19: School Board Chairperson, Hwee Peng Tan on Being Inspiring, Approachable and a Long-Term Thinker

Recognizing good work goes a long way in building a positive work culture. Many leaders, however, may find this simple act difficult to be performed consistently, or consider recognizing good work as something too trivial. But, studies have consistently shown that recognizing employees gives them a sense of purpose, greater connections within teams, and productivity.

In this episode of Agile Leaders Conversations, I speak with Hwee Peng Tan, Chairman of the School Board where she shares how her single, consistent act of giving constructive encouragement went a long way in helping her show up authentically and got her elected as the school board chairperson. She also talked about the importance of leaders being inspiring, approachable, and long-term thinkers. Hear also how Hwee Peng deep-dived into the mental aspect of the “8 Paradoxes of Leadership Agility.

Connect with Hwee Peng Tan at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hwee-peng-tan/

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Hwee Peng Tan: I will give the positive feedback to the teachers who have planned everything. It makes a lot of difference when it comes from a parent’s mouth. This is the feedback I receive. It’s amazing to say that this is probably the best performance I ever watched.

Hwee Peng Tan: How did you do it? And I don’t want to make it in a way that it’s very superficial. Actually, it’s not. I will say that, during the drumming performance, there’s this particular part that is so cute. How did you do it? So the teacher was like, oh! You realized it. Yeah, this is the part where we suggested, and we think that it’s appropriate to add it into the routine.

Hwee Peng Tan: I was like, “yeah, that is very good.” That’s very authentic and people think that, you really watch the whole performance and give a very meaningful feedback. 

Chuen Chuen: Welcome to agile leaders conversations where executives, business leaders and experts from all sectors come together and share leadership insights around leading in today’s workplaces. They will be sharing some tips on how they use the agile mindset to make sense of the complexities and lead with authenticity and ease. 

Chuen Chuen: My name is Chuen Chuen. And I’m an author, an executive coach for the fortune 500, a speaker and a facilitator. I specialize in agile leadership, helping organizations and their leaders be relevant and effective in the workplace of today. I’m so happy to have you listening into this episode of agile leaders conversations.

Chuen Chuen: My guest today is Hwee Peng Tan, chairperson of a school board, which was named Primary School of the Year in the year 2021 in Western Australia. I’ll hand over the time to Hwee Peng to share a little more about herself. 

Get to Know Hwee Peng

Hwee Peng Tan: Thank you, Chuen Chuen. I’m originally from Singapore and previously worked in corporate for 10 years. I have then relocated to Perth to start a family with my Australian husband. I had a career break, and I took up full time parenting where my son was born. Ever since my son started primary school, I was very active in the school activities. I realized that this is something I really enjoy doing because of the nurturing environment and the passionate staff in the school.

Hwee Peng Tan: So it’s an absolute joy to be able to work with them and participate in the curriculum. So in 2021, I was approached to join the school board and fortunately in 2022 there’s opportunity for me to be the chairperson. So I’m very happy to be able to contribute meaningfully to my son’s school, where he spend his time most in his life.

Chuen Chuen: So wonderful to hear this. It’s the mother’s love to contribute and to be actively involved in your son’s education and experience in the school and what better role than to partner the school and the community to bring about a better learning environment. And we know that education is the experience that counts for the children.

Chuen Chuen: So, Hwee Peng, I’m wondering, what are your general thoughts of the book (8 Paradoxes of Leadership Agility) after reading it? 

Hwee Peng Tan: So firstly, I was very amazed by the illustration. It’s very well written. All the eight paradoxes, actually I can see a human face. So when I read it, I was like, yes! This person really fits into the description.

Hwee Peng Tan: So for myself, ever since I become a mother then, I was actively participating in school activities, I realized mental health is something I’m also very passionate about. When I was reading the book, I dive deeper to every paradox. What is your mental state when they were doing all this leadership style? What are their thoughts and thinking process? Even though the book is talking about leadership agility. I took a little step and dive deeper into the mental thoughts as well. So, it’s very intriguing. I feel very intrigued by the book. 

