Thriving in Foreign Lands

By Serene Tan Zheng Xiew, Manager at PEMANDU Associates

Speak to a management consultant and what becomes apparent very quickly is not only the maddening work hours, but the constant travel. While this may bring about glamorous images of consultants with their customary Tumi bags working out of airport lounges, the constant travel can take quite a toll on – both physically and mentally.

Throughout my almost two-year stint here with PEMANDU Associates, our work in government transformation and my expertise has provided me with opportunities to not only work in a host of countries but to collaborate with people from different cultures. Projects would usually take ten to twelve weeks and throughout that time, we’re just working tirelessly to ensure that we can facilitate and develop strategies that will help achieve a business’ or government’s True North. And given the firm’s belief in delivering Big Fast Results, we often hit the ground running from the moment we land.

I’ve learned very quickly that one of the keys to a fruitful engagement is to quickly adapt to the people and the work culture of the country you’re in. There are no playbooks for this, so you have to be nimble enough to adapt on the job. This may sound trivial but acclimatising to new work cultures is important in ensuring that you can successfully manage project stakeholders and produce results. This is all part of the Big Fast Results approach that we at PEMANDU Associates consultants anchor our work on – in other words, to deliver tangible results in the quickest, most effective way possible.

To date, I have been assigned to projects in three different countries across three different continents, so you can imagine the vast differences in cultures. However, in preparing myself for the trips, I usually stick to a few ‘rituals’ which have been a lifehack of sorts, regardless of where I’m headed to.

Do Your Research!

Preparation begins way before you take-off!

Like a true consultant, every trip begins with an obsessive flurry searches into available databases shared by the Engagement Manager to study the country, its people and its customs. Next, I’d look out for information about the specific industry related to my assigned workstream and speak with our colleagues who have experience in similar industry experiences.

I’ve been involved in quite a few socio-economic transformation projects so my pre-reading also helps dig up insights on the country’s laws and policies. The last thing you would want to happen is to devise strategies based on policies that didn’t work before!

Call it old-fashioned, but appearances matter. Getting familiar with a culture’s dressing etiquette is another great step to ensure that you adhere to cultural boundaries. Prior to one of my work trips to Oman, I made sure my wardrobe was prepared to suit the Muslim-majority Sultanate to avoid offending my counterparts. Being outcome oriented, the last thing we’d want is for wardrobe mishaps to discount or hinder our work delivery.

Get Off on the Right Foot

My first two days in a new country will determine how the rest of the project will turn out. Ergo, it’s extremely important for me to make the right impression to my counterparts. The early stages of an engagement allow working teams to establish working processes, hours and norms. Use this time to communicate with your counterparts to understand the issues they have been facing so that they know you are here to help. One of the firm’s leadership principles is ‘building a winning coalition’ to ensure alignment towards a common outcome. And taking a people-first approach has been key to helping me achieve this!


Aretha Franklin’s famous lyric has never rung more true. Respect is the foundation to being able to work well with people who are from different backgrounds. Afterall, you’re on their home turf so you have to play to their rules.

In St. Lucia, the people adhere strictly to their working hours (9am-5pm). This means any e-mails or work requests sent after 5pm will need to wait until the next day. For us Asians with a habit of working through ungodly hours, this means, if you promise to deliver something ‘by EOD’ it doesn’t mean end of day by your standards.

The good news is, the firm believes in rigorous planning (we call it a ‘3 feet plan’) which favours granular activity plans toward an outcome or deliverable. This makes it easy for us to plan our time efficiently to ensure that things are done with a clear direction and on time.

Keeping Your Mind on the End Goal

With the limited timeframe that we have on a given project, you need to maintain a razor-sharp focus on the project’s true north. There will be roadblocks in reaching the finish line and when they do appear, there are times where a stand has to be taken, and perhaps unpopular decisions made to move the needle. Problem solve the issue by finding alternatives, and in my case, I would seek information from other individuals who might also have access to stakeholders with greater authority. If there is a need to bypass individuals, seek help from your team lead or Engagement Managers, to get some time with the stakeholder in question (but remember to do so diplomatic in your approach!).

In the business of Big Fast Results, we don’t have the luxury of time to entertain prolonged inaction on a matter. So carry out your tasks relentlessly, monitor progress, and when faced with difficulties, continuously find solutions that can help you overcome them.

Build Camaraderie

Your work assignment is probably going to be the only time you will be visiting the country so why not make friends out of it?

One of the key components of PEMANDU Associates’ Big Fast Results (BFR) Methodology – 8 Steps of Transformation© is to hold a Lab. This is an intensive process where cross-functional groups of stakeholders are brought together over a period of 6-8 weeks to identify prioritised initiatives and action plans toward a common goal. A Lab can get very intense for everyone involved so to lighten up the mood, I usually utilise break times to chat with my stakeholders. Sometimes, we even play simple games just to break the ice! This actually helps build my relationship with my counterparts, which will consequently result in better working relations.

Spend time with your stakeholders, and get them to share more personal things. It will make adapting so much easier once you have newly made friends who can guide you on how to navigate around their culture.

Challenges abound when you carry out work in a different country. And while we may sometimes learn things the hard way, the key is that we learn. Our CEO, Dato’ Sri Idris Jala says that in the pursuit of a goal, even if we slip up the important thing is that we’re transformed along the way. And boy have I learned and transformed!

