20: Co-Founder of Sinofy Group, Kema Bae on Leading with Vulnerability and Openness

In a fast-paced and competitive world where companies are built on superior strategies perfectly executed, leaders may more often lead by showing power and strength. After all, you’re supposed to be the one in charge. Is there, however, a space for vulnerability and the “softer” aspects of leadership? A question all leaders need to consider is how they can build a culture of trust and open communication – by showing power and strength, or vulnerability and empathy.

Listen to episode 20 of Agile Leaders Conversations, where I speak with Kema Bae, WEB 3 Enthusiast and the Co-Founder of Sinofy Group, as she shares her insights on navigating the paradox of Enforcing vs Empowering in the team. Hear her share how showing vulnerability and openness can increase the competitiveness of the organization and build a culture that enables agility.

Connect with Kema Bae at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kema-bae/

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Kema Bae: It helped me identify that problem and through the personal stories in your book, the challenges your clients faced. I just saw the reflection of myself, and used that in my own life. I’m just amazed by the fact that it helped me so much since then and improved mine and my team’s work and life productivity overall.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: 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 Yeo: 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 leaders achieve success and be relevant in the VUCA world that we are all in today. I’m so happy to have you listening into this episode of Agile Leaders Conversations.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: My guest today is Miss Kema Bae. Kema is a Web 3.0 Enthusiast with extensive experience in blockchain, China centric digital infrastructure, and she’s very passionate for women in tech. I’ll hand over the time to Kema to share a little more about herself.

Kema Bae: Thank you for having me. Pleasure is mine. My name is Kema Bae, and I run Web 3 Marketing Agency with a small investment arm focusing on Asia.

Kema Bae: We promote early stage web 3 products and help them to get connected with our network of investors in Web 3 blockchain space and accelerators.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Fantastic. Kema and I were just having a casual conversation before recording this show, and based on what I know, 86 to 87% of the senior leaders in your space are men.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: So I’ll be super interested to find out how you show up and make a presence and make waves in this space. In a male dominated space. And we’re going to that in just a while.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Alright. Kema share with us your general thoughts on the book after reading it.

Kema Bae: Yeah, it was pleasure. I read it two months ago, and it helped me since then a lot. I love how book talks about finding balance when you’re facing challenges and this book is more of, I would say exercise-driven book.

Kema Bae: It’s more of a guide how to go through the challenges and how to solve it. It’s filling the gap between theory and practical application. That’s why it helped me a lot when I was leading my company. It shows lots of excellent ways how to grasp the understanding, like strategies. How to speak with your employees, clients and partners. How to lead different crucial stages in our blockchain world.

Kema Bae: So it is a must-read for those who are trying to lead the company. And I love the way you showed the case studies, especially your personalized stories and how you help your clients solve the problems, like the techniques you shared.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Great. You named that element that I want to bring out that we are bridging the gap between theory and practice. And it’s designed to be like a textbook and work book together. But as you read it, you are also reflecting and filling up the exercises at the same time.

Kema Bae: Yes. Yes I do. And actually, after reading the book, I had my time digesting it, just to let sit it down. And this time helped me to identify the struggles I had as a company leader. And your book helped me to take the steps to fix the issues. I like the highlight of the book that you wrote is based on your client experience as case studies. Like each client confronted a particular problem and the work that was done is just amazing.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Thank you so much. It’s really good to hear the real life example. You are talking about navigating some of the challenges that you faced as a co-founder and managing director. So was there a particular paradox in the book that resonated strongly with you.

Enforcing vs Empowering: Ask Your Team Better Questions

Kema Bae: Yes. The one that I love the most is enforcing and empowering. I can strongly relate to that because in my company we have team of Europeans and Asians. People are working together as a team right now, even despite all political issues. And I usually stay working till 2 to 3 AM not because of the time difference but also because I like to learn lots of things. And I usually read books in the nighttime and learn new languages. One day, I noticed that I was expecting my team to be like me. I was expecting them to do the task during night-time, even complete the tasks during their rest hours.

Kema Bae: And after reading the book, I realized that I was pushing them too much. I knew that I need to change. Only after reading the book I realized I have this problem. Instead of pushing them, I start empowering them, and start asking them questions.

Kema Bae: Since then, our team is doing a remarkable job. And I’m extremely proud of them because the team is growing and we have new people coming. All people that have been there in space since Bitcoin of 2018. And I just love the way we found a way to synchronize and I’m not even pushing them anymore. Instead, I’m trying to inspire them. And even if they feel that I’m pushing them, they come to me saying, hey, Kema looks like you have some kind of issue. Do you want me to help with that?

