00:06:37] I still remember that early group of people who were experimenting with working out of a coworking space and almost all of us had been working out of Starbucks or with friends in those early stages. It's interesting to see how many of our peers in that space have gone on to grow out their businesses since then and really become role models for other people in the community, like Yi Sung Yong from Grain. I think it's honestly incredible that the community has really grown for people to be able to help each other found businesses, grow different platforms and make a difference.

[00:07:15] We grew Conjunct Consulting and bootstrapped that to a sustainable place. I went off to the US where I was doing my Harvard MBA and founding another high-growth business and you in Singapore seeing the ecosystem continue to change and grow. That's also where you started working on the government digital transformation office as well. I'd love to hear your experience

[00:07:38] Kwok Jia Chuan: I've been fortunate enough to be in different places in different positions, whether it's with Conjunct Consulting, the government or the current role at Google. A few things continue to guide me how I work with people, and how I produce high growth and effective teams as well. I would look at that as three broad values and pillars which have stood by me.

[00:08:04] So the first is that: It's never about yourself. It's always about the people around you and how it can create impact around them. Whether it's with Conjunct Consulting, the government, or Google, there was always an element for me on how I can actually magnify impact by bringing great people together and giving them the culture and the environment to succeed. It's not about you taking all the glory. You were President back then, I was the Chairman. We both knew that it was never just about us. The many volunteers of Conjunct Consulting would come together and work late nights to provide the best recommendations they could for our client organizations.

[00:08:41] Similarly in the government, it was never just about me, but it was about the teams that I worked with who really, really pushed themselves throughout weekends and nights, and we made sure that the products that we put up were the best that we could do for the people of Singapore.

[00:08:56] Similarly in Google, I'm seeing some really passionate people come together. The priority is always the same: respecting the opportunity and respecting the user. Making sure that these people come together with their different skill sets and bringing the best opportunity that they can get. So that's the first thing.

[00:09:14] The second thing is really about creating a culture of psychological safety. You can have really talented people in the room, but if they are, for lack of a better word, jerks, they will scare off other people out there That leads to an atmosphere of fear where people don't want to contribute. That leads to an atmosphere of suspicion that just brings down the performance of the team as well. I've seen teams where I had to step in and say, "Look, this is not the attitude we should be coming in from."

[00:09:42] At Google, you know the famous phrase "Don't be evil". Many people don't think that "Don't be evil" applies outside the products. Honestly, that applies to the people that work in Google everyday as well: How they work with each other. How they try to bounce and discuss ideas. I think that's really key to what Google has been able to do.

[00:10:05] The third thing really is to think big. To really push yourself to think about what are the ideas? What are the new things that can change? Do not be constrained by limits. I recall when you and I were just two people doing Conjunct Consulting. We never imagined it would be growing into something that would create millions of dollars of impact.

[00:10:22] Similarly in the government when we thought about PayNow, we were thinking about how to do real-time transactions: people could click on a tap of a button just by entering someone's phone number and sending money. That was an arcane concept four or five years back, but we managed to pull it off. Now it has a really good user experience for anyone who uses that.

[00:10:40] Similarly in Google, the different products like Search, Geo, YouTube, come together to create something that's big.

[00:10:49] That's something I would really encourage everybody to think about: How to think big? How to stamp your mark on that and continue to push these ideas?

[00:10:57] Jeremy Au: Let's zoom in a little bit about the government experience before switching to the Google side. So many people often talk about how amazing the Singapore digital transformation office is versus the government's efforts in different countries. What would you say are your observations that make your team productive and as innovative as it is?

[00:11:21] Kwok Jia Chuan: The Singapore government moves very fast compared to other governments around the world. They iterate very fast, they are able to put together things and combine that with the ability to think about the major challenges for the next 10, 20, 30 years. It's a really strong combination that really lets Singapore push the envelope in terms like digital transformation.

[00:11:45] Going back to the payments part of it, most payment systems now are still via slower gross settlement issues and gross settlement systems. Thinking about a real time payment system and cross-border real-time payments, these are things that we had to continue to push.

