By Brendan Loon
Lynette Hee is a Principal Executive in the Youth Development Unit of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). She joined NTUC in 2012 during the critical period over which the national Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) was taking place, and was plunged headlong into her new job, becoming the lead for NTUC’s project series for OSC, which looked to gather different groups of workers to make up one voice to voice the concerns of the labour movement in a consolidated report to the government. The personal growth she experienced through that project has stuck with her even to this day, 6 years later, and this remains one of the moments she cites as amongst her most memorable and meaningful in this line of work.
Lynette: I’m with the Youth Development Unit, and my core job here since I started here 6 years ago is to create, curate and design programmes to reach out to and engage: firstly, the primary target audience from our database of paying NTUC members who are around the age of 35, as well as to students in Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs), so polytechnics, the Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs) and universities. And, particularly in these 2 years, since 2017 onwards, our focus has been on developing and creating career programmes. One of these is the Youth Career Network (YCN), a career programme created for those seeking first jobs, about-to-graduate or graduating youths and people who are transitioning jobs to have access to a mentor figure for them in terms of their career. We have about 200 plus volunteer working professionals below 40 years of age now part of this network who volunteer their time in the evening to interact with students and tell students more about what they do in their day job.
In my personal time, I volunteer as a career mentor in the YCN. For me, I knew about it since it was created by my department in NTUC and I didn’t mind volunteering for it too since my work involves communicating with and interacting with young people all the time anyway. I also volunteered because of my previous work experience; that is, I started my career in an advertising media events agency. I think that for young people who want to carve a career out in the marketing or advertising industry, they want to hear some truths about the industry. Sure, so we had recruitment talks in our school days and companies came down to talk at whatever institution you were at, but those are very ‘on the surface’ and you don’t get to really interact with a real person in that sense. You don’t get to have 20 to 30 minutes of his or her time, so I believe in this sort of career mentoring sessions under the YCN and believe in the quality conversations you can have with a stranger who has no agenda, no reason to tell you lies, that everything that I say to you, fellow young people out there, is based on true, personal encounters of mine. That is the main motivation why I chose to volunteer.
Lynette: NTUC is actually my first non-agency job; before this, since my first job, all my jobs were agency-jobs – so, working in media or advertising agencies. So, amazingly, my clientele network included NTUC, in particular Young NTUC. So, you can imagine that years ago, I was a vendor for Young NTUC, doing their design work, managing marketing work and all that. I started off with this project called ‘Run 350’. It’s a marathon, but it’s an eco-marathon, so it has a message to tell runners out there. And I eventually went on to do more things, and then I did this particular event called the ‘Social Enterprises Day’ – NTUC has social enterprises such as NTUC Income and NTUC Fairprice.
So, when I was doing this event, gathering the materials, putting everything together, doing everything to make this event a really good one, then I saw all these videos from these social enterprises and all the good work that they did. And the event was about making a difference for people and touching people’s lives and sharing the good work that the social enterprises have done and I was very touched by this framework called the ‘4D Framework’ – and this was back when I was still just a vendor for Young NTUC. I kept hearing from NTUC people about this 4D Framework: do well; do together; do more; do good. They kept emphasising that, as social enterprises, you have to do well – that means you have to have businesses in order to do good together and to do more, and I kept hearing this from many people. Then it struck me that ‘Wow, as someone in the private sector, all I cared about was how much profits I brought in and how much faster I could make business than other teams in the company’, but here it’s about balancing: yes, I have to do well, I have to make profits but that’s only because I can then do more for the beneficiaries and to do all these good things together. Through a recommendation from my client in Young NTUC, I then managed to get into NTUC.
Lynette: Yes, there can really be a culture shock going between the two, and I guess the mentality is the main thing. Throughout my 6 years in advertising and media agencies in that industry, everything was so fast-paced and the bottom-line was really about the bottom-line: how do you get more profit? How do you get more business? I did accounts servicing, taking care of clients, making sure that existing clients spend more and that I get new clients aboard to spend also – everything was about dollars and cents. But now, here in NTUC, it’s definitely not like that, it’s about people, not profits so it’s very people-centric, it’s about building relationships, building the network, building partnerships.
So, if I were to describe the adjustment in one word: ‘drastic’ would be the word. Being in a private company, because of lesser processes and less hierarchy, things move a lot faster in private organisations. I was also mid-management, so things could move very fast. The decisions could be a simple ‘yes or no’ kind of thing within the team, but when I moved here, there’s of course a lot of standard operating protocol (SOP), procedures, a lot of organisational structure. The first lesson I learnt from meeting the network of union leaders was that they were not like my clients in the private sector, the language I use and the things I say and how I say things matter a lot. Back then with my clients, I could be very straightforward, but here I have to take note of and be sensitive to some sensitivities, and sensitive to people’s feelings – because a lot of things are about managing the relationships. So, that’s the first lesson I learnt: to not be as straightforward as before.
