Managing High Performing Team – Interview with Mr Lawrence Leong

This is an exclusive interview with Mr Lawrence Leong, the former Project Director of the very first F1 Night Race in Singapore on the topic “Managing High Performing Team”.

LawrenceLeongF1Q: As the Project Director of the inaugural Formula 1 Night Race in Singapore, an incredibly challenging project in terms of planning and infrastructure preparation, how did you assemble a team with necessary capability?

It was a very challenging project, especially a totally new domain, in that nobody in Singapore has done such an event and nobody around the world has staged a F1 night race, and so there was no clear reference points. I’ve never organised a race before, not to mention F1. It was a HUGE personal challenge for me.

In addition, the short timeline to deliver the project has no margins at all. My key consideration was to assemble a team with high energy, diverse skills and competencies, and a high confidence level of rising to the challenge – a “can-do spirit!”. As a team, we would have to learn, adept quickly, as there would be many surprises and obstacles in the project.

Q: How did you prepare for this complicated mission, both at a personal level and at the team level?

It was an honor to be asked to lead such a high-profile project, but I was also mindful that there will be no margin for error. Failure was not an option. So I relied upon what I have learnt in previous major projects that I have been involved with, by focusing on the key areas of good Project Management. Here are some principles I would like to share:

Principle #1: Keep The Plans Simple.

For complicated projects, it is necessary to keep the plans simple, so that we can adjust them when new conditions arise. If a leader could translate complicated, complex issues into simple concepts, the team members would easily grasp the issues and execute their tasks independently.

So, despite the various complicated issues like coordination with multiple stakeholders, convincing and working with private sectors, anticipating the expectations of spectators, dealing with weather contingencies, potential power outages, to name only a few; it is all about keeping the important issues like the overall intent, the main outcomes, clearly at the top, and translating complex scenarios into clear imagery and different types of situations. Provide timely update to the entire team, at every milestone, so that everyone understands the next step of the project.

If the leader can translate complicated and tough issues into something simple to follow, the team is off to a good start.

Principle #2: Maintain Discipline With A Daily Routine.

A good daily routine is important to sustain the team for the 18 months journey – from the securing of the hosting rights by the Race Promoter right up to the Race Day. Personally, I need to be fit and healthy, pace myself well and have high energy level for the project. I am a morning person – and I start my day with 5km morning runs, about 3 times a week. Each time after the run, I feel that I am ready for the long day ahead, as my mind is clearer and I am more alert for the decisions to be made.

After a shower, I would be in the office before 8 am. Then I did my quiet time and prayed for the day’s activities, decisions and safety for everyone, including the safety of my contractors. This was an important morning routine that kept me going. A fixed routine is useful so that you can have a predictable cycle despite many surprises for the day. This is how I find a good balance with a high pace of work.

Similarly, the team needs a good routine, example with daily huddles, evening supper, circuit walks, learning and debriefing moments. Individual team members need what I call teaching moments. When there are certain issues on the ground and you find that you are stuck, it’s always good to have a quick huddle and let the whole team learn together.

Principle #3: Cover All Grounds And Contingencies. 

I need to understand the technicalities of a F1 street race and how the race would be staged by the Race Promoter. I need to see at least one street race to understand how to bring everything together. I need to consult with the experts and those in the Formula One business – from the Race Promoter to the Sports to the technical support, to the Media and Broadcast, to Race Marshals and the Safety officials.

I need to understand the race set up, the minimum size of the back-of-house areas, the total logistics, the insurance, the volunteers, the competition and how the night lights would impact the drivers, safety, road closures, and what would make the Singapore race unique and attractive. We were asked to plan and light up the buildings adjacent to the street circuit and would positively profile the beautiful Singapore skyline.

I had to read up a lot about the other street races and what would make the Singapore Street race more exciting. Why plan the street circuit on an anti-clockwise direction and not clockwise? How often cars need to change tyres? Where are the best over-taking opportunities ? It’s a very technical sport and a new domain knowledge had to be acquired in order to support the Race Promoter.

Principle #4: Be Optimistic And Think Out Of The Box.

With the crazy timeline, I have to be decisive, weigh the trade-offs and make the call.  I have to be optimistic. I can’t be too worried about the potential problems, as nobody had staged a Formula 1 Race at night. We were under pressure of time to deliver the race.

I was given 18 months from the time I was assigned the project in March 2007 for the Race date in September 2008. It was a race itself to make sure the street circuit, the pit building, the safety barriers, the lights, and all the race equipment would be ready. 18 months was a crazy idea! We have to operate with insufficient information, concurrent work streams and look for expedient solutions, as there was no luxury of a huge time buffer. 

Principle #5: Never Forget To Encourage And Motivate Everyone.  

It was critical to keep the Project team together in high morale for the duration of the project. We learned together, we ate together, made decisions together; we struggled with the long meetings together and celebrated together. It was tough and a strain to spend many weekends on the circuit. We spent long hours especially in the nights making sure the construction was on track and the lights were set up on the correct spots and locations. Many weekends were spent walking the circuit, with an imagery of how the turns and corners will look like during the race.

