How to maintain high levels of excellence in teams? | Ian Wu | EP10
I had a great conversation with Ian Wu about his journey from the trenches in the army to the CEO of award-winning International event spaces and how he builds high-performance teams.
He is the Co-Owner and CEO of HUONE Singapore – the award-winning, largest thematic meeting space in Singapore.
✅ What can we learn from the military as a leader?
✅ The three critical ingredients to building High-performance teams
✅ How to maintain high levels of excellence in teams?
✅ How to turn around businesses?
More about Ian: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ian-wu-1ab40431/ https://www.huone.events/sg/
Full episode transcript
Rodrigo Canelas: Yeah. And I’m so happy to have you here. Welcome to the podcast.
Ian Wu: Thank you for having me. Good. Okay.
Rodrigo Canelas: So let’s start by getting to know, Ian, can you tell us about your background and also about your journey till you reach here?
Ian Wu: Okay. So if I were to summarize it is really split into three parts from the age of 16 to about 29. I was in the army. Why the army? Because I didn’t come from a rich background and the only way to survive and help my family was, to join the army at a very early age, 16.
Then I moved on to be in the exhibition and conference industry, where we created our own events. And I kind of focused a lot on turnarounds, but the product was not doing too well. There’s no team. And they had an idea. They wanted to start an event.
And then for the last three years, I’ve been in the venue space. So AMI conferences and exhibitions I moved to own a venue, which is HUONE in Singapore where I am now. And that’s another turnaround as well, but it’s kind of different than row, but that has been my work history from the age of 16 to 41. Yes. Right.
Rodrigo Canelas: So in your journey, so when you left the military, you told me that you didn’t know exactly what to do. And today you are co-owner of HUONE, it’s been a big journey. When you look back, what were one or two turning points? So that helped you to reach here?
Ian Wu: Well, I would say that I was really lucky in, in the army. I had leaders who, who I looked up to and they actually gave me the chance to take on projects, which were way above my pay grade. So to speak. They allowed me to have the time to do my night classes.
So I, when I went into the army, I only had an, an end levels education, normal level education. And then I, when I was in the army, I did night classes to do my diploma, my advanced diploma, my post-graduate degree. And I was, I was fortunate to meet people who felt like I deserved the chance to do something a bit bigger. And that was replicated when I left the army as well. And I met wonderful people who gave me the chance to once again, take on something bigger and go from turnaround to turn around, to launch. And I think that’s how I made my way in life. And as you sit and now the corner, I didn’t start as an owner. They hired me as the CEO. It’s a big pipe though, but this is not a huge company, right? So it’s, they wanted me to try to turn this around, but COVID hit. And the only way that we could keep running was for me to take a stake, inject capital in, and keep the team together. And we are successful today. Not really because of me only, but it’s because of the team that we managed to build in some of the teams that you see here today that you commend about is, ‘This, suck it out with me.’ True. COVID right? They, we went months with half salary, no salary, when they quit easily gone elsewhere, left the industry, done something else, but they stuck it out in me.
So I think I’ve been very fortunate to meet colleagues and mentors who have lent a helping hand and helped me through this journey of life so far. Yeah.
Rodrigo Canelas: And I was very impressed by the way you told me that you, you had like a project and then you did a lot of turnarounds.
Ian Wu: Yeah.
Rodrigo Canelas: Like what has been the key ingredient for that turnarounds?
Ian Wu: I would normally say that People tend to glorify it a little bit. They say it’s because of you being super smart or something, but it isn’t the case. So most of the turnarounds rounds were due to working twice as hard as anybody else. So I would start my day at a normal time, but I will work 14 hours a day – 16 hours a day, because I felt the only way I could try to catch close the gap was to try extra harder. And that time it involved waking up at our hours, calling us to try to promote the exhibition, calling the UK, and calling the middle east. And I think hardwork is the basis for the generation of luck or greater success. I think it’s very important, you know? Yeah.
Rodrigo Canelas: And you spent 13 years in the military?
Ian Wu: Yes.
Rodrigo Canelas: So there’s a lot of learnings that we can learn in terms of leadership.
