Ani speaks to Yong Kit San, a Country Manager at Cubiks Malaysia. Kit San shares on how assessments can help in creating team cohesion, why organisation’s should assess candidates based on leadership values, and what organisation’s should clarify before they push for change within the organisation.



Producer  0:06

You’re listening to A Daffodil for Your Thoughts, a show where we speak to leaders across multiple industries to gather their views and advice on prominent themes and topics within the workplace.


Anirudh Arvind  0:18

Kit San, welcome to Single Steps. It’s a pleasure to have you. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us about the role of executive assessments and how organizations can use them.

For listeners, Kit San is a guru in the talent assessment space. He is currently the country manager for PSI for Singapore and Malaysia, extensive experience in talent management and organizational development, worked across the region. I’ve had the luxury of having worked with him for a good 3 years when I spent some time in Cubiks.

So, Kit San, thank you very much for taking the time. But before I carry on Kit San, like how are you? How are things on your side?


Yong Kit San  0:59

I’m great, Ani. And thank you very much for having me on. It’s always a pleasure to speak to you.


Anirudh Arvind  1:07

Kit San, I know you’ve- you’re probably working on multiple projects as we speak at this point. But I did really want to pick your brains, on you know, the world of talent assessments and how organizations could really gain value from them, right. I guess the key question I wanted to start off with is, in your opinion, what role does talent assessments actually play in shaping, you know, an organization’s HR strategy?


Yong Kit San  1:32

That is a good question, but I think that is also a very loaded question to answer. So maybe, let me take a step back very quickly to actually how organizations’ organizational science evolve as a whole. So I think there are, there were a few big paradigm shifts. So if we think about previously when we everybody is just building their- or tailors are making their own clothes in their little shop and all that. Things are pretty simple. And then things with the Industrial Revolution gets a little bit complex. That’s when our first paradigm came in. And management sciences really evolved from trying to make things work when they got complex, right, so that the trains don’t crash when it comes to a station, and so on. So this when management sciences started coming in.

And the second paradigm is when production increased. And therefore, we have a second issue coming on, which is actually matching resources to actually production capacity. And when it comes to people, at that point of time, the paradigm was that people, it’s just one of the resources, right? So basically it’s what’s the best way to actually utilize this resource for production capacity.

The third paradigm shift probably came about 50 years ago, when people- and people who actually studies such things begin to realize that humans actually behave differently. Not everybody is alike, right? Some people work better in the morning. Some people work better in the evening. Some people work better talk to people. Some people work better when they’re dealing with stuff. So I think that’s when a lot of personality sciences get applied in an organizational environment. And we do say, there are certain personalities that work well. There are certain attributes in people that actually works well. It wasn’t perfect.

So people tend to think of these things as stable. If I’m extroverted person, I’m constantly extroverted. I think over the last few decades, again, things begin to change. This is where we are now this fourth paradigm is when we realized that actually personalities affect attributes and behaviors. And these things are also shaped by the environment. So, I may be very dominating. But when I’m in an environment that I’m very- I’m feeling very insecure or I’m not comfortable with, I may suddenly clam up. So that’s where we say that besides the fact that knowing a certain behaviors and personality that underlies certain behaviors, we also begin to understand that certain environments affect these and brings out certain things and suppresses certain things.

And this is where we come in as assessments is that what assessors do or what assessments and psychometrics do is basically is helping organizations understand the environment they operate in and therefore what sort of people can actually thrive in those environments and what sort of people you should bring in, then what sort of matches you should have in a team, for example, so that the attributes actually build on each other and bear one plus one equals to three instead of one plus one equals to 1.5. That’s a very- sorry, that’s a bit of a long winded way of actually describing how, what assessments are. We basically help people match talents and their attributes and the underlying factors on these attributes to the environment and the environment both today as well as the environment tomorrow.


Anirudh Arvind  5:03

Yeah. Thanks a lot for giving me the context. I think it really makes a lot of sense. And I guess it’s fair, right. I mean, when you speak to any organization or a leader now, you’re saying they’re going through some form of transformation the other, some kind of change or the other. But I guess what’s really interesting is, like you said, there’s a bunch of people working together, you know, executive leadership team working together to bring to life some strategy, some organizational strategies, right. But it kind of always seems that, you know, there could be some friction, some tension because of different working styles or leadership styles of this particular team. So when you- when you are trying to bring a strategy to life, how does understanding these individuals through some of these assessments really help and kind of, I would say, creating that cohesiveness within a team?