People need encouragement and motivation. It is vital to encourage the Team, to assure and reassure everyone all the time. When there are certain problems on the ground and you find that you are stuck, it’s important to have a quick huddle and look for creative alternatives so that whole team learn together. My aim was to make sure that they grow with me in these 18 months of journey. We learned together, we worked together. I had hoped that when we complete and reach the end of the journey the team would say, “wow, we have succeeded together.”

On a personal level, I motivated myself by learning to trust in God. There were many unpredictable things that could happen but I am not going to be too worried. I reminded myself to let God take charge of those things that are beyond my control, such as the weather.

F1TeamQ: What were the qualities you looked for in picking the team members for the project team?

I use 3 C’s to help select the Team : Competency, Character and Chemistry.

Competency – The people you hire must have the requisite skills and competency. If you want somebody to manage the finances you want someone who is numeric, who’s very good with numbers. If you want someone to help you handle public communications, you need someone who’s the natural story-teller and salesperson!

Competency comes from practice and experience. Look out for the best, the kind of experiences that are not your daily cup of tea, those that take much efforts to succeed.

Character – What do I look for in a person? In choosing a team member, I asked questions that help point to the person’s character. For example, I come up with a scenario and ask the person “what would you do in a situation like this”, and that will give me a sense of the person’s inner values, what the person believes in.

I usually ask: “when was the last time you failed?” And if the person has difficulty in answering the question or say “I’ve never failed before”, then I won’t take him or her, because I believe we learn more from our failures. I personally learnt a lot from my failures and each time I fail, I never forget why. It’s burnt into my memory. Most forget our successes quite quickly, maybe after three, four years we forget why we succeed. But we remember our failures for a long time, because we don’t want to fail again.

Ask questions on situations where the person has to struggle with failure and trade-offs. That will give you a clue to the person’s character and values. I  prefer to hire an optimist. I avoid pessimists because they have all kinds of doubts, and ask too many “what-if” questions that will ultimately slow us down.  An optimist has a sense of belief that the impossible work can be accomplished; has the ability to believe in the impossible, not afraid of those never-been-there-before situations!

Chemistry – Are you and your team members able to work together with the person you bring into the team? There will definitely be conflicts  and differences because you want diversity and not Group-Think. Be prepared to resolve conflicts as soon as you sense that there is tension. Sometimes, it may have not escalated into a conflict but when you detect tension between people, you want to resolve that as soon as possible.

However, among the three C’s, the deciding factor would be Character, because competencies can be acquired, and chemistry can be build up with sufficient socializing.

Q: What were the greatest challenges that you faced in the F1 project and how did you overcome them as the leader of the team?

There were many challenges and complexities in the project, but the most difficult one was making sure the lights along the five-km street circuit worked with sufficient redundancy. We planned for continuous, adequate power supply and not tapping into the national power grid, so that we have full autonomy. It meant having our very own power supply and uninterrupted power system along the circuit.

Initially, we didn’t have a fool-proof, workable solution, but I am thankful that as we prayed for the project, God brought the right people to the project. I was blessed with a highly professional team of street lighting engineers from LTA who was very innovative, plus a lighting expert from Italy who was previously involved in lighting up the City of Naples. With the good support of NParks, we put together a clever and innovative concept to light up the entire street circuit.

Another scary moment was when the first lighting trial done overseas, did not meet the F1 lighting requirements and we have to go back to the drawing board and re-design the lights and the reflectors. It took us some time, more lighting trails but finally we were able to catch up on the work schedule, with several concurrent activities. It was another miracle from God.

Q: Were there any particular incidents or failure in the project and how did you recover from it?

Six months into the project, one of my team members felt that having all his weekends burnt was just too much sacrifice for him and his family. I was concerned about how it would affect the rest of the team if he quits. And if I brought in a new person at this stage to replace him, will the new staff disrupt the relationship or good dynamics of the team? It was a trade-off. Eventually, I brought in a new person and he adjusted well. He took on the same responsibilities, and fitted well into the Team.

On hindsight, I could have been more responsive in redistributing the workload such that the team mate would not feel so much pressure. It was a useful learning point for me.

Q: What’s your advice to young leaders, people who aspire to lead? What are some key principles you’ve learnt throughout the years?

I believe that everyone, if given a chance to lead a team, would want to be a good leader. My advice is to start with the basis of making sure the whole team grows together as a team. People look forward to be well-led, to learn, to grow. They want to receive valuable experience to their own lives. They expect to learn something from their leaders and to be inspired. So as you lead your team, think about each individual within the team as everyone is different.

How do you grow each one? How do you add value to each of their lives? At the end of the journey, you want to be able to look back with satisfaction that everyone has enjoyed the journey and grown in their experiences too. As they say it so often, it is not about the destination but it is also important to have a great journey together.

Illustrations taken from Singapore F1 Website at http://www.singaporegp.sg/on-track/gallery/2013/photos

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About the author

Mr Lawrence Leong was Project Director of the 2008 inaugural Formula One Night Race. He served the Singapore Armed Forces for 31 years and retired as a Brigadier–General (BG). He served in the Singapore Permanent Mission to the United Nations as Military Adviser from 2004 to 2007. He is currently the Assistant Chief Executive in the Singapore Tourism Board, leading the International Group. Learn from Lawrence on the challenges of building and sustaining high performing teams.

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