Chuen Chuen: Was there a particular mental model that you picked up or that you could co relate in your corporate experience, in experience as a mom or experience as a chair person of the board? 

Hwee Peng Tan: Yes. When I read all the eight paradoxes, Prakash (Executing vs Inspiring) is the one that relates me the most. So in my scope as a chairperson, the difference between a board member and a chairperson is the chairperson has to work very closely with the principal.

Hwee Peng Tan: It makes a lot of difference for the school board to be effective, the principal and the chairperson must be in good relationship. The reason we were always in discussion. The principal and I, we always met the same challenge. We have the best interests of the school. We know what works and what will benefit the school. But again, what Prakash in the book says, we try to inspire the staff, the parents, and the community to participate. But it’s very hard for us to embed the ideas into them. Firstly, we don’t want to add additional workload to the staff. Everyone is busy, especially parents. They have multiple kids, and they have different priorities. So, that is the part where yes, it strongly resonates to what we are doing. 

Chuen Chuen: Actually, there’s a very strong parallel with the companies that I work with. Majority of the companies are trying to transform. And they’re also very mindful about, I don’t wanna add work on people because they’re already trying to work as hard and as fast as they can. We don’t want them to burn out, but yet we need to inspire them to come on board with us, cooperate so that we can create something better, something more sustainable.

Chuen Chuen:  Many years ago, when I started my leadership development journey, I read Peter Senge’s book, the Fifth Discipline. And in there I could understand why there was such a strong parallel. For listeners who are not aware, I used to be a school teacher. I learned a lot of these life lessons, leadership lessons back in the days when I was teaching.

Chuen Chuen: And so according to Peter Senge, there is a strong parallel between parent and child, teacher and student, boss and employee. So we’ve seen the same leadership mindset and the dynamics in these three parallels, which many of us we have experienced at least two, if not all three. So you’re saying that in this school board, the cooperation at the top is very important, and how do we inspire people to come on board, instead of telling them what they have to do and help ingrain some of these things into them. From your experience Hwee Peng, share with us how do you inspire them to do something differently? 

Two Stories That That Exhibits Leadership Behviour

Hwee Peng Tan: I have two experiences to share. First, when my son started the primary school, my method was always show up. Showing up is so important. Especially early childhood, like primary school. Show up and be consistent.

Hwee Peng Tan: And if there’s a school assembly. Children are having a performance or something, and the performance is well received. Even though a parent sitting beside me, they were saying, oh! I’m amazed how the teacher can make my son do the drumming. 

Hwee Peng Tan: We were so amazed. So for me, I will give the positive feedback to the teachers who have planned everything. It makes a lot of difference when it comes up from a parent’s mouth. This is the feedback I receive. It’s amazing to say that this is probably the best performance I ever watched.

Hwee Peng Tan: How did you do it? And I don’t want to make it in a way that it’s very superficial. Actually, it’s not. I will say that, ” during the drumming performance, there’s this particular part that is so cuteHow did you do it?” So the teacher was like, oh! You realized it. Yeah, this is the part where we suggested, and we think that it’s appropriate to add it into the routine.

Hwee Peng Tan: I was like, “yeah, that is very good.” That’s very authentic and people think that, you really watch the whole performance and give a very meaningful feedback. So this is the thing I have been always doing. The other method that I want to share is I want to lead by example.

Hwee Peng Tan: So in 2021, Western Australia opened up the education award for the primary school of the year. So for me and the principal, we think we can win because of the effort of our school are doing. But again, who is going to write the nomination letter?

Hwee Peng Tan: So again, it’s very difficult. And first of all, nobody has the capacity to write and secondly, nobody think we will win because we are just a neighborhood primary school. And the previous winner- gifted school. Wow! So intimidating. I decided to step up and write the nomination letter.

Hwee Peng Tan: I wrote it, and I submitted. We become the top four finalists and then we won the award. I was there in the award ceremony, and I witnessed the excitement and the recognition that the teachers received. The award ceremony was from 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM.

