In startups and traditional business environments, management is no easy feat. It’s easy to get lost in the day to day operations and lose focus on core objectives. In our conversation with Kong Lee, he draws on his experience and offers frameworks first-time managers can adopt to excel in their new roles.
Kong is the Head of Operations of Novelship - South East Asia’s largest online marketplace for authentic sneakers and streetwear. In addition, he continues to serve as an advisor to several platforms and retail companies in Singapore.
Alignment Strategy: Plan, Progress, Problems
Kong experienced a defining moment in his career when he joined Zenyum, a Singaporean customer-centric dental brand. He found the clarity and transparency of goals and objectives remarkable, differing widely from the approach he’s been exposed to with other SMEs and established companies. Though he was a Partnerships Manager initially, he was privy to the work of the other teams making it easy to work as a unit with a clear sense of purpose and direction.
To achieve this, Kong recalls a tool they used in their weekly alignment meetings: PPP (Plan, Progress, and Problems). Covering these things at the start of the week kept everyone on the same page and gave everyone the space to focus on execution in the days that followed. It helped the organisation stay efficient and achieve synergy.
The Top-down Approach in Start-ups: is it a Right Fit?
A veteran in the SEA startup scene, Kong has astute observations about the region’s nuances.
First, he observes that the space has more maturity in certain parts of the world. There, more information, mentors, accelerators and programs are available. They also tend to focus on people, putting founders before ideas.
“For example, Y Combinator, they have so many amazing alumni. They vet people to find the best founders and put them together. They don't focus on the ideas. They focus on the people so they can help and share this information.”
Kong notices that the region’s unique characteristics influence the development of the regional startup scene. “In Asia, we are more used to family-owned and run businesses. We're very used to MNC environments where it's very top-down.” The prevalence of family-owned businesses and MNCs that use a top-down approach can hamper startups, which thrive on agility.
“People don’t realise that a startup is not a business that has found the next best solution for something. Rather it is an organisation that reacts faster to change. In order for a startup to be successful, people should be allowed to take ownership of their decisions and feel comfortable making mistakes. Achieving this agility cannot happen in a top-down organisation.”
Managing Outcomes, Not Just People
What does it mean to be a manager? Kong says that the role is too often associated with staff management, yet managers may not have any direct reports in the case of startups. “People have to stop associating managers with managing people, but rather managing outcomes.”
Prioritisation and resource management are fundamental to outcomes. Identifying which problems must be resolved first is critical. Exercising these skills with organisational objectives in mind prevents confusion and frustration. Seeing the big picture gives context to decisions and fosters understanding.
Developing Holistic Managers
Kong further shares his framework that enables managers to think more holistically and to create impact beyond the teams they manage. The three components are: Do, Plan and Show.
“No one in or outside the organisation knows the scope of your work better than you do.” Excel in execution and take pride in knowing what the work is about.
“Build certain contingency plans or forecasts to be able to deal [with potential problems].”
“Only when you express yourself and you communicate effectively can you do things like request for resources then you can build SOPs that can help the team scale. Then you can escalate further problems that senior management may not see.”
The challenge in using the framework is finding the right balance, which can shift as a leader gains seniority. Planning is essential for top-tier managers because their decisions are often high-impact, but they should not be entirely detached from execution. On the other hand, junior managers must plan but lean into execution.
Personal Pursuit of Operational Excellence
Kong’s enthusiasm and passion for operational excellence reverberate even in his personal development plans for the year. Wanting to establish Novelship as an industry leader, he is keen to discover what a best in class experience looks like for their customers. It’s a tall order, but he’s up to the challenge. “Operations is so complex and yet so simple because in operations, fundamentally, we want to get the right item of the right quality to the right person in the right country.”
There’s also an introspective component to this pursuit. The people within the organisation are a vital part of the equation. Delivering exceptional customer service will only be possible through developing their staff. As such, Kong is on a mission to improve the standard of living of their most junior employees “through more thoughtful organisational design, better training, optimising the work and developing the scope of the person.” Empowering staff at every level invariably creates paths for career progression, improves performance and boosts an individual sense of ownership.
Maximising impact entails managing outcomes. Leaders build processes around them, often in novel ways, to thrive in the startup hypergrowth space.
- How might you change your current meetings to help you achieve better alignment between teams?
- Using the ‘Do, Plan, Show’ framework, how much time do you allocate to execution, planning and feedback? Why?
- In what is your organisation raising the bar for its most junior employees?