Ian Wu: Yes.
Rodrigo Canelas: What were the learnings that you had there that we can apply today in leadership?
Ian Wu: So the Singapore army is for them, to give context to anybody that watches this, the Singapore army is a peacetime army, right? We’ve, we’ve not been really involved in any major confrontations, right? So, so the people who are going to the army, are male Singaporeans, and they are conscripts. So it’s a national requirement just like in Finland to go into the army. So you are basically having a bunch of people who come in, men who are in their teenage years, most of them, and they’ve never seen war in their life. They saw the conference Darcy that we experienced in the 1940s and fifties. So they all experience peacetime. And their parents similarly have not experienced this as well. Most of them, right?
Then they are going to come into the army, not wanting to be there. And it’s really difficult because you have got to convince them because you can’t convince them of money. The money you get is an allowance, right? It’s not really a salary, right? So you’ve got to convince them that number one days that they’re doing this for the greater good are national security, right in today’s context is a little bit easier to explain because you have the conflict in that you have in Europe.
Now, if you create in Russia, for example, so you have to grate the good you’ve got to convince them about. And at the same time, you’ve got to try to make sure that they build this comradery up with their section at a very, at the smallest nucleus level, it’s the group. And then the section, the group is a group of trees. So it’s basically the guy beside you when you’re digging or changes. The guy that sits beside you, who shares your, your little trench and then to the next level is a section, the seven men team that you’re part of and you extrapolate it up. It’s a platoon that they’re in an accompany and so on and so forth. So the higher up you go, the less strength and bond. But so the most important is to make sure that each smallest nucleus has strong ties. So they are there because they don’t want to screw the other guy up. And they also, because of the greater good.
So in the army, we’ve had to make sure this is inculcated in them and the best way to do it. I think the easiest way to do it is leadership by example. So you’ve got to, if you want them to run 2.4 kilometers, you bet the jolly well as a leader, you better not be overweight. You better be able to be running the 2.4 kilometers with them, right? You got to show them that you’re only going to ask them to do something that you can do yourself, right? Strip the rifle in X amount of time, put together your, your, your, your gear for battle. So I think that’s very important leadership by example is really the way to go. Yeah.
Rodrigo Canelas: So in what do you, what do you use even still today in your, as a leader that you learn in your time when you were in the military?
Ian Wu: So for most turnarounds, right? So let’s use wholeness. It is a meeting venue. So you have meeting rooms, have rent, you have a restaurant, you have a bar, obviously, you have a reception area, you have a sales and marketing team. So before I started really doing the turnaround for horny, I spent time in each Fung. So I did reception duty. I did pilot feeding floor-sweeping. I was in the kitchen, chopping vegetables. I was doing sales. I was doing Google ad campaigns. I was setting up the rooms, cleaning the tables, and doing the bar.
Now, if you show your team that you are not going to come in, pretend like, you know everything, because honestly, we think about it right before I came into the vending business. I spent 10 years in conferences and exhibitions. I booked the venues, but I didn’t set up the venue. I didn’t run the venue. So I had to prove to the team that I was willing to learn all the functional areas first, and then try to combine my knowledge and check things up so that we can make it better.
So I think that strategy generally works. But the problem with that strategy is that one, you need to have understanding corners or founders who give you that time to learn first from the ground up. If you don’t have the time to learn, then you must have a very strong support system to support you. So I think this is the one thing that I strongly believe in. And it’s not because I’m, we are more than like, that is because you make many mistakes along the way. And I’m the combination of my mistakes. They made it over many years. Right? Yeah.
Rodrigo Canelas: Very good. That’s very interesting. So now, you went through the COVID-19 and you working in hospitality. I mean, it was not easy. What is today? The contexts in hospitality in terms of talent, in terms of people? Well, I think anybody who’s watching this on July 20, 2022, you are probably in the grit resonation. Right? But so we are not any different. The hospitality industry experienced great resonance when COVID started, hotels were shut down, and airlines were cut down. We had X number of crews doing swabbing rolls, or they were safety ambassadors. Right. So we experienced that. I had people who left us to be delivery drivers, food delivery, cyclists, or drivers. Right.
