I participated in the CSCLeaders for Students Conference organized by Common Purpose this week. It was a 4-day event and while the first two days were based in NUS, the last two days were hosted at BP’s office located in Keppel Bay Tower. It was a busy conference – we heard from many senior leaders representing various organizations, worked on and pitched our ideas for the challenge “How do you get societal – as well as economic – value out of technological innovation?” We also visited and immersed ourselves in BP and another organization (for me, it was the Land Transport Authority (LTA)) and learned about their perspectives to this challenge. This was the inaugural student conference Common Purpose held in Singapore and it was evident to all the participants that Common Purpose is very experienced and professional at organizing this conference. What is this conference about? From the webpage, CSCLeaders for Students “is an opportunity for students to develop leadership skills, represent the student voice in the Commonwealth and be part of the solution to the biggest issues facing businesses, governments and society today.” I am not sure if what we have done can become part of the solution to global issues but this conference really gave me a very good insight into how corporations, government bodies and organizations work. Most importantly, this conference refines my definition of “societal change”. Being young and idealistic, more often than not, I draw a vision of the kind of changes I want to see in Singapore. I imagine that as soon as I graduate, get cracking and convince sufficient number of people to believe in my vision, change will happen quickly and naturally. But life does not work this way – more often than not, change tends to be gradual and measured. Now I understand that while it is good to have a great vision for tomorrow, it is also important to see the great change in terms of small steps. I think it is better to think of change more realistically as well because when you’re too idealistic and don’t see the change you want fast enough, you are prone to give up. I need to remind myself to be realistic, patient, persistent and to never lose sight of my vision. There are so many take-aways from the conference, I wish I took notes more diligently but here are some of them. The Chatham House Rule applied for this conference so I can’t go into as much detail as what I would usually do:
1) Hour glass analogy.
One of the speakers gave this hour glass analogy – when we were young, our learning was very broad and as we grow older, we become more specialized just like the narrow bore of the hour glass. Eventually, we have to broaden again just like the hour glass and take on multiple roles in the working world. She said that many people who have very specialized knowledge are afraid of taking on roles and responsibilities which are completely different from what they know. I think adaptability is a very important skill in the 21st century but it is not something you can pick up in the classroom. I think it really depends on the individual and how adventurous and courageous he/ she is. I reflected on my university experience and I am thankful to be part of the University Scholars’ Programme (USP). While acquiring specialized knowledge on chemistry, I also attempted research in other things such as anthropology, new media and political science. Consequent of this, I think I am more adventurous and more comfortable in foreign environments relative to my peers. But keeping an open mind is a continuous process – I don’t want to be comfortable.
2) Cultural intelligence.
Cultural intelligence is something that Common Purpose keeps harping on. Cultural intelligence is, in short, the ability to embrace and work with people of different cultural backgrounds. This world is increasingly globalized and so it is important to be able to work in different cultures and with people from different cultures. When she spoke about cultural intelligence, one thing that occurred to me was that when people become more mobile and more open to different cultures, there may be a risk that people may judge and make too many assumptions about their own culture. I need to remind myself not to.
I used to hate the word “networking” because I found the word rather manipulative and superficial as it sounds like you’re talking to people for practical ends. A speaker spoke of an instance on how his personal connections made a social cause possible. Now that I think about “networks” , I like to think of it as friendships kept alive. If friendships are superficial and at a hi-bye level, then these people will most likely not help you in your cause when you appeal to them.
4) Small island mentality.
I have felt this on some occasions in Singapore but I was unaware that there was a phrase to describe this way of thinking. People have small-island mentality when they feel comfortable in the island and are afraid to step out and learn what lies beyond its borders. This is dangerous for many reasons. How do we curb this mentality?
5) Leaders shape and energize people.
I think the days when leaders dictate people to do things are long gone. Today, leaders have to persuade people to do things, shape their thinking, energise them and conduct transactions with them when all fails. I am good at energizing but apart from that, I am okay with the rest. I still need more experience on that.
6) The art of innovation.
One of the speakers asked a really good question, “Given all the useful gadgets and devices humans have come up with so far, how innovative is Apple?” Smartphones certainly have transformed lives but do they have as far-reaching an impact as other items such as toilet bowls? It is a thought worth pondering over. In what direction do we want tomorrow’s innovation to head towards? He also told us the importance of timing in introducing a new technology – sometimes the world is not ready yet and there is no market demand for the good. Innovation is also about improving existing processes and working with existing characteristics instead of imposing foreign ideas on the system. Sometimes we see what is wrong and we borrow ideas from elsewhere to rectify the wrong without understanding how the society works. Things to bear in mind.
7) If you don’t agree with something, do something about it.
A great lady came and shared her experience when she fought hard to change something even though she was not in a leadership position in the organization back then. It’s really inspiring. I would want to have a similar story to share with people in the future too.
8) Success isn’t about winning.
Success is not about earning the most money, having the biggest car and staying in the most expensive house. That is winning. That is tangible and quantitative. Success is being the best you can be; success is about achieving your personal best. Success is about contentment and success is about a work-life balance. I like this definition given by the speaker. I will keep it close to my heart.
9) Character is more important than skills.
A speaker said that in today’s world, too many people are focused on skills and they neglect character development. He argued that character is more important than skills and while skills can be trained with some diligence, character can’t. At this stage of my life, I want to focus on making myself a better person, a better daughter, a better friend. I will worry about employability later.
10) Pitching is about connecting with people and making people believe in what you believe in.
We pitch everyday to people around us when we tell them what we are up to lately and what we want to do. Good pitches go beyond just selling an idea and they convince people to believe in what you believe in. This was the first time I heard the term elevator pitch – a one-minute pitch to sell your idea. I realize this one-minute pitch is a good brain exercise to sharpen my thinking, keep me focused and strengthen the belief I have for what I am doing or going to do. I will pitch my thoughts and ideas more often to myself and, more importantly, to people. This skill I picked up from this conference is certainly very helpful!