Kema Bae: It helped me identify that problem and through the personal stories in your book, the challenges your clients faced. I just saw the reflection of myself, and used that in my own life. I’m just amazed by the fact that it helped me so much since then and improved mine and my team’s work and life productivity overall.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah! Wow. That’s so amazing to hear. And it all started with just one change, right? Being able to name enforcing versus empowering. Do I want to enforce a certain work schedule, a certain pace and tell people what they have to do. Or do I lead by asking great questions, which most of time are open questions, and you just ask them, How do you find the work? How is it that you want work so that you can give your best?

Chuen Chuen Yeo: And another great thing that I think shifted in your team is the two way conversation. If they feel that there’s something that you want, and the manner in which you are trying to make it happen doesn’t work for them, they are totally open to come to you. Kema, I know this is important. How can I help you?

Chuen Chuen Yeo: How can we make this work for both of us? So it’s a win-win. Excellent. And you are already seeing results in retention, productivity, profitability. I think that’s so fantastic and just takes one shift. Shifting from telling to asking, I think that’s one big shift.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: So there was also a definition of leadership agility and paradoxes in the books. What else do you see from your lens as co-founder and managing director?

How Listening to Your Team is Important

Kema Bae: After reading the book, after I digested, understood it fully, I started listening to what my employees say. Because employees are often insecure to speak about their issues because they feel the kind of gap or difference between us.

Kema Bae: And I encourage them to be open. I listen to what they say. I listen to their problems and I try to solve them. And I just love being more close to them because that is what makes team work. Second point I would love to focus on is I started encouraging them to take risks because it’s vital to create a culture where employees feel confident to ask questions. Even though if they feel that questions are too obvious or common questions. Because we are working in Web 3, and Web 3 definition itself, it’s not even complete yet. We are the one who are moving the Web 3 industry and many people don’t have the clear understanding what web 3 is.

Kema Bae: So, it’s okay to ask questions, even I encourage them to suggest out of the box ideas. Sometimes, I encourage them to take actions even if I know that it’ll fail because as Dixon said, out of that failure, there will come knowledge and long term success.

Kema Bae: Yeah, I think that these two main points that changed in my company since I read that book, and I’m really proud of my team because it’s been wonderful two months working there altogether.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: There’s a lot of listening, definitely in the part of being agile. I think you are in a exceptional space where we say the future is unknown, right? Even web 3, you are the ones pushing and defining what web 3 is. How volatile and uncertain can it get? And then you do that by creating a culture where people can always ask questions and put something into action first. Sometimes we may be pleasantly surprised that some of the things that we think will fail would actually work out quite well, and it’s a learning process. So when it comes to getting people to share their issues, what are some of these tips that work? I’m asking this because a lot of people ask and talk about psychological safety. And it is not that they didn’t ask the questions– they asked. It takes much more from senior leaders to be able to build that kind of psychological safety. So what are some tips that has worked for you?

Psychological Safety: It’s Okay to Show Vulnerability in a Workplace

Kema Bae: Psychological safety. That’s a good question because as a leader of company, I faced lot of insecurities, because people have been thinking that I’m the one taking responsibility on my shoulders. It was tremendous. And I was afraid to show people that I’m also weak at some points.

Kema Bae: After I realized that showing vulnerability actually helps us build some trust. I started showing them that I’m also a person, and I think that internal mental shift also helped me and our team to become closer. You mentioned that in the book about mindset shift that will affect employees, also in your Re4 model. So I think that was really helpful for me since then.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: I can imagine the first time you showed vulnerability, to show the human side. I wonder, was it very difficult because you did mention that women are minorities in your field and there’s a certain expectation and that shift definitely helped you. Do you remember the first time where you shared that vulnerability? What was the preparation like?

Kema Bae: Oh! Being entrepreneur in our space means that you work 24 hours for seven days and we don’t have any weekends. When the responsibility in our shoulders became too heavy, I remember there was a point, I didn’t even plan it.

Kema Bae: The first time I showed it, it was actually when our company was going through hard times and I had nobody to rely on. And then I remembered one of your principles. I just met some of our employees and we had some chat on work stuff, and I asked her. Where do you think we’re going? And she was my friend, my team worker. She was so surprised by the question because she didn’t expect me to ask this.

Kema Bae: It’s not expected for her to be answering this question. And she told me that we are going the way we move the company. And then I started asking more open questions to her. What do you want to achieve with our company? How do you want to move? If you were in my position, how would you lead our company? What would you change? What kind of strategy would you implement?

Kema Bae: And after that, she shared some of her insecurities about the influence she had in the company about her position. And then we work out new model for her, and then I felt more secure. I told her some problems I had like some of my securities and she totally accepted me. That was the moment when we actually became close friends and then we are running a company really in a trustful manner.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: So having that thinking partner, right? We don’t have to take all the stress and the responsibility on our shoulders. Of course being entrepreneur, a lot rests on your shoulders. You work 24/7. You have no weekends. If you could work 48 hours a day, I think we would do it . But just showing that moment that I’m a person. I can get stuck as well. Why don’t I hear from a different perspective? And in that conversation with your team worker, your equals, you’re just bouncing off ideas. Definitely two heads are better than one.

