Interviews

Balancing the Grind With Damien Wong, Vice President & General Manager at Red Hat

October 6, 2019

Damien Wong is the Vice President & General Manager for the newly-formed Asian Growth & Emerging Markets region at Red Hat, the leading provider of enterprise open source solutions.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your background and career?

In my current role as Vice President and General Manager for Asian Growth & Emerging Markets (GEMs) at Red Hat, I am responsible for the overall business management of the Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea region.

I have been in the technology industry for 25 years in various management and technical roles.

Before joining Red Hat 8 years ago, I worked for HP where my last position was as the General Manager for Southeast Asia at HP Software.

I also took on leadership roles across Asia Pacific and Japan at HP as well as at Mercury Interactive before Mercury was acquired by HP.

I have also taken on challenging roles in various organizations, such as:

  • Senior Vice President for Strategic Management and Innovation at Mediacorp
  • Vice President and General Manager for Singapore at META Group (prior to its acquisition by Gartner)

As well as other organizations such as Institute for Infocomm Research, Firium Solutions, and Andersen Consulting (now better known as Accenture).

2) What is your current role and what does it entail on a day to day basis?

In my role, I have to develop strategies and plans that align to the overall mission and vision of Red Hat, as well as ensuring that we execute against these plans and initiatives to achieve the goals and objectives we set as a team.

When I first joined Red Hat, I was appointed the General Manager for the ASEAN region, and we successfully developed an ASEAN-wide strategy based on a Balanced Scorecard approach for 2 successive 3-year periods, that led to a period of unparalleled growth and success for the team.

When ASEAN was expanded to become SEATH (incorporating Hong Kong and Taiwan as part of a larger region), and then subsequently into the GEMs region (after further incorporating the Korea business), it became clear that we would need to extend this strategy to the larger team.

As such, we developed the “GEMs 1.0” strategy that is designed to see us through this 3-year period covering FY19 through FY21. The GEMs strategy covers off 3 pillars for Financial, Customer and Market goals, built on a foundation piece for People Excellence.

These goals in the GEMs 1.0 strategy are broken down into Lead and Lag indicators, that we then further cascade down to the rest of the team, to ensure that every single member of our team is aware of the role they play in helping us meet our overall goals and objectives.

Our day-to-day activities generally revolve around executing against these goals.

3) What does a typical day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

My typical day generally revolves around different stakeholder groups — customers, partners and fellow Red Hatters.

I make it a point to have enough time and opportunities to meet both the internal and external stakeholders of our business. Our people are the foundation of our business.

As such, I strongly believe that if we take care of our team well, we don’t need to worry too much about our business because our people will do whatever is needed to ensure the business is taken care of.

As the GEMs region is fairly extensive, business travel makes up a big part of my work schedule. Regardless of whether I’m working from within Singapore or in one of the 14 other countries that I’m responsible for, a typical workday will include meetings with various members of our team.

I also meet with external stakeholders such as customer and partner executives, and often times meet with friends from the media as well as the analyst community.

I am often involved in speaking at public events, as a way of raising the awareness of what we do at Red Hat. Of course, there are other administrative activities that I have to tend to as well, via digital channels such as email, online apps as well as instant messaging platforms.

Open and transparent communication is a big thing for my leadership team and myself, and hence the rule of thumb is to find various ways to communicate and seek feedback or inputs whenever possible.

No one has a monopoly on good ideas, and once we acknowledge that leaders may not have all the answers and definitely are not always right, then the humility we need to truly listen and continuously improve will lead to an agile and learning organization.

4) Do you have any tips, tricks or shortcuts to help you prioritise your workload?

I prefer starting work early in the morning, so that I can clear any work emails and outstanding administrative activities with minimal interruption, before the whirlwind of activities set in with many different stakeholders seeking your time and attention.

At work, I believe we need to be SMART in everything we do, and I definitely subscribe to the belief that ‘You Get What You Measure’!

SMART is of course the acronym for “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timebound” and time and time again, we’ve seen that good ideas and strategies that are unaccompanied by SMART goals is a recipe for disaster.

On that note, we translate our GEMs 1.0 Strategy into SMART goals needed to achieve it, and capture all these SMART goals into a Team Goalsheet broken down by role and function.

