Culture and performance - two sides of the same coin?
Cornelius Chang is the Head of People and Organisational Development at Grab, Southeast Asia’s leading superapp technology company connecting millions of consumers to millions of drivers, merchants and businesses.
As a former Consultant, Corn is highly passionate about working with people and finds excitement in helping organisations create long-term performance improvements while supporting individual leaders to grow. He brings this passion and enthusiasm for people into his current role at Grab.
In this episode, Corn takes us through his valuable insights on the relationship between culture and performance, why inclusion is essential when building a diverse workforce, and why he believes we all have courage - but sometimes the catalyst for change has to come from outside support.
If you’d prefer to listen to our conversation you can do so here: Apple Podcasts or Spotify
You have a background serving in the military, what can you share about leadership and culture in the armed forces?
[Corn:] Let me share a story that stays with me today. Imagine this 18 year old boy, that's me, nervous and waiting to enter military service. And so the first place this boy starts is in basic military training, which is three months of learning about discipline. It’s being taken from the cosy, sheltered environment that we have in Singapore, and being instilled with that basic discipline.
At the end of those three months, I’m standing there in the parade square, and I’m getting told where I am to head off to next. And generally there are three main pathways. One, you can go into Officer Cadet school. Two, you can go into Sergeant school. And three, you can go straight into the units.
Now my father also served in the military. And he had the aspiration for me to be an Officer Cadet in the military. And unfortunately when I received my result, I found out I was to go to Sergeant school. So I felt like I had disappointed my father or I had failed him.
So heading into Sergeant school, the first thing that you have to do is attend an interview with your company Commander. I had no clue what he would ask. And when I went in, he looked at me and he went through a whole number of questions, none of which I honestly remember. But the one question I remember was at the end of the interview, he asked, ‘What do you want to achieve out of your time here over the next three months?’
And I have no idea where the courage came from, but the response that I gave him was, ‘Actually, I don't want to be here. I want to be an Officer Cadet.’ I can't imagine how hurtful that was to him, to tell him I don't want to pursue that path and wanted to be an Officer instead. But to my surprise he responded, ‘Well, if that's what you want, let me help you get there over the next three months.’
That was my first experience of just incredible leadership, incredible mentorship, incredible sponsorship. And so for the next three months, he lived up to that commitment. He pushed me harder than anyone has ever. He took time to train me. And at the end of that three months, I was very lucky and blessed to graduate at the top of my cohort and was one of three to make the shift from Sergeant school into the Officer Cadet school. And for that I have him to thank.
So even in a highly regimented and controlled environment, you have leaders who can create their own culture who can lead in a way of their choosing, which I just found incredibly fascinating.
What is it about working in People, Performance & Culture now that really inspires and drives you?
[Corn:] This work, at its core, is about people. And humanity is about people. Civilization is about people. The organization is nothing more than a construct of people. And so the opportunity to work with people and to shape how we can bring a diverse group of people together to work together as one, to do something more than what they individually could have done themselves. That's fascinating. That's exciting.
So that's a large part of what gets me going every day. Just that opportunity to work with people. And by nature, people are different. So there is no one size fits all playbook around people. So that makes the work refreshing every day, it's different every day. So you can never get bored with this work. It is incredibly rewarding.
There are three main pillars of my role. The first is performance and culture. And in a way, I think of them as two sides of the same coin. On one hand, we are working to drive greater performance. On the other hand, everything we do to drive performance, needs to build, shape and strengthen culture.
The second pillar is learning and development, which is perhaps a lot more easily understood. The third one is around engagement and inclusion. So that's around the heart. How do we create real day to day engagement of Grab employees? How do we create an environment where it is inclusive, one where every employee can feel they can bring their best selves, and do their best work at Grab. That's the work that I lead, and the work I have the privilege and joy of doing.
Tell me more about the relationship between culture and performance.
[Corn:] The relationship between performance and culture is either mutually reinforcing and creating a better environment or the opposite. So things are either spiralling upwards, or spiralling downwards. When it goes downwards that’s when things become dysfunctional.
“If you work on both culture and performance at the same time, in alignment, you're going to get performance and a culture that reinforces each other for the better.”
