Born in Hong Kong, Robert moved to England when he was only 4 years old. He had a challenging childhood growing up in a small English town as an ethnic minority where cultural and language barriers were prominent. Those formative years taught him to navigate between cultures, which has served him well in his career.
Today, Robert has 33 years of experience working in the coatings and chemicals industry. He used his early experiences with racial discrimination to build resilience and fortify his career; long before the evolution of Diversity and Inclusion. Robert has worked in many countries and cultures, so he is eager to share his learnings through Roots Inspire, hoping to prepare the next generation for success.
Can you share some of your experiences with racial discrimination in the workplace?
I have been living in England since I was 5, so I have always been cognizant of racism. My response has always been to sort of get on with things and not to dwell too much on those incidents. Nevertheless, one experience that has always stuck with me is when I was interviewing for a traineeship after graduating. The interviewer asked me if I thought all English people were nasty and smelly. The question came out of nowhere and was out of place. Yet, he said it in a very matter of fact manner. I was left in utter shock. Today, we identify this behaviour as a microaggression, but we did not have a language for it in the late 1980s. This was the accepted culture for a long time. I think he meant to provoke me, but I was not intimidated and steered the conversation in a different direction. Learning how to deal with these types of situations diplomatically without adding more fuel has been a means of survival.
Have these experiences affected your psyche in any way?
It is one of these things that build and accumulate over time. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? I was always the only diverse kid at school. I was regularly called a chink and different names. These things add up, but you also build resilience. Growing up in an English environment with a Chinese background had its perks. English people are famed for their ambiguity when language is concerned, and I understand that very well having been brought up in a Chinese culture. So, I was left in a position to analyse how both cultures work and it has given me an edge to navigate English society and the workplace.
Is this what made you gravitate towards an international career?
I never felt fully Chinese or English, and did not feel at home in either country. This has certainly informed my career. I enjoy working in a diverse environment instead of being the odd one out; which is how I felt my entire life. At the end of the day, we all want to be listened to, respected, loved and treated like a human being. So, working in an environment with people from different backgrounds and ethnicities, we all understand each other and see ourselves as human.
How long did it take for you to move up in your career?
I got my first leadership position managing a team of 20 plus people, probably 5 years after I should have got it. The line is never straight; it has some detours before reaching your goal. I have been offered several opportunities I was not anticipating, but I took them. These experiences helped me hone my skills. For instance, I took a position in Singapore a few years back as Director of Marketing. My role there was more focussed on strategy development; something completely new to me. I took it, because I knew it would benefit me in a future management position.
What do say to Gen Z that wants to move up the corporate ladder?
They are usually bright young things that want to progress as fast as possible and tend to find their progression slow and frustrating. Part of me understands them, because I have felt frustrated many times when I wasn’t able to move ahead. I have often felt I was clearly able to do a job and could not understand why some people were being promoted, and I wasn’t. I cannot say 100% it was because of my ethnic background, but I did have the credentials and track record that proved my worth. Sometimes you just have to be patient, which is something this young generation lacks. However, if you feel you are being blocked for an extended time, you need to confront the situation head on. Collect all evidence to support your arguments. Show them all you have done so far and that you are ready for the next job.
What important values should a leader possess?
The foundation of any relationship is trust. So, be authentic at all times. I always try to be honest with the team, and I take the same approach with clients. I have built friendships with numerous former clients, I still keep in touch with. That is quite powerful. So, authenticity is indispensable. Also, keep your word and do what you say you are going to do. When I am recruiting people, I look at the attitude and growth mindset, which are priceless. I would rather take on someone with the right attitude who lacks experience, but is willing to learn on the job, over someone with all the experience who has no energy – or isn’t willing to go above and beyond.
What is the most significant leadership lesson you have learnt so far?
To communicate with intent. For the entire team to have the same goal in mind, overcommunication is necessary. When I am presenting new information to my team, I often find myself repeating the same thing over and over – and it is absolutely necessary. There is research that indicates that someone needs to hear a message seven times before they internalise it as part of their context. It is astonishing how the same piece of information can be interpreted very differently by a group of people. I know I have been successful at communicating when at least one person can articulate the information back to me. Therefore, I always ask my team for their interpretation.
The manner of communicating is also key. I always try to be very positive and upbeat. We have all had a tough couple of years, so I make sure to check in on how everyone is feeling and try to motivate those who need it. Honeywell is an American, top down driven business that is very fast-paced. However, we are all in this together, so if someone is having a private issue that may spill into work, we are ready to lend a hand. Furthermore, I try to get my team to focus on the things we can control. We should all aim to be the masters of our own destiny during these hard times.