Hwee Peng Tan: At 9:00 AM, the school has live streaming of all the students, watching for the results. And then some of teachers are able to capture the moments where we win. So, when we look at the photos, the students were so emotional and then they were cheering for themselves.

Hwee Peng Tan: It’s like yesterday, we were just a normal primary school, but today we are an award-winning primary school. We are so happy and so emotional to see that. And that is priceless. And I feel, whatever thing that I do is absolutely worth it. 

Chuen Chuen: Two very beautiful stories. And you touched on two vital leadership behaviors. You know that everyone listening in can gain something. When we say praise, encourage people so that they can be inspired. It is something that we wanna do authentically. And you used a very strong word. We give meaningful feedback.

Chuen Chuen: We look out for signs of effort, going above and beyond. We describe it to them. As a teacher speaking with you, I can imagine how inspired they feel because teachers, as with many of the corporate employees, they’re all working in the background. And sometimes it feels like a thankless job and this one interaction can change how they go through the rest of the day. And if we make it part of the culture, we always notice exactly what they are doing. And we are very specific. It shows that we are paying attention, that becomes meaningful feedback. And then there is oxygen to the soul. 

Hwee Peng Tan: Yeah! 

Chuen Chuen: Giving encouragement is an oxygen to the soul. The second part, which was very strong as well. I think my clients can also see that. Like the senior leaders will think that we are quite good. But the people below, because they’re so deep in the trenches, they’re a little bit lost in the weeds. They can’t really see the bigger picture or see the value of their work. Then, it is up to us to create success for them, to make it real instead of just saying empty things like, don’t worry, we are doing a great job. We will reach the targets. Those are very abstract and vague. So taking the extra step on your part to write the nomination and to be interviewed by the panel, you have concretized and made the success real. 

Chuen Chuen: And this impact is so wide for the children I believe, when you filmed their faces, how it changed. For them is, wow! I’m no longer a neighborhood primary school. I’m part of a successful organization, and that I believe changes their identity from inside and their whole outlook towards life. That’s life changing. That’s really excellent.

Chuen Chuen: There’s also this definition of leadership agility in the book. From your role as the board chair, I would like to know how do you see this definition of leadership agility? 

Leadership Agility: Being Inspiring, Approachable, and Strategic

Hwee Peng Tan: I just started chairing the board this year. So I’m still very young, and I’m learning as well. That’s why I’m taking a leadership course right now to really add value to my role. So when approached by the principal to chair the board, my first question is, oh! Why me? I’m not a PhD holder. I don’t have 20 years of education experience, why me?

Hwee Peng Tan: But the principal said something very inspiring and straight away, I will take up the role. She says you have the best interest of the school. That’s why you are chosen. So, I feel that alright, I have the passion and I really want to add on to a leadership skill to make sure this board runs smoothly.

Hwee Peng Tan: And I want to make sure that my board members have a safe environment to speak up and not just go there for the sake of going there and even worse, they don’t want to attend the board meeting anymore. In my opinion, a leader should be approachable, inspiring, and has a long term thinking.

Hwee Peng Tan: So that’s the one that I want to really work on– being approachable and then creating a safe space for the board member to run effectively. I really reflect every time the board meeting finished, so I will reflect what are the things that people find too boring and not interesting.

Hwee Peng Tan: But, I also don’t want people to feel that, they are obligated to say something. People might think, I’m not contributing. So it’s a very fine line on how you want to chair the board. And everybody’s leadership style is different. We always have an agenda set up before the meeting.

Hwee Peng Tan: So there’s this part, the last item, which is the general items. So this is the part whereby I intentionally think about it and curate how I want to present these general items. First of all, I want to make sure that 15 minutes, the board to be engaging and able to speak whatever they think will be beneficial for the school and also make sure that everyone has a chance to speak. Not as someone who’s always dominating the meeting. So it’s very delicate thing that I have been working very hard on. So I think by reading Chuen Chuen’s book and attending the leadership course, it’s really nutritious to what I’m doing. And I really want to continue to improve and learn about my leadership skills and what I can bring on to the table, to the school board. 

Chuen Chuen: Wow. Very consistent. A few themes always come up and it demonstrates your entire mindset towards leadership. It’s a never ending journey.

