November 8

Work progression in Singapore not happening? Here’s why.


Are you stuck in your work?

Studying and working in the U.K., I realised one important thing.

Recognition was based on merit, and not your age.

In the U.K., I was given a chance to be a board director of a charity with a turnover of $14 million, despite being fresh-faced and looking like of my 22-years, at that time.

Later when I started working, I started sharing my views in meetings. It was taken seriously, even though I had only worked for 1 month.

Despite giving fancy presentations, you may find yourself still stuck in your career
Despite giving fancy presentations, you may find yourself still stuck in your career

Contrast this to my experience back in Singapore.

When I first came back to intern at a Ministry, I happened to ask some questions of the speaker at an event. She ended up saying,

don’t take your colonial lens to see things in Singapore.

And yes, she complained to my boss, who told me that I had to learn to fit the context, and ask questions that were more respectful.

In my first job, I was issued with a Performance Improvement Plan for disrespecting my superior, when I asked her, quite plainly, why she insisted on certain ways of doing the finance.

Sure, it wasn’t my place to comment. And you might say that I was this young, 1-year-old employee. Who was I to even ask?

Sure. That’s a good point.

But these experiences reinforced in me the idea that if you want to progress in the workplace in Singapore, you have to take some contrarian stances.

You can’t do what’s natural to you as a young, vibrant and passionate 25-year-old. Giving feedback, trying to improve things, pushing for change, isn’t the thing that’s going to get you promoted.

You may say Singapore is a meritocratic society

I know, I know. You may say that Singapore is a meritocratic society that promotes people based on how well they do.

But just enter a Small Medium Enterprise (SME) or the government, and you will get what I mean.

Given that many of our employees work in SMEs and the government, how can you thrive in the workplace, so that you progress to where you want to be?

You need to know what you want

If you don’t know what you want, it doesn’t matter where you go, even if you climb to the top of the career ladder.

But if you do, then you will get a better motivation, and idea of how to progress in your workplace.

But this question can prompt existential crises, if you’re fresh out of university, earning your first paycheck. Not everyone comes out of university with a super clear idea of what they want to do.

That’s okay.

But you need to know what’s the point of your job so that you’re clear about your expectations going into a job. If you’re taking a job because you want to do good, then you might need to adjust your expectations of the pay you will get.

Why are you entering the job? (Credit: Bruce Tulgan)
Why are you entering the job? (Credit: Bruce Tulgan)

As you can see in Bruce Tulgan’s chart above, simply asking yourself what you’re in the job for, can help you to be clearer about what you want with your job, and with life.

But having clarity about your expectations can also help you to stop being starry-eyed, and to realise the realities of the job you’ve chosen.

Progressing, may be about learning to angkat bola

You need to know this term if you’re in Singapore.

It's not about doing more, but doing the right things well (like angkat bola).
It’s not about doing more, but doing the right things well (like angkat bola).

It loosely translates as ‘carrying balls’. And yes, it is what it means. Don’t shy away or blush now.

As crude as it sounds, it can be true. Who doesn’t like being praised? If you’re a boss, you would probably love your subordinate to tell you how good you are.

The moment you realise you need to praise your boss, is the moment you’ve started dropping the starry eyed approach to work, and realise that ‘authenticity’ may not be the most important if you want to grow in your career.

You don’t have to say things you don’t mean. But honestly, taking some effort to praise your boss for what he’s done can help him to make things easier for yourself.

One simple way is through email.

Instead of just asking for what you want, take time to appreciate your boss.

Dear boss,

thank you for taking the time to meet me despite your busy schedule.

I wanted to ask…

These small things can go a long way towards helping you to climbing up the ladder.

Climb up the ladder with others

One thing that a senior leader once advised me was to find allies in the organisation. Even if your ideas had little traction, finding one or two other like-minded thinkers could help you to feel less lonely in your journey to achieve better.

Not all organisations are made equal, and finding someone to make change happen together with you, is vital
Not all organisations are made equal, and finding someone to make change happen together with you, is vital

Grow next level skills

If you want to progress in your career, you need to show that you don’t just have the technical skills, but also the general managerial skills for the next step in your career.

If your company is enlightened to have the technical and managerial track, you still have to take efforts to grow the next level skills of what you currently do.

More importantly, you need to demonstrate that you have those skills.

Over the past year scaling, leading and managing a team, what I’ve realised has helped has been those times in Hwa Chong (here I point them out because I want you to know that they are one of the most elite institutions in Singapore, and therefore may have resources that others may not have), where I was taught:

  1. Project management
  2. Coding/tech management
  3. Leading

Managing a team is not an easy thing. And making the switch from executive to manager can be one of the hardest transitions one makes.

You just don't get it, do you, new managers to be
You just don’t get it, do you, new managers to be

Now that I manage a team of 5, I often wonder what helped me to transit to this role, and to take on this role.

What I realised, and what I would recommend to you, might sound lame. But this is it.

Hire someone to work for you

Despite starting out in my first fulltime job, I still wanted to do my own side-hustle of writing, and speaking. That’s when I hired my first designer. Sure, it cost me $1050, but it taught me how to direct someone to work better.

It can also teach you.

What you realise about hiring someone is that you are responsible for their livelihood. You’re responsible for what they do. You need to direct them clearly, or else risk them wasting your money.

Follow what Google asks for

Google, in their advice on CVs, asks people to write,

Achieved X by doing Y over Z (time).

This helps you to be clear about what your exact impact is.

Sometimes, many times, it can be difficult to explain to your boss that you need a promotion, especially when you can’t show what your impact has been.

Working with many SMEs over the past year, selling our digital marketing services, their first question has always been,

What do you do, and how do you know it works?

Therefore, you can’t just give motherhood statements like:

  1. My work is good
  2. I am one of the better ones in my field in this area

But you need to quantify it. Specifically.

Quit lousy organisations

If you find yourself stuck in a workplace, asking yourself when the right time to quit is a difficult question.

But I know that quitting the SME I was at was the best decision I made for myself. Even though I had no job lined up, I still quit.

Why? I had been issued with a Performance Improvement Plan there. And looking at how promotions were done, I realised that it was based on hierarchy, rather than your performance. I saw that staying would hardly change anything.

I was officially the worst member of the team with the Performance Improvement Plan that was issued to me
I was officially the worst member of the team with the Performance Improvement Plan that was issued to me

If your job is not good, and you don’t find yourself having chances to grow, you might be better served going elsewhere.

I never expected that I would today be leading a team of 5, running my own business. Quitting was the best thing that I did for myself.

But quitting can be a hard thing to come to internally. What helped me was first asking myself,

if I don’t change, what will change?

Staying in the same company can sometimes be because we think that the company and management will eventually change. We tell ourselves that a new boss is coming! Or that you have a new manager! Things WILL change!

Nah, things won’t change, if you don’t change.

Secondly, ask yourself,

What am I fearful of? What is the worst that could happen?

When I quit, I was scared that I would end up having to ask my parents for money. But with a huge payout from my company, it helped me to eventually work out the sums over time.

This can help you to make a better decision.

It might just be time to quit your job
It might just be time to quit your job

Rising, is about believing

When I quit my company, I’m not sure I cared that much. Sure, my parents were yelling at me, asking me when I was going to get a job, but beyond that, I knew deep down, that I had it settled.

You too, can have progression that you want, if you dare to own what you want. Don’t be bashful or shy about wanting a promotion. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Own it.

And you may just get it.


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