So we experienced this mass Zoetis. Yeah. I think the one thing, that most companies are feeling now is that some of these people are coming back because some of these roles do not have any runway in terms of growth. They are roles to put food on the table. We can’t blame them for leaving because sustainability, and survival is very important. So some of them are coming back because they know that there is a pathway for growth and the industry sleek. So I think everything is transitioning.
Rodrigo Canelas: Yes. And, and if you look, you are an SME.
Ian Wu: Yes.
Rodrigo Canelas: And in terms of people, it’s, there’s this paradox where when you start a business, you need good people to help you to succeed. But on the other side, you don’t have the money to invest in good people.
So the beginning is very difficult. What is your experience? How do you do, how do you tackle this?
Ian Wu: I think I’ve had the fortune and misfortune to be in two different scenarios. So I think for the benefit of our viewers, let’s simplify this, there are generally two scenarios. One is you start out, stock up with some experience in the functional areas of our business, but no money or you have a startup where you’ve really built a little war chest, and you have that experience, right? Let’s not talk about the people who have no experience and no money. I think that’s a different group altogether.
So if you’re in group number one, what I would typically say is, and this, the group we should focus on because most of the people fall in this group, right? Unfortunately for you, you will be only hiring people because you have some money. You don’t have a lot of money or some money. So you’d be hiring interns. You’d be hiring people who are really not experienced fresh, theoretically fresh out of the school. Right? And the role that you take there is really almost dictatorial, right? You decide, ‘Okay, you do this, finish this, by this time,’ you set very clear boundaries. And the myth is entrepreneurs lead a great lifestyle is untrue. If you don’t have much money, you have some experience. You are going to be working crazy hours just to make sure everybody sticks to the deadline, like a project manager, right? So you try to grow a business by project managing at the same time.
Now, the advice is there will come. A point in time, typically is month 18 or something like that, where you’ve learned enough, your team has learned enough and they start to gain traction. Then you will want to keep those that can leapfrog. You want to keep those that learn on their own time. And they’re able to contribute back to you and they know more than you in the area of function. That’s what you want because you’re going to transit from a company that at some money to a company with a lot more money, and you want to step back from being a dictator. Then you want to be in a position where you are managing great people who have more experience than you in the role, but these great people that you bring in will not know how all the functions tie up to each other. And that’s where you come in.
So, ‘Okay. You have an incredible ability, but you have a pretty big ego. Okay. But you need to work this way with your teammate in this way.’ And that’s how we tie this loop together. So I think organizations that start up really well and have that kind of longevity are when they transition from a kind of listen to me, approach to, ‘Okay, what do we want to do as a group?’ And then you start with leaders who rise up in the company and they can form nucleus groups, have their own little sections, little platoons, and then they start to meet businesses. And then you start to massive scale. And I think that’s typically the growth of great companies.
Rodrigo Canelas: Oh, so that is very interesting. So what you say at the beginning, you cannot have people with a lot of experience. So we have people with fewer experiences. So you need to be more clear with them and spend more time with them.
Ian Wu: Yes.
Rodrigo Canelas: What do they have to do? Yeah. But then slowly as the business starts growing, you will be in a position to have better people. So that then more experienced and then you can start growing. That’s very interesting. So now that we went into the topic of teams. Yes. So how do you build a high-performance team in your business?
Ian Wu: Okay. So let’s use a horn in Singapore, as an example, you’ve talked a lot about how you love the service here, and the standards are really high. But in reality, this team has gone through five iterations of six iterations with people that didn’t fit the mold and that people that didn’t fit the culture didn’t believe in what believed did. They were slowly pushed up. Everybody knew people so that constant refresh of recycling, not recycle, but refreshing of the team and pushing people up. Those that are willing to take the journey with you. I think that’s really important. So what you see now is a combination of five iterations. Over a period of two years already, we started with full interns out of the batch of interns. We have two that remain with us that have taken up leadership positions already, and they are teaching the next generation. So I think that’s healthy. So you have a kind of a boot room kind of thing. You bring them in from the bottom and they move to the top. But you also show that you don’t have blind loyalty to individuals who don’t contribute at all right.