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Training Wheels Not Provided: Seizing Opportunities for Self-learning

By Ng Chean Yeaw, Vice President of PEMANDU Associates

Life as a consultant is a challenging, albeit rewarding one. Consultants are often put in a situation where they are expected to resolve issues and problem solve independently. More often than not, there are distinct deliverables requested at the behest of the client or stakeholders to be fulfilled in a short span of time. When put in situations of high pressure and time constraints, there’s only so much collective guidance and help one can receive – the rest depends on the individual’s approach in tackling these arduous challenges.

At PEMANDU Associates, the concept of ‘learning by doing’ is deeply embedded in our work culture. Our President & Chief Executive Officer, Dato’ Sri Idris Jala often uses the analogy of learning how to ride a bike to explain the concept. How does one learn to cycle? Do you take up a course on cycling and learn the theories behind it? Or, do you simply get on a bicycle and learn how to cycle by actually doing it?

Sure, you are bound to fall in the process of learning, but that also gives you the opportunity to learn to pick yourself up and try over and over again until you get (over even master) it. In other words, take the bull by the horns and figure out ways to tame it. Or for us consultants, how to do it smarter and faster.

But does experiential learning apply to non-physical skills? What about skills like Microsoft Excel?

My first assignment as a fresh graduate starting my career in consulting was to create a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) Dashboard for every Cabinet Minister of the Malaysian Government. But the rush of excitement was very quickly swept away by a wave of anxiety of being entrusted with this huge responsibility.

As someone fresh out of college, where would I even begin?

Back then, everyone was tracking and computing monthly KPIs manually on a PowerPoint dashboard. Generations of these dashboards were designed that way – a tedious task that no one enjoyed. Not only was it laborious, there was also plenty of room for human errors, especially in the aggregation and computation of scores. The task assigned was to take the existing manual dashboard, and to transform it into something more user-friendly for the ministers. To top it all off, I was expected to conjure this fully functioning new tool within the span of a week, with my then-limited knowledge of excel. Talk about playing the Game of the Impossible, a principle that all PEMANDU Associates consultants are expected to embrace from the get-go.

So how did I do this?

A Method for Success

When you work at something long enough, chances are you will eventually learn how to do it. A methodical approach, however, makes your chance of succeeding much greater and faster. In this case, I was aware of the significant gaps that I needed to fill in order to deliver this task, and I needed to find solutions quickly and effectively.

     1. Resourcing for knowledge

The good thing about the internet era today is that you have a plethora of information and knowledge at your fingertips. An obvious first point of resource is… drums rolling – Google. But this still requires a bit of research to find a resource that is reliable and easily accessible to you. I spent a significant amount of time poring through the internet and Googling solutions to understand the functions and formulas of Excel.

In my research, I’ve discovered some great pages that can provide you step-by-step guides on Excel like Exceljet and Tech on the Net, just to name a few. Forums on Stack Overflow and Mr. Excel were also very useful in providing real-life scenario examples and solutions by other Excel coders. Every difficulty that I encountered, I resolved it with hours of heavy research on Google.

     2. Planning and learning for execution

With the ultimate goal in mind, that is to positively impact an organisation by automating the monthly KPI tracking and monitoring, the structure of the dashboard needed to be effective and efficient. Hence, I came up with the plan to structure the dashboard based on the 3 principles required of Excel modelling that is to do it fast, do it right, and make it look good. In other words, create a dashboard that allows for faster and easier auditing to leave room to correct errors and produce a well-structured model. Having core principles was imperative in guiding me through the implementation of strategy as it became the base of what needed to be done.

    3. Discipline of action

Another part of the task was the execution part, which entailed a robust experiential learning experience. In other words, numerous iterations and trials (with plenty of sleepless nights and failures) to customise the features on Excel to fit the dashboard’s purpose. I was spending the full 40 hours a week of my job to create this tool. The repetitive process of testing, failing, reformatting, and then, testing again pushed me to learn quickly on the job. Failure was an inevitable part of this stage and it can be demotivating at times. I’m not going to lie. However, failure also taught perseverance and to never give up.

By the end of the week, I was whizzing through formulas and cleaning up the dashboard with final touches.

    4. Milestones

I finally managed to create an Excel semi-automated dashboard that significantly reduces the time required to generate a monthly report. Subsequently, the dashboard along with the built-in features was exported as an online tool to be extensively utilised by key stakeholders in the Ministries. This tool was handed over and implemented for the following seven years or so. It was a huge accomplishment for a fresh graduate like me with the minimal experience that I had to have accomplished.

Going back to the question asked earlier, “Can we apply learning by doing beyond non-physical skills?” My answer to that would be a resounding yes.

As I reflect back on this experience and relate it back to Dato’ Sri Idris Jala’s “learning by doing” analogy, seizing opportunities for self-learning is very much at the core of who we are as consultants here at PEMANDU Associates. With every project spanning across diverse industries and requiring different capabilities, the opportunity for us to grow is boundless – for as long as we have the correct attitude and mindset. And without this experience, I would not have been able to master Excel within that one-week span to eventually become PEMANDU Associates’ “go-to Excel guy.” I believe that with the right mindset, determination, and absolute tenacity, it is entirely possible to learn a wide range of knowledge and skills without needing to attend any physical training on the subject.

Transformation happens not upon attainment of a goal, but through the process of actually doing and getting there.