By having a Team Goal sheet that cascades these SMART goals to what each person in the team has to do to make this happen is critical to getting alignment.

So whenever the work piles up, I always gravitate back to the GEMs Strategy and ask myself how these activities contribute to the key goals in relation to one another.

Most people think that it’s a question of doing one thing at the exclusion of another, like it’s about driving cost savings or increasing innovation, and the truth is that it’s not “or” but “and”.

Increasingly we have to find ways to strike a balance between competing priorities. For example, it’s not about Employee Satisfaction or Customer Satisfaction, it’s about finding ways to deliver both in better ways.

5) In between your job, life and all your other responsibilities, how do you ensure you find some sort of balance in your life?

There’s a saying that was conveyed to me early on in my career by my-then manager, who advised “Happy wife, happy life”. I have learnt over the years that this saying is so true.

Like most people, I try to see that I am there for all of my family key events and activities. Spending time with my family is very important to me as work. I plan for a couple of family holidays in the year, where I just play the role of a ‘dad’ and fundamentally reconnect with the family.

The role of a regional business leader at times is demanding and stressful. We need to travel often to meet customers, partners and our in-country teams. But I have been quite fortunate to have my spouse encourage and support me through the years. She has been the wind beneath my wings and has also been a strong anchor for my children.

I believe that in any relationship (whether with your customer or family) it’s not about the number of hours you spend with them that ensures a successful relationship, but it’s the quality of time spent in forging and nurturing these relationships.

At the end of the day it’s all about the ‘experience’ they take away. Ultimately, successful business leaders cannot choose work or family at the exclusion of one another, we have to find better and better ways to balance both.

6) What are some of the things you do to take time out and recharge?

Spending time with my family is of course one of the ways to recharge. My family enjoys going out together – and so we often try and explore new restaurants or watch movies or performances on weekends to unwind.

I also love reading and catching up on new technology trends affecting the industry. Outside work, I like to travel to distant lands to explore and learn about new cultures, cuisines, lifestyle, sports and so on.

Funnily enough, I don’t think the only way to recharge is to take time out from work. While it is true that we need to strike a healthy work-life balance and spending quality time with family and friends is important in that, I see many opportunities to recharge even at work.

For example, when traveling to meet with customers, partners and our employees, it always makes me feel energised hearing about the great outcomes we have brought to each of these stakeholder groups.

Customers thanking us for how we have made a difference to them both on a business as well as a personal front, partners sharing about how we have enabled them to become more strategic to their customers, and team members who gratefully tell us how we have helped them grow and develop in their careers; these are all ways in which I feel recharged while at work.

7) What do you think are some of the best habits you’ve developed over the years to help you strive for success and balance?

I strongly believe that consistent effort is required to master anything, and it’s the same with leadership as well.

No one is born and immediately becomes a great leader, it takes hard work and practice to become a good one. This is a concept explained well by Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers.

I remember in my earlier years as a people manager during a management training course, someone asked what the difference between a manager and a leader was. And the answer that came back was that Leaders do the right things, while Managers do things right.

I like to think that at the end of the day it is about helping others to do the right things right, even when they have a choice not to follow you.

If you make someone do something just because you have formal position authority over them, you will never get better results than that same person doing it because they understand why they are doing it, and are motivated to do it well. And so, it’s important to understand the “why” to figure out the “what” and “how” to do it best.

8) Are there any books you’ve read that have helped you with work-life balance?

There are many books out there that I’ve found helpful in different ways.

There are books that have helped me with better time management (such as Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), books that helped me reduce stress levels when results took longer to achieve than hoped (such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers), and books that have helped me become more effective at work by emulating best practices of great companies (such as Jim Collin’s Good to Great).

9) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

I keep my door open so that anyone in my team can freely come and discuss with me their work progress or issues. I also see to it that my calendar has sufficient time to meet with my team members and customers spread across the region.

A famous concept of the HP Way of management was known as “Managing by Wandering Around” or MBWA. I fully embraced MBWA because I believe that sitting in one’s office and not getting a chance to see how things are going, as well as speak to various team members to understand any specific issues and challenges they are facing.

This prevents “Ivory Tower” syndrome when senior executives do all their planning and make decisions isolated from many of the stakeholders who are impacted by these decisions.

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