If you build a system in which they believe in the greater good, and they love the culture, but they also like the incentives as well. So they know that if they have a teammate that doesn’t perform to the standard, it’s going to be detrimental to the culture, and the greater good as well as incentives. So they normally get pushed out.
So if you can build a high-performance team, right, you don’t need the one to be Hocking over every single person, because the team itself will try to make sure that they only bring people in. And the only key people that help them achieve these three things.
Rodrigo Canelas: Interesting. Yeah. Wow. I really, I really liked that. So for you comes it’s about the culture, right? Culture. It’s about the greater good, what you said. And also there’s the financial,
as you said is Correct. So, but how do you, how do you make sure that you maintain that, that the team maintains that standards in the team?
Ian Wu: It’s almost like growing a garden. It’s also almost like exercising, right? After a while, people reach a plateau. Typically when you exercise, right? When we used to do training programs in the army, right? In physical training programs, we will always raise the bar Every three weeks because you reach a physical plateau. If you train every day in three weeks’ time, you reach a plateau, you gotta push them again and push them again.
So you’ve got to make sure that you have to play the role of a constant gardener, right? You’ve got to constantly garden your, your, your little garden to make sure that when they reached a level and there’s, that’s a natural kind of tendency to, to settle in and to be comfortable. That’s when you need to push them a little bit, and remind them to keep on their toes.
I think the best leaders out there know that it’s a constant pool and let go, it’s almost like fishing, right? So you, you, you know that they know that incentives are tied to culture. They are also tied to the greater good. But at the same time, you try to make sure that you give them enough room to grow, but you pull them back when you need a bit of reminder.
I don’t really believe that you can let a business completely run by itself, which is why, although the team here is pretty strong, right? I still come in quite often. And almost every day I’m here. Right. Even though, even though I may be ill or whatever, I will still be here to make sure that everything is in place because I think it matters when they know that. Yeah. I mean, he owns the place, but he’s also concerned about us to make sure that the standards are met. It helps to reinforce the message down the line. Right. It’s not just a business, it’s something that we all believe in.
Rodrigo Canelas: Yeah. Well, I really liked that from the military. So every three weeks you increase the goal so that people grow and can go further. That’s very interesting. And when I come here to your venue, your team, I’m always really positively impressed with your team because they are very one. They’re very kind. Also, they pay attention to detail. They are completely focused on the customer, but I see these across the team. So there’s a lot of consistency. How do you maintain such a high level of consistency across the team?
Ian Wu: Well, you need to be very clear with what each functional era needs to achieve. I’ll give a very simple example. Typically, for most companies, if the numbers I hit for that month, the people that will be incentivized would be the sales team, right? Maybe the owner of the company or whatever. But if you think about it right in her actual business, the only role that the sales teams fulfill is the first-time business, right? When marketing brings the rolling in sales convert the first business. But after that, the service delivery is given by your operations team or your back off, whatever, right? So actually repeat customers are actually driven by your operations team. So if you want to make this work and it’s consistent, then marketing must be compensated and rewarded based on the quality of leads they bring in inflow must always be greater than outflow. When it transitioned into sales, their job is to make sure the first-time customer, the zero 10 customers, the ones that come for a site visit we’ll get the venue. They are completely impressed. And then the ops team, need to be measured for every new customer they get.
For example, in the month of June, you have 10 new customers. Yeah. You are able to convert that first-time customer into a second and do a third. So I expect my team, the very key objective. So when they have the daily briefing, we will know Rodrigo is here. This is your 10th time actually, right? SFDC is here. The second time, this company, first time, this company, the fifth time, but they will wait for us for one year. So you have to pay different levels of attention to different people to know. And if it’s very clear for them, my job as a delivery team is to make sure I have retention. I will be compensated. I will be rewarded. I’ll be recognized for competency based on retention. Then everybody’s regulated. We’ve got a morning.