Yong Kit San  5:51

Yes. And I think the thing with organizational sciences is that- it is something that I think we debate a lot for practitioners is that there is the science going on is only the trajectory, slowly happily humming along. And there is a practice, which is what is happening in the real world. And it is just rumbling along at the speed of light. And sometimes just hitting the wall and bouncing it off. Very often what is happening in the sciences don’t necessarily gets applied sufficiently. Why am I saying that, for example, is that there is some seminal works in the last 10 years. For example, there is long-term work in the last 10 years about what sort of personality traits among CEOs is proven to drive organizational performance as measured in organizational revenue, growth, capital appreciation, and so forth. And what sort of personality traits of the top management team working with the CEO that has direct impact on both the organizational performance and the organizational engagement of its people.

So- but the question is, I mean, if you want to actually looking through research, or doing your dissertation, or studying for your Masters or your PhD, you probably don’t come across such things. And the question is, the science is out there. What the practitioners do in the marketplace nowadays are very much on the very fundamental things, which is based on the second piece that I talked about. For example, that we know for a fact that general mental abilities is probably the single biggest- has the single biggest impact on career success.

In short, we find that people who score higher in general mental abilities tend to get promotions more, tend to make more money, tend to get done the- also increasingly become more satisfied with their work over time. And we also know there are certain traits among people that make them successful. I mean, if you think about it very simply, there’s a person- if a young person started work is intelligent, which is general mental abilities and he’s also very driven. He’s likely to be successful. You’re probably working with somebody like. They’re inquisitive, they’re interested, they’re energetic, and they’re smart enough not to screw up, right? We know for a fact certain things combine well to create success. And I think the difficulty is not just that. The difficulties is also in application. Organizations tend to have moved on. And then, for example, I think one of the biggest challenge that I have sometimes is when clients come to me and says, Hey, I want to check, I want to test all my emerging talents for potential.


Anirudh Arvind  8:50



Yong Kit San  8:52

And the next thing they do is, “Okay, this is a set of leadership competencies we want them to exhibit.” And you look at that and say, “Okay, yes, this is a set of leadership competencies, but what we can assess from an assessment point of view, and second point is, what sort of attributes are likely to drive these kinds of behaviors, or develop these kind of behaviors or acquire these kinds of behaviors over time. But what drives and develops these kind of behaviors over time, which is matching your leadership behaviors may not be what the science tells us actually presents potential over time. So which one do you want? You want somebody who has a higher capacity to behave like what you think your leaders should be like in 10-years time, or you want somebody which the sciences tells us is going to be likely to be more successful in 10-years time? I think this is where the conundrum is and the confusion is that when I say that organizations are bouncing off the walls and moving really fast and the sciences are humming along on its little tracks. And they don’t talk to each other enough. I think that’s where we have a little bit of a so called disconnect between practitioners and the science and the marketplace.


Anirudh Arvind  10:06

But it’s quite a tricky situation to be in, right? Because the organization would say, we know that these behaviors would- these demonstrated leadership behaviors would equal successful performance per say, right? Because they would kind of understand the context of their organization, and what’s required. And then at the same point of time, I guess the sciences are also trying to figure out what is generic potential? Can I say that, you know, what is generic potential?


Yong Kit San  10:33

Yes and no


Anirudh Arvind  10:34

Yes and no?


Yong Kit San  10:35

I think the difficulty is a lot of organizations don’t actually know.


Anirudh Arvind  10:37

I see, okay.


Yong Kit San  10:39

Right? So is- I have a set of leadership values, right? I mean, this is what I want my leaders exhibit. But are these leadership values what actually brought you success on the last 10 years? Are these the same attributes that’s gonna bring success in the next 10 years? We don’t actually know. So it is a idealism versus a historical thinking.


Anirudh Arvind  11:00

Like you say, it really depends on where the organization is at that point of time, right, in terms of its lifecycle. For example, let’s say, you know you’ve got an emerging organization that’s looking to scale. So they kind of hire, you know, hungry, energetic, results-focused business development folks to grow the organization. And once it gets to a certain structure, it has to maintain or kind of keep the relationships intact to kind of sustain organizational performance. So would you then kind of say that there’s a shift that’s happening there and talents or HR needs to ensure talents are able to mold that shift? Is that kind of what needs to happen?