Chuen Chuen: You are always reflecting, observing, and then reflecting and improving again. You are continuously exposing yourself to new learning opportunities, reading and widening your knowledge and repertoire. Your heart is always very clear. You want everyone to be able to participate, be able to speak up, how you want to be seen.

Chuen Chuen: You want to be an inspiring, approachable leader and demonstrate long term thinking. Actually in my coaching engagement, I frequently do a leadership branding exercise and you’ve already done it. Because they will tell me they want to be good leaders.

Chuen Chuen: And I said, so what does a good leader mean? That definition is so wide and diverse. It depends on what makes us tick. And for you, it’s service, it’s giving back. It is focusing on the positive, focusing on the possibilities. So your leadership adjectives have already come out very strongly– inspiring, approachable, long term thinker. And that whole process of how you quickly transform, in a way. Because your engagement in the school board at the beginning was more on, I just wanna show up, right? I just want to be supportive to my child. I wanna be a good role model, and being approached to be the chairperson, and then getting unanimous support and approval. It was never your agenda. It just happened organically. And once you get the basics, when you have your values sorted out, you know how it can contribute, then you will know how to respond. And one thing was also very strong.

Chuen Chuen: Even though it is a general item, the last 15 minutes, you are fully aware of how people are feeling. And then you will engineer it, and you choose the topics running in a very clever way so that people are engaged and everyone gets to speak. So to all listeners out there, one thing I wanna tell you, boring meetings are the worst. Fastest way to take away energy and erode motivation.

Chuen Chuen: So, perhaps Hwee Peng is sharing today will give you some food for thoughts. Can you reflect? Are there different ways to run your meetings? Such that every minute, every second spend is well spent? Yeah. I really enjoy the conversation with you Hwee Peng and also when we caught up for coffee. I’m wondering, what leadership advice do you have for people out there?

Be The Leader That you Want to Become

Hwee Peng Tan: Personally, my point of view is not everybody wants to be a CEO. Everybody’s leadership style is so different. If you want to set that example, and this is what you want to do. I used to have the imposter syndrome as well. I’m generally a very shy person, but then I look back at all the training I’ve done.

Hwee Peng Tan: I want to be able to inspire and be approachable. And that is why I can be what I’m doing right now. We feel that every time we think about challenges and we have obstacles, we think that maybe I’m not that good to overcome these obstacles, but that that is definitely not true.

Hwee Peng Tan: You just need to have another method. And again, everybody’s vision is different. If I have a passion on what I’m doing, and I am able to influence and engage. I am the leader that I want to be. So this is what I want. So I hope the viewers or listeners will be able to think about what you want as a leader.

Hwee Peng Tan: And you are able to progress what you want to do if you have all the steps in front of you. 

Chuen Chuen: So many of the people I interact with, even I, myself struggle with imposter syndrome. Like we always think that we are not good enough, especially when we are minorities. Like in my field leadership expert.

Chuen Chuen: But in this field, there are very few Asian women. And that’s why when we met up. I was like, wow! Hwee Peng, you are first a migrant next, you are a minority. How did you get that unanimous approval to be the chairperson? Because it’s a position where you’re voted in. It is very precious. And it goes to show, you have found a way to make an impact without changing who you are. Even better by honoring who you are internally.

Chuen Chuen: For viewers, listeners who are curious, Hwee Peng usually lives in Perth. So she’s back in Singapore to visit family and friends. And you might be wondering, where is she having this interview? And this is also a perfect example of leading by service. Leading by helping others. So I am a member of the greater club and when I knew that Hwee Peng is in Singapore, but she doesn’t have the equipment, so I reached out to the greater club and said, could you help host my guest? Could you lend her the equipment and the beautiful room for us to have this conducive interview.

Chuen Chuen: So businesses can do it too by serving others, by giving first, and then you lead the way. 

Chuen Chuen: I will leave Hwee Peng’s social media links in the podcast. We continue to learn, grow, share, and develop. Thank you so much Hwee Peng.

Chuen Chuen: Thank you so much.

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