My job is to make sure my customers come back again. My growth, my team’s success. The incentive for everybody is tied together across all parts. And if there’s very clear for everybody at wake-up and know, that’s my job, then everybody’s happy, right? Because not everybody wants to be a business owner and deal with 50 things that you may or may not know. That’s the problem business owners, where we have to make things think about.
But what you want to do is to make sure your team has very few things to think about. And they do those things then. Well, Right.
Rodrigo Canelas: Oh, I really liked that. So, so what’d you say is first is to make sure that the team is clear about what everyone has to do, right? To achieve the greater good than to do that really well with excellence.
Ian Wu: Yes. Right.
Rodrigo Canelas: And then you tied the incentives into that.
Ian Wu: Yes. But everybody’s incentives are tagged to each other as well. So they have no choice but to work together. And they also have no choice but to make sure that when we have new people, they spend the time to train the new person such in, we don’t screw up how things are running as well.
So you don’t need to be the superhuman that’s there every day checking every single person, because you should only do that when your business is just starting up.
Rodrigo Canelas: Yeah.
Ian Wu: We reach a certain point. That should be the way it runs. And if you really want scalability for your company, then everybody in all your business units needs to believe in the same thing. Right.
Rodrigo Canelas: So good. Great. So in this environment, I mean, they are always in contact with the customer. So with that comes a lot of challenges, like what is your biggest challenge? I mean, leading the team and how do you overcome?
Ian Wu: It’s a very people business, right? So if you, as a service deliver services, we, the operations team, if you have a bad day, it’s going to show on your face. So you want to make sure that your leaders in the team if they have a difficult morning, or do you have a difficult 10 minutes, make sure that they know once the method is settled on the front to a small. Get on a business, because you have to be very clear. You’ve talked about a meeting venue like this. How many times do you actually talk to the customer? When do they come into the reception area when they come out for the tea break? When they come up for the lunch, the afternoon tea break or they go and pee, right? That only six or seven points of interaction for the customers. You’ve got to make sure that you are on top of your game in those five or six different directions because the customer will remember you. Right. You have got to make sure you’re on top of the game.
So you have got to make sure that your team remembers this as well. And because some of them are a bit younger, they get a bit more bothered if they have a bad day, but you know the good ones, right? We have a problem. They solve it. Strip, strip three after solving problems, problem, the smallest bag on their bank, the group again. Right. So I think that’s a hallmark of a good leader at the different levels.
Rodrigo Canelas: Yeah. But What is this challenge that you face there?
Ian Wu: It’s a challenge because not everybody understands this to get over the problem. It may take somebody who is young and hot-blooded. Let’s say in their twenties, for example, hypothetically, it may take them 20 minutes to get over this frustration. But in 20 minutes, the tiebreak will be over facetime with the customer has ended. They go back into the room, they go back into the room feeling, ‘Hey, I came in this morning and everybody was so happy. But when I came up with a tea break at 10 o’clock, they looked a bit down,’ right? So you only have 20 minutes on face time. So the point is, make sure that when they go back into the last interaction with you is a positive one, right? No matter how tired put on a smile, and make sure it’s positive.
Rodrigo Canelas: That is super interesting. But you, as a leader, how do you, how, how can you assure that that is maintained?
Ian Wu: So you got to go back to you. Can’t always maintain it, it happens, right? But you got to go back to leadership. For example, they’ve got to see you as a boss, you have 10,000 things to do, right? At every single level, the amount of law you have is multiplied. But if you can deal with all your proverbial shit, right? If you can deal with all that shit, and at the same time, put on a smile when the guests are there, no matter how bad are they, no matter how bad your cash flow is, how empty your bank account looks. And you can put on a smile, they know that if he can do it, I can do it. If the next person in line looks at their manager, because he can do it, the boss can do it. I can jolly well do it.
It just becomes a, which is what we talk about. Right? You don’t want to screw up the man beside you in a trench. And because if your leader is doing it, you better do it too. Right? And he sets a culture, right? A culture of success, a culture of pushing the inner. Ultimately we talked about the three things, right? Culture, the greater good, and money. Money is always at the bottom of the tree, right?
