My City Is Dying [Series]

Episode #1: Worked To Death

The video below has inspired me. The entire thing is in Cantonese so I will provide translation and commentary at the same time. Although the video specifically refers to those working in the accounting industry for the “big 4” firms in Hong Kong, it speaks to a larger culture of work habits that is ruining office work in the city. This marks the beginning of a series of posts on what I see as the decay of a city I once loved.

The piece begins with ex-“Big 4” accountants talking about how working overtime without* extra pay as considered the norm. Bosses would say to his subordinates “when I was in your position, I worked OT and I didn’t get anything, so why should you?”

It then moves to a soliloquy by an anonymous accountant who reflects upon why he is working to 4 in the morning on a regular basis. The important thing to take away from this is that there is no sympathy on part of the superiors, who think that this kind of life-ruining work style is a fact of life that they just have to deal with. The anonymous accountant goes on to counter the notion that their hardships are compensated by salary with the deterioration of his health and relationships with his families and friends.

The next ridiculous phenomenon that the video talks about is that office people stick around in the office to “OT” even if they don’t have work to do. To paraphrase, “to leave early means that either that person is lazy or isn’t competent enough for more work, therefore everyone just sits in the office, waiting for the boss to leave.”

It doesn’t stop there. It is here that I’d like to remind readers once again that working ethos like this is not limited to just the Big 4 accounting firms in Hong Kong; similar things occur in banks, ad, and property management firms. The video then goes through the lives of some who have since left behind their grueling Big 4 days, and talks about how during busy times, they’d inhale lunches and dinners to save time, eventually leading to stomach issues that cause them to take sick days.

Quoting part of a larger sentence, “if we want to leave early, say, 9PM…”

The ex-accountant then talks about the culture of OT as a given thing, that if a worker leaves on time, that means that he is not given enough work, therefore piling on more work. He also talks about how he used to work until 5am, go home, take a shower, sleep for an hour or two, then hop on a taxi and back to work at 9am. He aptly points out that their big-4 counterparts in the West achieve similar business without its workers working the same number of hours. As the video cuts to a montage of him leaving just after 6 and having dinner with his family, his mom talks about how she worried for not just his physical but mental health as well, that she wanted him to get out of this ‘hell’ of a work place.

The next segment of the video interviews another man who used to work in Big 4 firms, during which 70-80 hour work weeks were commonplace. He currently is working with other accounting firms to address the issue of overworking. This is intercut with the previous interviewee, who now has more time on his hands (in his Big 4 days he’s had to work weekends) to do the things he likes or finds meaningful, such as caring for rescued dogs.

The video ends with some chilling statistics: Hong Kong workers top the world in work hours; concurrently, a university study has found that 83% of those interviewed finds life in Hong Kong difficult.

I have never worked in a Big 4 firm and I have never worked 70 hours in a week (there are 168 hours in a week, IF you count Saturday and Sunday, that’s almost half of your entire week). But I have interned at an ad firm that required me to stay at the office until 2am for a couple nights. This happens, a lot, in Hong Kong. And the people, many of whom lack either the courage or the knowledge to speak up about the wrongness that has been bestowed upon them, suck it up day in and day out, eventually leading to irreparable health and social issues.
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As a lead in to a future post: this type of work culture is not limited to the office work place in Hong Kong; it came from somewhere. The same type of people who run the accounting firms are the same ones who run the local education system. These are the people who believe more work for children means they become better test-scorers, which means better students. More on that later.

On top of shaky politics, mainland influence, a dying Disney (and the larger tourism appeal), a (largely) oblivious expat community, and a ruthless property-developing oligarch, the latter two of which make up the top >1% of the city’s population, the city to which I call home for two-thirds of my life is dying before my very eyes.

Reference:
Feature piece by rthk31. Thanks a million, for you guys made a piece that has finally pushed me over the edge and start a series to talk about this from my perspective.

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Am I A Leader? Turns Out, it Depends

A recent article from Forbes magazine discusses why some people might think that they’d make good leaders where in fact they’re not.

The article lists out the reasons why some people are better suited to be leaders.  Recently, I’ve been pondering on this question myself, on whether or not I am a good leader.  I’d say that, over the course of my life so far,  I have had to assume leadership positions on a bit more occasions than the average person, although I certainly wouldn’t put myself within the top percentiles.

Ultimately, what I gathered from the article is that whether or not I’m a good leader is dependent on who I am leading and the type of activity / event in which I am involved.

Rather than paraphrasing, I’m going to reproduce the list below, and underneath each point, I will discuss how they relate to my own leadership via my own experiences.

1. You don’t get results: Real leaders perform – they get the job done – they consistently exceed expectations. No results = no leadership – it’s just that simple.

