Business Times, Lessons from the career of a career coach, 26 Oct 2019

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THE BROAD VIEW - Business Times
SAT, OCT 26, 2019

Lessons from the career of a career coach

An experience of nearly being sacked - because the boss didn't like the way I spoke - helped pave the way for a new path in life.

HOW did you get into this business? What does it take to be an effective coach? How big is your team?

These are just three questions I often get from people I interact with. Let's start with how it all began.

September marked the 20th year anniversary of my entrepreneurship journey. During my years as an employee in the corporate world both here and in Hong Kong, there were no career coaches, or at least, I was not aware that any existed. To cut a long story short, I stumbled into the outplacement business - I did not engineer for it to happen.

It all started with a life impacting experience. I was nearly fired when I began a new job in Hong Kong, after resigning from my first employer where I had worked for over a decade.

After a "lunch-with-the-newly-hired" with the American chairman, my British boss dropped a bombshell on me: "Boss wants me to fire you. He doesn't like the way you Singaporeans talk."

My world came crashing down. It actually felt like the end of the world to me. I learnt first-hand that you could lose your job because of the way you talk! (For the record, I stayed in that firm for five years, but that's another story.)

The experience was formative, to say the least, although I did not fully realise it until years later. Two years after I voluntarily resigned from this American company and returned to Singapore, a headhunter introduced me to another American-owned firm - a boutique firm offering outplacement services.

I had no clue at that time what "outplacement" was, and was surprised and intrigued that companies actually paid such service providers to support their employees transitioning out for business reasons such as cost management and the way they talk, among a myriad of pretty ridiculous reasons. I was under the impression that they were simply paid off.

Another two years on, I decided that this was my calling, and I resigned to set up my own shop.

It was thereabouts that it dawned on me: "Oh, that is why I went through the rough patch in Hong Kong! God had a plan for me, and He was putting me through the experience of nearly losing my job so I can empathise better with what my clients might be going through emotionally when they are outplaced through no fault of theirs." The rest is history.

Along the way, one learns much about the job, on the job. A second question I often hear is: What does it take to be an effective coach?

The answer is easy. All it takes is a sincere heart that is focused on helping others, versus getting the business. Of course it is easy for me to say this now, but truth be told, I had to take on whatever assignments that came my way during my initial years. Coaching skills and techniques can be learnt, practised and improved (never perfected).

Having a good team around you is of course key, but does size matter? What many people ask is: How big is your team?

I always answer proudly (and cheekily) that I chose to keep the team small, as I am a selfish person. I got into this profession because of my desire to help others, and I want to be able to continue doing this. Hiring more coaches would mean I have to entrust them to do this - and I would rather not. I prefer to do it myself. In fact, size does matter in our industry - being boutique allows me to provide more personalised support to our clients.

Lessons learnt

For me, there have been many lessons learnt during these 20 years. Three stood out:
1) Continue to do what you do best, and not try to enlarge your service offerings and risk diluting your core expertise.

Branding in my case is key. I would never want to be branded as a "Paul-of-all-trades". I've been asked many times why I did not get into the search business - after all, it tends to be the same set of clients that we serve - CEOs, and human resources heads. It remains clear to me - I must always consider the interests of our candidates (the individuals whom we have been entrusted to support).
If I had gone into search, then it would compromise my ability to partner my search colleagues in working with them towards finding alternative employment for our candidates. We would then be competitors, and I might not be able to solicit their support. There would be a huge and critical conflict of interest.

2) Be humble. Much as I have, in a small way, made a name for myself in this industry, I try my best to remain humble. With potential clients, my usual conclusion at the end of a presentation of our track record is: "please give me a chance to prove myself."

3) Give back to others who are less than equal.

I joined the Rotary movement some 20 years ago and since then, I have continued to find avenues to give back. It's easy to write a cheque, but what I prefer is being hands-on, and to use my business network to augment my efforts and those of the organisations I volunteer with.

For Singaporean workers, three things I've learnt are also worth sharing:

1) If loyalty is one of your values, that's great. But, be loyal to your boss, not so much to your employer - the company is inanimate. In the spirit of being grateful to someone who extended you a helping hand, be loyal to your boss. But to a point, at the end of the day, when push comes to shove, it's every man for himself. Bottomline, take care of your career, and your interests.

2) So much has changed over the past 20 years. Changes will continue. You have to do all that you can do to not just maintain your employability but to enhance it. Manage your career.

3) Everyone needs a Plan B - activities that will keep your mind and body active post full-time corporate work. With better healthcare, coupled with longevity, we need to stay healthy, mentally, physically, etc to be able to enjoy our golden years.

I received a few accolades during and after my recent anniversary celebratory dinner with family, friends and clients. One stood out, which I feel proud to share here, primarily to inspire others.
"I want to be like you, and to do what you have been doing."

Sure, welcome to the world of coaching!

•   Paul Heng is the founder of the NeXT Career Consulting Group. He is active in "giving back" to society, and is currently a volunteer with the Alzheimer's Disease Association ( He champions causes and enjoys organising small-scale community-based activities.

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