After the first year of drastic adjustments and learning to adapt, gradually I realised that I enjoy the relational culture, but of course in that time of one year in transition, I also questioned myself: ‘Can I really adapt to this culture? Should I just move back to what I’m used to – everything in dollars and cents?’ Because, if you think about it, having everything in dollars and cents is very straightforward because if I bring in business then all is well and good and if I don’t then well I’m out of a job; but here the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are different. But I realised I love connecting with people, and I realised that I was getting good at this and I could do it, and so then I stayed on – all the way till now.
Lynette: There’s a lot of going out for meetings, and your work is not just of your own department, there’s also NTUC or organisation-wide work. So, the most important month for the labour movement is May – that’s when we celebrate workers’ contributions and Labour Day – so we have a series of events and each of these May Day events will have a committee of its own. This is when, even though you are in this particular department in the organisation, you will have to sit down in this committee to interact with colleagues from other departments. The nature of the work doesn’t really deviate; it’s still about getting in touch with workers – be it young, old, retired or not – and you want to create programmes that have an impact on them, engage them and that they look forward to. So, there’s a lot of conceptualising, getting in touch with external partners, to curate and work something out together to make sure you really come up with a series of events and programmes that can really benefit workers.
On the ground, you also hold engagement sessions to continuously find out – in my case, what young workers feel, what NTUC has been doing right, or what NTUC can continue to do. And the beauty of this is that a lot of things that come into effect may actually be ground-up, from suggestions made by people at these sessions. Maybe you told me something and I thought that ‘Yeah, this is workable’. But of course, we know all young people have a lot of ideas but they also have their day jobs to do. But for me, this is my day job: to see what could come out of these ideas. So, a simple idea might become a programme or even a programme series.
Lynette: I studied for a Diploma in Mass Communications in polytechnic, and then I went on to take a degree in Marketing, Management and Commerce much later. I think I was always inclined to communication-based jobs. I knew this because I didn’t like to study math or science – those kinds of subjects – because I didn’t enjoy myself doing them. But I enjoyed listening to the news, writing a summary out of it, presenting and all that, so I knew from my schooldays that those were the things that came more naturally to me than others things like maths and science, which studying for was a gruelling process. So, I decided to go all out and pursue this direction.
Lynette: Making things happen – here, we do a lot of project management and that sense of accomplishment when you’re concurrently running several projects and then you see each one unto completion gives that sort of ‘shiok’ (gratifying) feeling. Most importantly, it’s when you run sessions with young people and you can really see these young people are very interested because they come to you to ask you when the next run is or want to refer their friends or volunteer as career mentor and pay it forward. These kinds of returns – in that moment you just feel proud that you have done something right and definitely have impacted some people out there through the stories you’ve shared and what you’ve done.
Lynette: After I graduated with my diploma, I wanted to work in an advertising agency. I hadn’t pursued my degree yet and wanted to go out there and get work experience. I started as a media buyer, doing media-buying, so planning and telling clients – in the days before social media – that, given their marketing budget, this is how much they should set aside for marketing on different kinds of media to different kinds of audience. I realised I didn’t want to restrict myself to the media marketing side of the house, I wanted to get into the creative side of it and help clients to manage their whole marketing campaigns so I move on to a role in accounts servicing.
Back then, I didn’t care what role I did as long as I was working at a legitimate advertising agency where I could learn things; recalling this, I think I could’ve been more selective. I don’t regret my choice but actually think I should have gone out there and gone for more interviews to see what I would like to venture into – and probably chosen to start with a bigger company just so that I could get more exposure. I spent about a year in a local agency, but I felt a lot of things were limited. And I was a fresh graduate, and ready and wanted to learn, but I wasn’t given a lot of opportunities to learn that much.
It also depends on your boss. My direct supervisor at my first job was hardly with me; he just threw me to do things. So I’d get a task, finish it and submit it to him, and then he checked it. If all was okay, then the next moment he would float it up to the client already. There wasn’t any feedback or much conversation or engagement with me; and I’m sure my work wasn’t perfect, so he probably changed it and then sent it straightaway to the client. So, I felt there wasn’t a proper mentor, nor a proper system of check and balance for me. So, my advice to students and mentees when I volunteer as a mentor is that no matter if the company is big or small, see if within your department and your role, someone is guiding you. If you are just thrown in there to do things, then it may not be work out to be the best for you.
Lynette: Adaptability, energy, facilitating change, building partnerships, and planning and organising.