Kema Bae: Yeah.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: New perspectives, new solutions, and that trust. I think trust is the most unbreakable to be honest. I wanna spend a little bit of time on women leadership, especially in women in tech. How do you make your presence felt and make a difference in this male dominated space?

How Women can Stand Out in Tech

Kema Bae: Yeah, that’s really great question. I started in this company as an intern two years ago. And I started as intern because I can speak five languages, and that’s how I found this opportunity. Then, I started out-performing my KPIs and deliverables. That was a point when my future co-founder or partner, he promoted me as head of China and then East Asia.

Kema Bae: Since then, we’d been working together for more than one year closely. And he actually was the one who encouraged me to step in as a leader in women in tech. And he was the one encouraging me to take the action actually. At some point I realized that I had the power.

Kema Bae: He was encouraging me from the start because I didn’t have confidence in myself. I realized that my growth happened because of that partner. And I realized that I have the power to encourage others to become more powerful, more confident, more open.

Kema Bae: And that was a point when I bought 50% share of the company and became equal co-founder with him. And now, it’s my mission to encourage more women, to actually take the risk and start what they wanted to. Because the world now, not only in web 3, but also in all businesses are male dominated. And it takes a lot of courage, a lot of sacrifices from women to be the leader. But this is needed because we need equality of genders, we need to actually fulfill our desires to become somebody worthy.

Kema Bae: That’s my take on that. I always encourage women. Not only women actually. I don’t want to feel that I’m only like feminist. I want to encourage everybody to do what they want. Because that’s the only way to be happy.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: That’s the only way to be happy. And for you, it started when somebody saw the potential in you, and say that he believes in you, and that you can do it.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: That’s actually light in all of us waiting to be unleashed. When somebody believes in us. When a leader encourages us, it becomes possible that we begin to dream a bigger dream and turn it into reality. I don’t know anything about NFT. I don’t know anything about web 3.

Fulfilling Purpose Through Work

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Given this is something so unknown. What drew you into this industry in the first place?

Kema Bae: It actually happened by accident. I think we all started Web 3 by accident. I’ve been trading crypto for some time back in 16, 17 years old. But when I saw how big blockchain industry is and how prospective it looks like. I just wanted to learn more about that. And luckily for me, my friend introduced this company. That’s where I started my journey on web 2, web 3, blockchain.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: And what do you hope to achieve ultimately in this industry?

Kema Bae: I want to empower women and just empower everybody to step out and become what they want, even if you speak about web 3 especially. Then I want to have our fully owned internet where individuals are ruled over with the internet, not companies like Apple or Google. So, our account user data will be only ours. Nobody can use it for any purposes like advertisement or any other purposes that can be used on dark web.

Kema Bae: So I think my primary purpose would be empowering people all around the world to do what they want, and to have the full ownership and rights to own content they created.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Give them a voice and they own the content as well.

Kema Bae: Exactly.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: How do you assert your presence as the only woman at a C level in your company?

Kema Bae: Well, people want me to, be harsh, be strong, be confident, and I agree with them on that point. But I see my approach more in more soft way. If you know about the Princess Diana, how she did adjust herself because her voice at the start, it was high pitched and nobody wanted to listen to her, and she had to actually work on herself, to work on appearance and the impression she make so she had to train herself.

Kema Bae: And some of the people would love to us to adjust ourselves this way, but I don’t see this approach working on everybody. Speaking about myself, I’m more of soft person. As Bruce Lee said, be water. Should you put water in a cup? It’ll be cup. Should you put water in a bowl, it’ll be bowl.

Kema Bae: So I see my leadership attitude, like my leadership mood is more soft, supporting, encouraging and empowering. That’s what I feel comfortable with.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Know yourself, be in your element. And then you can be the best leader that you can be. We can be aware of the expectations, but most important is we need to know who do we wanna be, right? That way you be the best leader that you can be.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Great. What leadership advice would you give to people in your field?

An Advice to People in the Web Industry

Kema Bae: We are all giants raised by pygmies who have learned how to walk with perpetual mental mindset. Unleashing our full potential of a total brain power and being confident in every aspect. This is something that will turn your life around and I wish us to focus on us and agility and being tolerant to each other and keep going. We’re all gonna make it.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Excellent. So encouraging and unleash the full power of our mind. It’s great. So good to have you Kema. I really enjoy this conversation.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: I am always very blessed to be able to meet somebody with a very different background and we are connected and united by the same thought. That we want to create a better world, more equitable, where everyone has a voice and everyone has the right to live to the fullest potential. Thank you so much for being part of Agile Leaders Conversations.

Kema Bae: Thank you so much, Chuen Chuen. Pleasure is mine.

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