People actually like to be in a place where once they’re feeling safe in terms of their self-sustainability, they really want, generally. I realize people want to be in a place where they’re always pushed a little bit and they know they’re playing with great players because the great guys will keep pushing you to do better. Every time you do something you couldn’t do last week. You have, ‘well, no, now I can do this.’ So that’s the past. I could target something else. So it’s almost like running, right?
You always have somebody who plays you. Right. You always trying to find that Rhonda, who’s a little bit faster than you push yourself and you run. That’s how we run. That’s how we cycle. That’s how we play games. Right? So I think if you do that, it should keep the standard pretty consistent. You cannot achieve perfection, right? Because some days your mum might be sick. Your wife might be ill, but it’s about keeping pace and making sure the team is always pushed. And you have leaders at every level who say, ‘This is the way we do it. This is not acceptable. The table is not white. Please wipe it. Please smile.’ I experienced that together.
When I come here, I observe you. And I can see you always so present. So focused on the customer, always giving the example to your team.
Rodrigo Canelas: So I experienced that. I understand what you’re saying. So what you’re saying is basically it’s about, you need to lead by example, right? And when everyone is doing their best, there’s also trust that it’s built between The team, right?
Ian Wu: Yes.
Rodrigo Canelas: So, so interesting. Okay. So now I’m in for you now. I mean, there’s so much uncertainty about the future, for you or for a leader, what do you think is a skill that a leader needs to develop to succeed in the future? Leading teams?
Ian Wu: I think for leaders, it’s very important to practice. I think practice is extremely key and practice involves you making mistakes. There are two kinds of people in the world. I belong to a group that learns from its own mistakes. I don’t really, I used to never bother to read too much, but I think if you can learn from other people’s mistakes, there are so many self-help books there. Right? There are so many videos on, on video-sharing platforms about how to get better, like yours. For example. Right. So go learn from the best and try to try to extract some nuggets of truth about leadership and then practice them.
Rodrigo Canelas: Yeah.
Ian Wu: Because if you don’t put yourself out to practice and if you’re afraid of making mistakes, that you never learn because it’s like a, it’s like a skill, right? I bet great leaders out there, like the pattern or, I mean, Congress, a gang is can, they had a lot of practice to get so good to be able to lead the army to move them. And to blindly trust that I say, we’re to do this and they’re going to do it. It involves a lot of practice and a lot of trusts. Right. So I think don’t be afraid to practice and make mistakes because you are the combination of your successes as well as your failures. Right. So I think practice is the most important thing.
Rodrigo Canelas: Yeah. So good. Okay. We are coming to the end. So now I would like to ask you, so their people ask you many questions, but maybe what would be one question that no one asked you would love to answer?
Ian Wu: Thank you for the tip because I didn’t know what to ask myself. So a good question that you came up with was if I were to do it, ‘Why do I do this? Why do I keep doing this? Why do I keep taking on roles that are in different industries and different sectors?’ And it seems like mission impossible.
A lot of time, for example, you take over a business, that’s hit by COVID, like ‘What the hell of it? Why are you doing this? Why do you push yourself?’ Right. I think I’m a junkie for this experience. I like the underdog. I like the success of bringing the team together and building something which I can eventually step away from. And it’s still running because the legacy that you built is in a lift by the people there now. And they live in brief what we all believe in. Right?
So for me, that’s, that’s incredible to see shows that I create that still running today to see products that are manufactured are still being sold worldwide, or to see a, a meeting concept that was started by someone like Yvonne and still being alive today because the team lives and breathes it. And it has brought it to a new level. Right.
I don’t think we should be happy about letting it live in the past, but I think it’s important to allow it, to have a culture and grow by itself. I think that’s very important. Yeah.
Rodrigo Canelas: So good. Okay. Well, that’s it such as such a great conversation. I think for me, I’ve been inspired by your story, the way you climb the leather from the military, from now becoming a CEO, also the way you turn around many, many businesses that is also super interesting. Also the way you manage your team and, build a high-performance team. So that was the takeaway for me, it was such a pleasure. Thank you so much for coming
Ian Wu: Thank you. I think it’s incredible what you’re doing, trying to spread the gospel about leadership and people developing it, and happy to be on the show.