Conversations with Lewis Liu

Lewis is a Senior Consultant at Sequoia Group. He is an alumnus of Singapore Management University, where he pursued a Bachelor of Business Management, majoring in Marketing and Human Resource.

Outside of his professional life, Lewis recently became a proud first-time dog owner when he adopted a rescued stray mongrel. He is passionate about facilitating challenging conversations, and helping people to discover views from the “other side”. He likes to skip the small talk and focus on thorny issues, such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality.

How’s it like for you where you work?

Lewis: I do quite varied work. There’s the more deskbound sort of jobs: emailing clients, or thinking about and designing engagement guides for clients. Beyond the office though, there’s also meeting clients or prospective clients, or delivering the engagement plan itself, be it through conducting a workshop or facilitating a session or dialogue. Sometimes, you also get meet other people to explore possibilities of working together on potential collaborations, or partnerships.

How’s your experience in this line of work? Have you always seen yourself doing something like what you do now? 

Lewis: As far as skillsets like facilitation; networking; problem solving are concerned – yes! I studied Marketing and Human Relations in Singapore Management University, and these domains, I’d say, also require these same skillsets I now use in what I do. As for my interest in public policy, it was developed along the way. I used to be in Proctor and Gamble doing sales, which was largely bottom-line driven. I realised later that perhaps this wasn’t really the domain of work I was looking for. I moved to the public service for four years, and was involved in two main portfolios: strategic planning and public engagement. I am now working in a local consultancy firm, where my clientele mostly comes from the public service.

How has making this shift been for you? Has it been what you expected?

Lewis: When I left Proctor and Gamble, I was looking for something new. I didn’t really consider the public service at first – because of the general stereotype or perception of the bureaucracy and the public service. But I did have friends in the service, and so I could hear about the good work that actually does go on, and they seemed to be enjoying their work and found meaning in it. So I thought, why not give it a try?

I think that I’ve also been quite fortunate to have experienced relatively progressive cultures and processes and work in the workplaces I was in, so it wasn’t as stark a transition. However, I still had to work within the ecosystem and there may be times where I had to overcome bureaucracy and red tape. My job scope was broader as it included additional responsibilities like staffing matters – like writing minutes, or administrative work.

Now, I am in a small private organisation, with 10 people in the team.  It’s relatively easier to align everyone’s expectations in the team, and for us to be nimble and flexible. My work now is a lot more focused – my main goal is to serve my clients.

Did you have any concerns or worries when making this switch? How did these pan out you?

Lewis: Not really; having spent 4 years in the working world, I have learned that there are pros and cons working in a big, or small organisation.

Do you enjoy what you do now? 

Lewis: I think it may still be too early for me to say whether I will enjoy it, since it’s only 5 months in for me here, but it’s been good thus far. What I really enjoy most is helping clients solve problems, meeting people, and helping to foster good relationship with my stakeholders.

But I have also faced some challenges, mainly in two aspects: personal development and business profitability. I think personal development can be challenging when everyone is busy in an organisation, which leaves less time and fewer chances to learn from each other. There’s also the challenge of maintaining profitability as a business. There are many potential projects and potential engagements, but sometimes the prospective client may not have the budget for it; and so we’ll have to then hold many internal discussions about whether to go ahead with the engagement or not.

How do you conduct your engagement? What’s the process like?

Lewis: The most important first step is to help the client understand their desired end goal. This could be tangible or intangible. Tangibles could be something like having five new ideas to tackle a certain problem by the end of the session; and intangibles are like having everyone agree by the end of the session to take collective action or to agree that the issue is important and should be addressed.

After we have determined the desired end state, we’ll then clarify on the impetus: why do they want to do this thing? Some reasons could be that they’ve found a problem that’s pressing enough for them to want to take the time to look into it; or perhaps they’ve noticed an issue for a while now and they now have the time to look at it; or maybe a certain event recently happened, like an accident or retrenchment, and so they think it’s a good time to look into the issue. Sometimes, it’s because there’s been a change in leadership, and the new leader says, ‘Hey, now’s a good time for us to look at this.’

We gather the data from these two main questions first, and then help the client to see whether they are approaching the right problem. For example, a client could come to us with a case, saying, ‘We’ve had discussions in internal senior management and think that the bell curve system is not relevant or should not be relevant for performance management. Can you help me find a solution for this?’  In this case, the more important issue could be about performance evaluation and recognition, and not just about the bell curve system per se.

What’s a good day at work like for you?

Lewis: One good thing about my work now is that it is not strictly deskbound. There’s a lot of variation in terms of the types of work to be done and the physical space I’m in, so I’m rarely stuck doing one thing in one place for a long period of time. And having this mix of types of work is really quite enjoyable. I can enjoy having the time to think about the engagement and things to be done, and still have the time to be sociable, to talk to and meet people.

Do you see yourself doing this for long?