Yong Kit San  11:38

Thank you, Ani. I think that it is spot on description of what actually needs to happen. Instead, we very often number one, have an unfounded and ungrounded idealism about tomorrow. Secondly, we don’t- or we get so attached to the past. So what we thought brought us success previously when we were a young company, let’s say a start-up, when you’re young company, everybody, everybody needs to be innovative, everybody needs to rock the boat. And then we have 20,000 people and everybody rocks the boat, the board gets rocked until it’s broken. So you do need to shift.

So you can’t be holding on to what brought you here yesterday. You do need to have some sense of what is going to bring you to success tomorrow. And like you say, understand that the role of HR very often is just three things, right? You need to make sure that you have the right capacity to deliver on the promises tomorrow. You’re able to attract and retain that kind of talent, and you can maintain the kind of capacity to- for manpower to actually to get your daily work done right.


Anirudh Arvind  12:52

Yeah, I guess it’s a difficult thing to execute, isn’t it? Especially when you’ve got different I guess pockets of the organization which are maybe sometimes stuck in the old ways. Then there’s pockets of the organization which are aspiring for change and driving transformation. But I guess, Kit San, especially like, you know, in certain situations where you know, I guess a lot of it is uncertain, right? The economy outlook and how we’re operating. And, and if we have, you know, some of the new business models of the operating models we’re working on can even work or even works. How do you then create like or how do you then acquire that clarity of what tomorrow looks like? Well, is there a specific process to it which you can you know, in certain times like this?


Yong Kit San  13:38

Firstly, I think that is not new. Setting, charting forward path is something leaders has been doing for donkey years. And yeah, they are pretty well for doing that. Yeah, so I don’t think that is rocket science.


Anirudh Arvind  13:55

So what I meant was that you know, with a pandemic and things like that, you know, currently that’s changed quite a number of things. So yeah.


Yong Kit San  14:03

I think that, I think there are two things that needs to be clarified in the process. Number one is not just the- what the future looks like, right, what success looks like, what the future looks like, what- and also a sense of who we are at the very end. If for example, we want our company to be this gung-ho, exciting, boundaries-challenging organization. But who we are at the very fundamental is also one that is caring for each other that we, that we want to- our people to become the best that they are. And then putting in the kind of structure for it.

For example, instead of having a six months reserves for payroll, you might want to have a 24 months reserves. Because you might say that because we care for each other, we want to make sure that we don’t be- don’t fire people when you cannot afford it. So it’s a bit almost of a joke when people- almost every organizations will tell you that people are our- people are our biggest asset. And what’s the first thing they do when they’re hit with a crisis is that they let people go. It’s it’s a little bit like saying that the ship keeps me afloat, but then the first thing when you’re hit with the waves is you abandon ship, right? So it just doesn’t make sense. So now just knowing where you’re going, but also understanding fundamentally what it is, and, and having clarity of that. To me, I always find that important because that can actually help us manage the ambiguity and which is exactly what the world is coming to what I mean things, we just don’t know what’s gonna happen next. But knowing that, for example, our- I will try as much as possible to keep my team members. And knowing that I will try as much as possible to also help my community or whatever it is. So those values do help anchor in times of uncertainty, even if the future is not very clear. So in times of growth, it is easy to lead with a future direction. In times of uncertainty, sometimes the direction itself keeps changing, or we are not very sure that we can even be here in the next three months so that- those fundamental values become very important.


Anirudh Arvind  16:28

Yeah. So, that really quite a lot to think about. But you know- like you were saying, Kit San, in organization’s you know, like, as the organization grows, I guess, we also require different versions of the individual leaders, as they grow with the organization as well to keep with the pace. So when you are going through that, I guess that rounds, is there- is there a way that we can kind of, you know, once we assess a particular candidate or a particular leader within an organization that we say these are the exact things we need to do to develop this person to become that future leader that the organization needs? What’s the best way to kind of get that done?


