Good leaders should not only be perceptive of changes, but also ensure the company’s direction is understood across all levels, says Jeff Chang, Co-Founder & CEO, Forefront, in this interview with Jerene Ang.
Since starting the business in 2004, what are the biggest lessons you have learned?
Two key lessons stood out throughout my journey with Forefront:
#1 Be prepared to evolve
A leader who is ready for IR 4.0, or any emerging technology, is one who is ready to adapt and evolve in ways that can better sustain and grow the business.
The creative industry and the digital ecosystem are evolving as we speak. Consumer engagement is at its peak, and emerging tech looks different today than it did yesterday. As advisors to brands, we are responsible for understanding how digital technology impacts our creative landscape and how our clients can stay relevant. We are identifying consumer trends and seeking out data more quickly and intelligently, evolving and creating demand in the face of consumers’ changing expectations. These are reflected in the digital-driven solutions we are launching and offering our clients.
As a leader, this applies to our business focus too. By working as a team, we can harness our strengths for Forefront and our clients’ brand purpose in today’s world. We continue to reassess and fine-tune our approach towards our own employees, learn what appeals to them and what brings the best out of them, while at the same time, tapping into my experience throughout this leadership journey to address any shortcomings.
#2 Elevate employees and the business simultaneously
Back when we started the business in 2004, we were a tight-knit team of four. As we commit to growing and diversifying the business, we started to recognise the importance of building an optimal environment for our Forefronteers, to nurture creative talents and enterprising spirits within the company. They, on the other hand, have inspired us to enter new industries.
Growth can take many forms. We’ve departed from having just a web-design focus, to being a full-suite creative agency, to now, having solution-based subsidiaries that serve the community with F&B offerings and real-estate services. Had we not invested in empowering our employees to see the value in their creative perspectives and ideas, Forefront may not be where it is today, expanding our reach across Southeast Asia and industries beyond advertising and marketing.
In your opinion, what are 2-3 evergreen leadership best practices?
Practise collective leadership, invest in human capital, and prioritise leadership development initiatives.
Trust your employees and business unit leaders to execute your company vision and strategies with you. As a leader, it is important to observe, listen to, and communicate with the unique individuals in the team. As our company focuses on building bigger teams and adding more business units, the last mistake we want to make is depersonalising our employees. With data and trends powerfully shaping the direction of our industries, we rely on our employees to help steer Forefront’s ship in a transformative direction, and we don’t want to take them for granted.
So, having systems in place that can help identify the areas in which they can grow and thrive is important. This includes encouraging employees to better themselves through certified courses, enabling them to take the lead on large-scale projects, and having an open-door policy so interactions with employees can be transparent and work issues can be tackled head-on.
To me, investing in human capital is a delicate balance of providing a structured employee experience and maintaining good relationships with them. While we implement fun rewards systems to incentivise their good work and participation in company-wide activities, I also make sure I am approachable, as a CEO and team member, to our Forefronteers.
Given how rampantly leadership is being disrupted, what are we demanding from today’s leaders?
Leaders should be open to adopting new mindsets, even if it bucks pre-existing beliefs and long-held opinions. Industry experience and product knowledge will continue to have a valuable stake in companies, but leaders should recognise the diverse perspectives younger employees have that contribute to overall business growth.
Today, we are prepared to depart from tried-and-true processes and thinking, even if they’ve helped the business tremendously in the past. There’s a reason why the recent meme-like phenomenon, the “OK boomer” retort, caught on to become such a viral phrase. Millennials and Generation Z are populating the workforce, and they’re not standing for a culture where their voices are dismissed. They also have more energy and passion to disrupt the industry and the workplace, even if it means navigating uncertain outcomes.
These are things that continue to inspire me as we attract more talents to join Forefront. I am very conscious about the need to be a versatile leader, and the need to take more leaps of faith, despite the ambiguity amid a changing landscape.
Against this backdrop, what does the mindset of a good leader look like to you?
A good leader keeps his or her employees informed in the decision-making process. We will approach an inflection point with regard to our relationship with technology and insight-driven brand experiences. As we adapt and change, the responsibility lies with the leader to be perceptive of changes, but it’s also a good leader’s responsibility to ensure the company’s direction is aligned and understood consistently across all levels.
Leading by example is also important. I believe in producing work that serves communities as much it serves our businesses, as well as uplifting humanity through honest and quality work. It’s a mindset that can only be inculcated among Forefronteers if I can show them how rewarding it is to serve beyond the self. Recognising this responsibility has allowed the company to stay grounded, even as the company grows to become bigger in size.
This interview was published in Human Resources Online’s January-February 2020 edition of the Singapore magazine and will soon be published in the Q1 edition of the Malaysia magazine.