[00:12:02] These were ideas, but the fact that we could bring these ideas to execution speaks to the amazing ability of many and very different divisions within the government. Whether it's the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the central bank, with their expertise in finance or the Government Technology Agency with their expertise in technology coming together to create systems, devices, and platforms that ultimately resulted in a lot of impacted people.

[00:12:28] Jeremy Au: Yeah. What's interesting is that you are one of the few people to really push for changing societal norms in so many different domains. From a public policy government perspective, another from Google large tech, to a more entrepreneurial outfit.

[00:12:48] Many people often ask: "How do I find out what is the best role for them to make that change they want to see in the world. From your perspective, how do you often talk about it? Is that a false dichotomy between those choices, or would you say there are ways that you would frame that conversation for people who are trying to figure out their path?

[00:13:11] Kwok Jia Chuan: Well, I think that the way to figure out the path is to try it and, in a way, try small steps. Be ready to course-correct. Eventually that will lead you down to the path where you feel comfortable about. I think the ability to take small steps is one that allows people to actually try and see whether something works for them.

[00:13:31] If you don't have passion, if you don't have enthusiasm, then nothing else matters because that ultimately determines whether you will bring your best to work.

[00:13:39] I was very passionate about the government part and wanting to make sure that we could impact the people of Singapore, wanting to build the best products for them as well. In a way, I think going to Google was another step in that direction because I wanted to figure out how best we could make great products and apply those lessons.

[00:13:56] Jeremy Au: One thing that I so agree with you is about small steps. The way I often frame it up is for almost every product, you try before you buy. That applies so much for careers and jobs as well. It's often very hard to see past the product or job description. It's such a different experience to actually be living and using that product, let alone actually doing the functions of that job. What would you say have been some interesting differences that you've seen between your role in the government versus your time at Google?

[00:14:33] Kwok Jia Chuan: Well. I think I'll start off with the commonalities first before going to difference. I think both in the government and Google, people are very passionate about solving problems and finding out the best ways to solve the problems as well.

[00:14:45] That being said, ultimately the government is very focused on Singapore, and they have every right to be because they are the elected government. Google, by definition of it being a larger company, is looking at the world and looking how we can build products for the world as well. So, I think the outlook is different.

[00:15:02] That's one of the big differences that I've been trying to adjust to. Neither of them is right or wrong, it's not a black or white dichotomy. I think both organizations have different purposes and ultimately that's down to the nature of the organizations.

[00:15:15] Jeremy Au: That is so true. What's been interesting is that you've also done a lot of focus around payments and I'd love to hear about how you've built out not just your experience, but also decided to continue focusing on payments, and that dimension of society?

[00:15:33] Kwok Jia Chuan: Payments ultimately is an everyday activity: when you go out, when you buy, when you go shopping, when you go eating. Payments is something that everybody needs to do. There's tremendous opportunity to make payments safe, simple and secure for people. I think with technology advancing with an understanding of what flows we need for payments, there really is opportunity to make things simple in order to avoid, for example filling up paper forms. A hundred years ago, we filled in checks. Now, we're still filling in checks. Surely there must be a way for things to be done faster digitally and make it a better user experience for everyone.

[00:16:15] That being said, precisely because payments is a universal activity, you also want your new solutions to not be exclusive: not just for those who can afford it, but for everybody out there. What's really fun for me and what's really challenging for me is to make sure that we build systems, we build things that everybody can use.

[00:16:37] Jeremy Au: Awesome. So wrapping things up, what advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?

[00:16:45] Kwok Jia Chuan: It would really be executing at speed. Being ruthless in consistency. So ultimately, it's about improving yourself every single day, being a little bit better than you were yesterday, learning something new. There will be days where you fail, there will be days where you trip up, there will be days where you're sad, but ultimately, it's about that consistency and bringing your best every day to the job.

[00:17:05] Jeremy Au: Awesome. Thank you, Jia Chuan.

[00:17:07] Kwok Jia Chuan: Thank you, Jeremy. It's been wonderful talking to you.

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