Yong Kit San  17:10

A simple answer is yes and yes. Yes and yes, because yes, I think we- the assessment will give us some kind of a picture. It’s almost like taking a photo of a person today from attributes and personality point of view. And I think the second part is what you then need to do is to fit that, whether it’s on boarding, that development based on the picture that you have, right? So, it’s a little bit like saying that, if I know that you learn best by doing something. And the next thing I do is I put you into a seven-hour theoretical class, it just doesn’t work right? So it’s knowing that you learn best in a certain way, knowing that you are best at certain things, and you are potentially not so good at certain things. Then helping you close those gaps in a way that is most efficient and effective for you, and most engaging for you, will actually help you gain those and close those gaps and gain those competencies in the shortest possible time and in the in the most engaging and sustainable way.


Anirudh Arvind  18:18

Sure, sure. And Kit San like, what if there is, you know, for example, there’s this particular talent that you know, really grow, grown with the organization because of his or her ability to execute and deliver results. But then, you know, when it’s kind of elevated to a leadership role, but unfortunately, maybe to the assessment does not demonstrate that leadership capability. Is there a way one person can build that with time? Or is it kind of like you have it or you don’t?


Yong Kit San  18:47

I think we’re talking now in terms of competencies. And the very fundamental definition of competencies are one of them is that it has to be something that’s learnable. Otherwise, it becomes almost a trait that you’re born with, right? Whether you are 1.8 meters or you cannot do a reach, right? So- and those things will probably disqualify you, yes. But I think but on the other hand, most competencies, I- in fact, all competencies should be things that can be developed. The question is, is developing those competencies the best way of accelerating the leadership goal for one individual versus the other? So, we tend sometimes to think that one size fits all. Everybody needs to learn how to do a certain thing, right? Therefore all my leaders need to be able to do that. But what if you have one person who could probably take three times as long to learn a particular skill because he or she is just so out of whack with that, whereas he or she can probably do something else three times better than another person and you need half the time. So I think that is also where understanding this can give us a sense of- maybe we understand that it will take her three months, as opposed to, I mean, three years, as opposed to one year to pick up this particular area. We can live with that. We will compensate by getting two other people to actually help to do this stuff for her. Whereas she leverage on another skill that is she is- she has almost superhuman abilities in and is able to do three times better than other people.


Anirudh Arvind  20:29

Got you, got you. Yeah. So I guess the assessment is that we really give the organizations a very good additional data point to look at how they can allocate their development efforts on different candidates and prioritize accordingly. Is that what you’re saying?


Yong Kit San  20:44

Yes. And I- and I also say that there’s no bad candidate, right? So let’s say in a hiring, for example, you do assessments of three. I mean, there’s no bad candidates. Okay, there are sometimes. But, it’s rarely that they’re so bad that they’re still able to, they’re still able to be in the job market. So, most of the time, there are no bad candidates. They’re actually candidates who are better in a certain environment that are not as good in a certain environment. And then knowing what sort of environment- and being very honest with yourself what’s the sort of environment that they’ll be operating in. And saying that, even though this Candidate A is probably better in terms of experience, but Candidate B seems to be thriving in the kind of ambiguous environment that we operate in with no rules or no boundaries much better than Candidate A. And therefore, I’m taking candidate B, even though candidate B may not be as good as Candidate A but then he or she seems to be better, more ability to thrive in our work environment.


Anirudh Arvind  21:38

Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. I think at the end of the day, like you say, there’s a lot of good candidates, and I guess maybe some bad candidates out there. But it’s really which candidate is the right candidate for my organization at this time, right? So that makes a lot of sense. But you know, when you find a yes, when you’re- when you’re looking at candidates this way sometimes, is it fair to say that organizations may have, I guess, too many asks in terms of a leader, for example, they have all of these leadership competencies. And then on top of that, they have that, you have “oh, you need to deal with uncertainty, you need to be able to make decisions in chaos” and all sorts of things. Is that too much to ask? Or do you think: no, that- that’s a fair ask of organizational leaders at this point of time.


Yong Kit San  22:28

I want to reverse back to a statement you made right before this, right. So in good or bad candidates, a small a, what’s the right candidate for your organization at this point of time. Yeah, so so I think that this point of time is a very important one. So whether a leader should be an all-rounder, or should be spectacular at one or two things, and we can accept that there are really bad at the others depends very much on your growth phase and where you are. So, if you’re a multinational with the capacity to rotate a person and give exposure to everything, yeah, we do expect a leader to be a lot more well-rounded by then compared to a start-up has been around and growing organically like crazy for the last two, three, five years, right?