Lewis: As with all things in life, I try to approach it with an open mind. Maybe I’ll start something on my own someday – I’m not as inclined to this for now – but it’s a possibility. I know a lot of my friends do hold this prospect as a future aspiration, and I do see that are both pros and downsides to it. But for now, what I want is to achieve more impact for the people I serve, my clients. And to do that I’ll need to gain more expertise, and to sharpen the skills I need for my work. Over time, I’m also hoping to increase my portfolio in terms of the types and profiles of clients I engage, and the work I work do.

Which would you consider the most relevant, important, or applicable skills from this list to what you do and your work now?

Lewis: This would definitely be adaptability. I think adaptability is extremely important in specific engagements, such as in workshop settings. We conduct quite a number of workshops, usually attended by 15 to 20 people. But every case is different and you really need to be able to sense the dynamics in the room – how people are feeling and reacting to what other people are talking about – and then accordingly adjust the next thing to do or to say.

This adaptability is also quite important when moving from or between projects. Because these can be quite varied: you could have one project looking at performance management, and another maybe looking at tackling family violence on the national level – and you’ll have to adapt to learn what the content is all about for each of these.

Adaptability also comes in in understanding what clients’ needs and concerns are. Some are more detail-oriented, and to give them what they need, you really have the specifics all planned out; with some, you’ll be looking at how to manage expectations; some are more big-picture-oriented, and they’d like to have a roadmap that can plot ten steps ahead.

Yes, and building partnerships is key as well, especially when working in small organisations, or with limited resources. Sometimes you really have to be creative about who to partner with, to try to effect bigger change through productive partnerships, especially when working in small organisations, or with limited resources. And building positive working relationships is important too, maybe even more so in bigger teams and organisations.

There’s also energy: first, I think at least based on my own experience, the intensity of work can and does vary quite a bit. This is so that when it gets tough, you’ll need the energy to drive through it. Second, projects may or may not have definite deadlines. Deadlines can be quite clear if it’s a client-driven project; but some are not so clear, or maybe not as time sensitive. But even, or especially, when there’s no burning pressure to meet deadlines, you’ll still need that energy to drive the project forward.

For facilitating change, I think this comes in through the relationship with our clients, because it’s the focus for many of them, and so we come on board to help them navigate this change.

You also need planning and organisation at the project level. When working in a small team, everyone really needs to know what’s going to happen next. At the client-consultant level and workshop level, you’ll also need communication. This is quite key to the things that we do, and involves internally updating your bosses on what’s happening, or fellow teammates on who’s going to do what and what to do next. Between our clients and us as consultants, there’s also a need to communicate what needs to be done, and what can or cannot be done, and what our role as consultants is vis-à-vis our clients’.

Continuous learning is also important because you’re dealing with very different domains; so you need to continuously read and learn about them.  I think you also have to be quite flexible about how you learn and where you learn from. It’s not just about going through courses or learning in formal ways. There’s also subscribing to news, keeping up to date on what’s happening, and learning through other informal ways.

Are there any other skills you’d like to add that aren’t reflected on this list but are key to what you do?

Lewis: I would say the skill of networking; I see this as quite different from “building partnerships”.

Partnership has an end goal: somebody meets you because the two of you have a project to work on together. Building networks occurs with a longer time frame in mind. Beyond just making friends, it’s also about having contacts to tap on when the need arises.  Networking across varied work contexts allows you to explore potential opportunities to work together. Networking can also be helpful for personal development, to have people to bounce ideas off with when you find that you have a problem; or just to have an outlook on the job market and an avenue to access another job or field.

Actually, this network is more irreplaceable as compared to your other skills. Because in terms of knowledge, knowledge is a commodity. But it’s much harder to find someone with the same contacts as you; and even if two people know the same contacts, the level of relationship can be quite different.

Another skill set which might be especially important in the context of students, who will probably have to work under someone when first entering employment, is learning to manage your bosses. The truth is that not everyone is a great boss. Sometimes, it may not be purely intentional either. It could be just that they are too busy, or don’t have the skillsets to be good boss, and as a subordinate you’ll just have to learn to manage that.

Are there any traditional or paper qualifications that are requisite for what you do?

Lewis: It really depends on what area of consulting you are referring to. Because consulting is very broad as a general category. If you’re talking specifically about consultancy for and consulting public agencies, then I think the social sciences, marketing, and human resource backgrounds will probably be more applicable. On the other hand, if you’re looking at consulting with a specific area of focus, like financial consulting – which will probably mean having some relevant finance background or expertise – then it will probably be more subject-specific than consulting in general.

But, of course, this is only one criterion. What’s more important is the way you think and how you then apply your thinking. This way, even an engineering degree or computer science degree can be relevant. I do have a few friends who come from these backgrounds, and I really appreciate and admire the way they approach an issue.

Having rich and relevant experiences is also good. These can come from more than just the formal internships or exchange programmes that are found in school. Out of school, non-governmental organisations or voluntary welfare organisations constitute relatively informal channels which can also help you to develop and demonstrate the skills needed for facilitation and the consulting process.