If you work on performance and culture separately or in a way that is misaligned to each other, you're going to get a very dysfunctional outcome. Either you get incredible performance and very poor culture, or you get high performance that actually embeds low culture, right?
Think of cases where companies might have pushed for certain targets and driven the organisation so hard on performance. Without the right culture in place to hold the bar, the performance is one that is actually negative. WellsFargo comes to mind as an example. And that's what I mean, where you need to drive both is reinforcing to each other, and don't allow them to be misaligned to each other. That just results in dysfunction and dysfunctional performance.
How do you approach engagement in your organisation?
[Corn:] The approach that we've been trying to take at Grab around engagement is focusing on the everyday experience of employees to create engagement. And the way we do that is by working on a few things.
One, we look at what we can do to deepen and strengthen the bonds between employees as well as between Grab and employees. Because in the end, for us, we believe fundamentally that engagement is about the bonds. If the bonds that exist are only transactional, you won't get deep, real engagement. But if the bonds that you create are part of a social fabric, then you get real engagement. So for us, that's a core part of what we can do and what we are doing to create stronger bonds between employees and between Grab and employees.
Number two, alongside that is we ask ‘What are we doing to remove the day to day frustrations of people?’ So on one hand, you want to deepen the bonds of employees. On the other hand, you want to take away the things that make them irritated or annoyed, or frustrate them every single day. Because on one side, you're trying to amp up engagement on the other side, you're trying to reduce this engagement. And a lot of times, that comes from just day to day frustrating things.
And then the third part of it, which ties in also to inclusion is, if we want to create real long lasting engagement, we need to create an environment where people feel included. Where they feel safe, they feel like they can be themselves, and they can bring their best selves and do their best work. So that's how we're tackling engagement and inclusion at Grab.
What are your thoughts on diversity and inclusion?
Just like culture, diversity and inclusion requires conscious effort. And it's not something that will just happen naturally. It's something that you need to invest in, you need to create, and you need to shape.
Thankfully, at Grab we have a fairly diverse organisation already. I think at last count, we probably have something like 58 nationalities working at Grab. But the thing that we have learned is that what is even more important is creating the environment for inclusion.
“We need to create an environment where the 58 nationalities working at Grab feel included. Because if they don't feel like Grab is a place that is welcoming of them, if they don’t feel respected for who they are and for their values and for what they can bring, then they won’t stay for long.”
So even as we're working around creating more diversity, we need to just remind ourselves, never forget about inclusion. Inclusion is the glue that keeps the diverse workforce together.
What do you think it takes to be bold in the workplace?
[Corn:] I’ll share a story about courage just to highlight the fact that I think we all have courage. The story is about how I joined Grab. And how I decided to leave my consulting career behind and take a leap into a very different career path.
The courage to leave requires courage. I had just become a father, my son Lucas was three weeks old at the time. And as a consultant, I was serving a lot of clients overseas, flying a lot. And most of my week would be spent outside of Singapore, where my wife and my child were.
And so I remember this Saturday morning, flying back home from Hong Kong. And as I entered the door, my son was crying, and was being carried by our nanny, as my wife was getting some rest. And so I put down my luggage, I walked over, I spoke to the Nanny, and I asked to carry my son, she handed him over to me. And he starts wailing, like really crying and crying way harder than he was before. And my nanny gives me the best feedback I've ever received in my life.
She looks at me and she says, ‘Your son doesn't recognize you.’ And in that moment, that's what it took to spark the courage to say, I need to make change, I need to change something. So that afternoon, after my wife woke up, I spoke with her. I told her, I’ve decided to leave consulting, I’m going to find something else. I wanted something that gave me the opportunity and the chance to spend more time with my son. So that my son and I would recognize each other. The point of that story was just to highlight that I think all of us have courage.
A lot of times, if you just request support it can spark something to trigger your courage and allow it to emerge. For organisations I think we need to think a lot about how can we create that environment? How do we create that space where people can feel like their courage will be recognised? That when they do something courageous, they will be celebrated and it will not have negative consequences when they try something new? And how do we create that space where we are sparking that courage? That for me was a big learning and a big insight around courage.
There’s more to this episode! To hear all of Corn’s insights, listen to the full episode on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.