So in the last five years, if you’re a start-up at Silicon Valley, you can accept that the person is really good at one or two things. And not as long as they are not like really, really bad at three or four others. Even if they are, if you know for a fact that it can be compensated, then you probably saying that, okay, but that that two things is more important. The abilities, for example, the ability to chart the future, the ability to pivot and build the technology and the third ability to raise funds, right? So, so so there are many, many other abilities for leaders, which is like the ability to engage people, the ability to, to manage the stakeholders’ order. But if they can do that three really well and that is required for that phase of growth, I think, that is sufficient with the understanding that over time these requirements change like you say.  And then there will a time probably two or three years down the road we say that. It’s just like Google in early years, when, when they realize that hey it’s time for them to bring in a head hancho who has seen the world from Sun Microsystem to run their system instead of leaving it to two little kids, right? So yeah, I think they’re probably a good example of knowing when to step down and step up.

And I actually had the privilege to work with an organization a few years back. They are on of the largest e-retailers in the region. And I remember the CEO of Singapore, telling me that, “I’ve grown, I know how to grow an organization from zero to hundred million. But now if you ask me to grow the organization from 200 million to 2 billion, I think it is beyond me.” And that’s when he stepped down. And he said that, “Okay, I probably better becoming the CTO, because that’s what I’m really good at, and then get something else to become the CEO.” And yeah, I think that kind of humility is both admirable and rare. Because if you hit early success, especially people when you hit early success, very often you think that you you’re immortal, and you can take on the world. And very seldom you actually look in the mirror and say, “Hey, maybe it’s not for me, at least for now. Let me- I need to step aside.”


Anirudh Arvind  25:16

Yeah, yeah. But like to say those kinds of self-awareness is, like you said, it’s rare to find. But I think the most important takeaway of this conversation for me, though, has been around how, as the organization grows in different phases, it requires different versions of talents, and at that or ourselves. And at that point, it’s really important to kind of make those decisions and prioritize resources out- accordingly to support that growth. But I guess Kit San, like in terms of, like, parting knowledge you would you would give us is – what is the advice you would give to organizations when implementing assessments, you know, for I know, it’s different for selection, development and promotion. But in general, what’s the advice you would give when an organization is looking to kind of onboard assessment into their talent strategy?


Yong Kit San  26:11

I would strongly suggest that organizations have that soul searching before you bring in an external person, whether it’s the consultant or a assessor, or whatever it is. That soul searching to understand what you’re looking for. And, and how does this fit into your big manpower, people and culture strategy, right? So once you know, for example, what we are going to do, for example, is to actually find potential among our emerging talents. Talk to several people, especially people in maybe- people you trust in other organizations who may have the same experience. Talk to some external vendors and about their experiences and how they help organizations. I think, I think those conversations are critical because it is often not a cheap exercise. And very often, it can somehow become a box ticking process. It is like some organizations, yes, we believe in performance management. Therefore, we gonna have these seven processes and three forms to fill in and everybody does it right? The question is do you do your reviews, how I mean, get some feedback on how effective it is? Are people doing horse trading in a process? And so that- same with your assessments. I mean, get a sense of how all this fits into your whole strategy. Get a sense of who might be a good people to work with. Should you be working with a large firm because they have the capacity to run a large volume or should be looking for more niche firms who can actually handhold you, actually give you a lot more intimate conversations and advice on how to go on? So, and then, and then take your time in actually- it is something that is critical. So it’s definitely not something you should rush into and should definitely not be something that turns into a process.


Anirudh Arvind  28:20

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I guess the main thing is to ensure it doesn’t become a tick box exercise, isn’t it? Because then you lose all the value that you can actually gain from these assessments and assessors.

Yeah. Kit San, listen, it’s always a pleasure catching up with you. And I think it’s always nice cause you kind of add a lot of information into every conversation. So thank you very much for sharing such wonderful insights. I look forward to catching up with you in person again soon sometime. Hopefully.


Yong Kit San  28:53

Yeah, I always look forward to catching up with you, Ani. And it’s always enjoyable talking to you.


Producer  29:05

Thank you for listening. We hope this podcast can help in your learning journeys. Check us out on our LinkedIn page, Hatch Asia Consulting. Till next time, keep growing.


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