Aptly chosen as the first point, because without results, everything else is worthless.  This is immediately relative to what my main point is, it being that it depends on the activity.  For example, my passion lies in hosting events; I thrive on performing in front of an audience, especially when I am well prepared.  My passion is often reflected on my work, as the feedback on my performances have been overwhelmingly positive.

On the other hand, if I were handed a task where I’m less passionate, my results would reflect that.

2. You get results the wrong way: If the only way you can solve the deficit described in point #1 above is through chicanery or skullduggery you’re not a leader. The ends don’t justify the means. If you abuse your influence, don’t treat people well, or confuse manipulation with leadership, you may win a few battles, but you’ll lose the war. Optics over ethics never ends well, and being a jerk doesn’t make you a leader.

I don’t see much of an issue here.  As far as I can tell, those who have had to come under my leadership have been satisfied with how they were treated.  How do I know this? Well, if I’d been a jerk, they would’ve quit.

3. You don’t care: Indifference is a characteristic not well suited to leadership. You simply cannot be a leader if you don’t care about those you lead. The real test of any leader is whether or not those they lead are better off for being led by them.

Again, the point falls under my idea of how much I’m passionate about the subject affects how much I care about it.  For example, if I am have assumed the leadership position in a music band, I will try to the best of my abilities to help others with their music, whether if it is technique, or learning a new instrument.  If I care about the group and the cause, I’d gladly take the time to help others improve so that the group on a whole can improve faster.

4. You’re chasing a position and not a higher purpose: If you value self-interest above service beyond self you simply don’t understand the concept of leadership. Leadership is about caring about something beyond yourself, and leading others to a better place – even if it means you take a back seat, or end up with no seat at all. Power often comes with leadership, but it’s not what drives real leaders.

Along those same lines, I think that, for leaders who care about the cause and those under their leadership, sacrifice becomes a mute point, as they wouldn’t view it as sacrifice because they are helping to achieve a higher purpose.  When I perform well in hosting an event, I think about the brand that I represent, because often times, my actions set off a chain reaction; those impressed by my performance will spread the word, letting others know of the brand, and more people will come to this brand looking for the same high quality service.

5. You care more about making promises than keeping them:Leadership isn’t about your rhetoric; it’s about your actions. Leadership might begin with vision casting, but it’s delivering the vision that will ultimately determine your success as a leader.

6. You put people in boxes: Stop telling people why they can’t do something and show them how they can. Leaders don’t put people in boxes, it’s their obligation to free them from boxes. True leadership is about helping people reach places they didn’t know they could go.

This is perhaps the hardest thing to do as a leader from my experiences.  As a leader, you know, after a short period of observing, what the person is capable of.  As a result, your natural instinct would be to categorize them according to their abilities, or how far you think their abilities go.  You make judgments about their strengths and weaknesses, and allocate tasks accordingly.  Thus, it becomes difficult to free them out of their boxes, for doing so you run the risk of achieving sub-par results.

It is up to the leader to assess the importance of achieving immediate results versus freeing team members from their boxes, as the latter would help the group improve in the long run.

7. You follow the rules instead of breaking them: Status quo is the great enemy of leadership. Leadership is nothing if not understanding the need for change, and then possessing the ability to deliver it.

A little surprised that more emphasis was not placed on this point.  Resistance to change is the worst quality a leader could have.  A leader needs to adapt in order for progress to be made.

Having said that, there’s a fine line between being ambitious (adventurous, even) and reckless.  Change for the sake of change achieves nothing, either.

8. You churn talent instead of retain it: Real leadership serves as a talent magnet – not a talent repellent. If you can’t acquire talent, can’t develop talent, or can’t retain talent you are not a leader.

This works in tandem with points 3, 4, and 6.  If you care about the cause and those you are working with, naturally, you will try to find those who are equally passionate, and retain those who you believe can contribute the cause’s success.  If you are a talent repellent, then it is obvious that you are doing something wrong.  I have not had to lead groups on such a scale where this has really come into play, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind.

9. You take credit instead of giving it: True leadership isn’t found seeking the spotlight, but seeking to shine the spotlight on others. The best leaders only use “I” when accepting responsibility for failures. Likewise, they are quick to use “we” when referring to successes.

Anyone who has participated in organized sports or music knows the importance of this.  Unlike in an office, where credit is often distorted, team sports and music bands display the importance of team work before our eyes.

A quarterback in football is quick to compliment his offensive line for keeping the defense off his back and buying him time to make a good pass.  The singer of a band is quick to thank his drummer / bassist for keeping the beat and being the stable of the group.

10. You care about process more than people: But for the people there is no platform. Without the people you have nothing to lead. When you place things above the people you lead you have failed as a leader.

Ultimately, a cause is made up by people, for people.  It is through people, that the process exists.  Good process is created through good people management and good teamwork between people.  So if the process takes precedent, then the leader is committing a serious error.