Embracing Change: The Key to Sustainable Success
In a recent and compelling address delivered on September 16, 2023, at East Coast Park, one of Singapore’s most treasured urban getaways, Yee May Leong, the Managing Director of Equinix, South Asia, left an indelible mark on the minds of those gathered. Hosted by the Singapore Mentorship Committee (SMC), this event brought together mentors and mentees eager to explore the profound theme of change in our ever-evolving business landscape.
Speech by Ms Yee May Leong
After bringing the audience through her illustrious and inspiring professional journey, it is evident that Yee May has carried her passion for driving change throughout her career, leaving a lasting impact on organizations and individuals alike.
Change, as Yee May eloquently emphasized, is the one constant in life that we often resist, both personally and professionally. In Latin, change is referred to as "Mutatio," while in Mandarin, it is known as "kai zhen," which signifies changing for the better. Moreover, in Mandarin, the term for crisis is "wei ji," with "wei" denoting crisis and "ji" signifying opportunity, illustrating the idea that opportunities often arise from crises. On a personal level, we must adapt or face stagnation. Professionally, the impact of change extends beyond our careers to affect our businesses, the teams we, as leaders, guide and the lives we influence. This fundamental insight was a key takeaway from a course Yee May attended at Harvard University.
Yee May's profound insights align seamlessly with a timeless observation from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species: "It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is best able to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” Over her impressive 39-year career, Yee May has unearthed a core truth: nothing good lasts forever and nothing bad lasts forever as well. What truly matters is the deliberate decision about where to channel one's focus and maintaining an open-mindedness toward change.
In the realm of business, maintaining relevance is paramount for long-term success. Yee May shared stark statistics, awakening organizations to the harsh reality that since 1955, a staggering 88% of Fortune 500 companies have faded into obscurity. Their downfall wasn't a result of initial failure, but their inability to navigate the turbulent seas of change. Change, as Yee May poignantly states, comes in two forms: disruption and competition. Failing to adapt to either can spell doom.
Yee May shared the parable, "Who Moved My Cheese?" - a cautionary tale of complacency, of assuming your cheese will always be there. Successful companies often revel in their achievements, thinking they're invincible. However, complacency breeds stagnation, and more adaptable and ‘hungrier’ competitors ultimately take the lead.
She illustrated the perils of resisting change with well-known use cases. Blockbuster, once an empire with more than 9,000 stores worldwide, declined an opportunity to purchase Netflix for a mere $50 million in 2000. Today, Netflix boasts a market cap of $194 billion and 240 million subscribers, demonstrating the high cost of rejecting change.
Yahoo, once the internet's preeminent search engine, also succumbed to a reluctance to embrace transformation. In 1998, it spurned Google's offer of acquisition for $1 million. Fast forward to 2002, Yahoo sought to purchase Google for $3 billion, only to be rebuffed with Google's demand for $5 billion. Today, Google's parent company, Alphabet, stands at a valuation of $1.7 trillion, while Yahoo was ultimately acquired by Verizon for only $4.8 billion.
Yee May proceeded to mention two more renowned brands that vanished into obscurity. Kodak, despite pioneering digital photography. It hesitated to fully embrace its creation, fearing it would undermine its core business—a hesitation that came at a steep cost. Similarly, Blackberry, once a dominant player in the smartphone industry, found itself on a downward trajectory due to its inability to adapt to evolving market trends. Despite the advent of touchscreen technology, Blackberry steadfastly clung to its physical keyboards, overlooking the potential of this emerging technology. Astonishingly, the company was in denial as the iPhone was a new entrant into the market with a disruptive technology, and this failure to adapt to the changing landscape ultimately contributed to its total decline. These cautionary tales emphasize the significance of adaptability when confronted with shifting technologies and evolving consumer preferences.
Yee May's message strikes a profound chord as she delves into the nuanced nature of change—it can manifest as a burning ambition, fuelled by a fervent desire for growth and progress, or as a burning platform, a compelled reaction to impending crisis. To orchestrate change with genuine impact, Yee May fervently advocates the principle of leading by example, becoming a luminous beacon guiding others through the transformation journey. In her view, organizational culture assumes the role of a binding adhesive that unites teams on this transformative path. Yee May further emphasizes the importance of sharing narratives related to change, an act that equips individuals with the necessary mental preparation to confront change.
16 Sep 2023 SYHL Group Photo
To initiate change, Yee May offers practical guidance for leaders. Firstly, she emphasizes the importance of leaders embracing change as an integral part of their leadership style. Following this, leaders are urged to create an environment that not only welcomes change but actively fosters it. Lastly, they should work towards establishing a culture where change is ingrained into its very fabric.
Drawing inspiration from Dr. John Kotter's comprehensive model of leading change, Yee May highlights the essential steps to navigate transformation effectively. The model commences with the critical task of instilling a sense of urgency, effectively communicating the purpose and necessity for change. Subsequently, it emphasizes the formation of a unified and influential guiding coalition to spearhead change efforts. Leaders must then craft a clear and compelling vision for the future, disseminating it throughout the organization to ensure alignment and understanding among all stakeholders. Identifying and removing obstacles that hinder progress becomes paramount, followed by empowering employees to take ownership of the change process. Quick and tangible wins are instrumental in building momentum and sustaining motivation. Ultimately, embedding the change within the organization's culture proves vital for its long-term success. These steps collectively serve as a pragmatic and strategic guide for leaders dedicated to driving substantial and enduring change within their organizations.
In closing, Yee May summarises that embracing change transcends mere adaptation; it signifies thriving in an ever-evolving world. Each of us bears the responsibility to guide ourselves and our organizations through these transformative junctures. Yee May's message resonates as a powerful reminder that in a world constantly in flux, embracing change is the key not just to survival but to achieving lasting success and significance.
Photo of June with Mike Sun, Founder, ME Tech