Reflections with Brandon Lee

By Kuo Pei Yu

Brandon Lee is the Group Director of the Transformation Support Group (TSG) at Workforce Singapore (WSG). Brandon supports WSG’s transformation efforts, which aim to keep it relevant and agile through innovation and improvement of public services and policies. In this article, Brandon shares more about his working experiences at WSG and offers valuable advice for youths today.

WSG is a statutory board under the Ministry of Manpower. Our key roles are to help workers meet their career aspirations and secure good jobs as well as to help companies deal with their human capital challenges, which in turn should lead to good jobs for Singaporeans.

TSG was formed in 2019 to help WSG transform the way we fulfil our mission – in short, we wanted to go upstream to help jobseekers before they become unemployed and also to provide more holistic human capital solutions for companies. And we wanted to do this in an increasingly data-driven and digitally enabled way that allows us to help more Singaporeans more efficiently and effectively. 

Part of my team’s work is to support the rest of the organization by providing digital services and executing on our technology strategies; we also play a role in fostering innovation through thinking and prototyping of new operational concepts, working with our colleagues in a tight ops-tech relationship.

I would say that my typical day revolves around engaging people and ideas.

Given that we are all still mostly working from home, a lot of my time is spent engaging my team to ensure that they have sufficient direction and support to carry out the various projects and work they need to do.  I also spend time talking to our stakeholders and users, including the youth through organizations like Advisory, to learn how we can better support them.

I also spend engaging with ideas that could facilitate our work. I try to keep up with the latest developments to have some sense of the possibilities and opportunities that can help us to deliver better services to Singaporeans. I do quite a bit of reading and tracking new ideas on the Internet; I also keep a closer watch on social media platforms these days as more start-ups use it to advertise their new offerings to help Singaporeans in their career journey.

When people and ideas come together we get to have meetings!  We have a fair mix of interesting meetings, e.g., brainstorming sessions and necessary ones, e.g., management reporting. Because my team is also responsible for keeping our digital lights on, there is also work to ensure that WSG’s digital services are available to the public and are defended against cybersecurity threats.

So my day can span the range of issues, from strategic thinking to digital housekeeping.

There is a fair amount of technology involved in employment facilitation these days, e.g., the use of machine learning to help create better algorithms that match people looking for jobs with the jobs that are available on the market.  As our population becomes more sophisticated, we also need to deliver the kind of digital services that we’ve all become accustomed to – so having good UX design and understanding how people want to access our services is important.

At the broader level, we also need to understand how technology is impacting different industries in the economy to be in a better position to help workers and companies. We need to understand how technological changes impact the way work is currently done. Are the changes for the better or for worse? Does it lead to higher quality jobs that we can help Singaporeans get into with the right support? Might it create new jobs, or will there be many existing workers that we must help redeploy into other industries? It’s quite a lot of interconnected things to keep a handle on.

You can expect and will get to deal with as many challenging issues as you can possibly imagine and can handle. After so many years in public service, I still think the public sector still has the most interesting issues to deal with though this is not to say that they are the easiest ones to solve or even manage.

That said, change can usually take longer than you might imagine.  Even if your work has ‘transformation’ in its name, change may not happen very quickly.  There still needs to be a lot of time spent and hard work to engage people with ideas, many times challenging the status quo. Nonetheless, when we look back, we might often be surprised by how much we have achieved.

One of the outcomes we aim for in our work is to help our colleagues do things better; sometimes with the use of technology, many times with a change in perspective, and almost always in the face of skepticism.

I would like to say that my team operates more like a start-up, trying to address the market gaps and to find that product-market fit.

So after observing how our colleagues worked for a period, my team came up with an in-house solution to make a workflow more efficient.  We used off-the-shelf products and tied them together in a streamlined process with Robotic Process Automation (RPA). We then went around trying to convince colleagues to adopt the solution, but they did not initially want to give up their current of doing things, even though it was quite burdensome.

It took a while, but we finally found our first ‘customer’ who was willing to give our solution a chance – they had some urgent needs which could not be fulfilled in the usual way. With a successful implementation, more colleagues began to ask about the solution afterwards and we went on to expand the use of the solution to more workflows. This was quite satisfying for the team as it validated our approach and proved to colleagues that we had useful perspectives and solutions to share.

I think the more difficult part is engaging the people who can potentially benefit from the solution to get them to adopt it. People often have their reservations in adopting the solution even after we share and show them how the solutions are beneficial to them. Perhaps they are comfortable with their current systems and are not inclined to change, even if the current systems are causing a lot of stress to them. Furthermore, it is sometimes hard for people to put their trust and confidence in solutions made from scratch, by ourselves, with little money and in a short span of time when compared with more established enterprise-level and branded solutions.

I don’t recall participating in many activities in school back then that would have specifically given me the opportunities to develop such skills – I was never a member of the debate club and I don’t think entrepreneurship was a thing then compared to today. But I think in working with others, you will pick up these skills.  That said, I would say that I developed these skills mostly on-the-job throughout my career.

But beyond skills, I think having empathy – a genuine desire to understand the other party and to help them achieve their mission – is more important to make progress in any discussion.

I’m not sure if there is any particular advice that I wished I got as a younger me – I suppose allow yourself to experience life as it unfolds with a sense of serendipity? That said, perhaps there are some perspectives I might have on reflection:

First, life is not simple. We can choose to make life simpler for ourselves and life may have been simpler in the past, but life is a complex thing. This means that it is impossible to tell how anything is going to turn out going forward; things only make sense in retrospect.  And who you are today, is a combination of all the things that have happened to you, good and bad. Anybody that is telling you otherwise is probably trying to sell you something.

Second, everything is in tension. I used to think that everything is a ‘balance’ but recently I’ve begun thinking that it might give the wrong impression that it’s always 50-50.  So, for example, while passion can be a great motivator, it might not always be or only be about passion – sometimes its about being practical to take a mundane job so that you can sustain your passion.  And its constant work to figure out where that tension should be for the context you are in – sometimes you have to persist and not accept any trade-offs and sometimes you do; and if you accept the first perspective, you will also not know how it will turn out at the point of making that decision.

I have to do a plug 😊 – you can go to WSG’s to find all sort of resources that can help you with your career!  Having said that, I don’t think the youth of today lack information.  For me, the strategies required to thrive in any situation will always change and is contextual. What is more important are your underlying assumptions and the frame through which you assess the situation presented to you to decide what to do next.

First, I think it’s important to recognize the nature of the context we are in and I think we are in a complex space.  As opposed to the known or knowable space where the best strategy might be to gather as much information as you can before assessing and making a decision, in a complex space, the more appropriate strategy might be to try something first, see the response and then decide what to do.

Second, it is to be aware and to understand your own frame of reference for making sense of the situation. For example, a crowded MRT during peak hour will be a source of complaint for many Singaporeans as a commuter; but a similarly crowded Tokyo subway train could be enjoyed as an urban cultural experience as a tourist!

One way of make your own frame more explicit is something I learnt in the British Army.  They have a three-step analysis during mission planning to make sense of the situation before deciding what to do about it – you ask ‘What?’, ‘So What?’ and ‘Now What?’.  The first ‘What?’ clarifies the situation objectively; ‘So What?’ puts the observation through your frame of reference; ‘Now What?’ asks what you might do next.

In the context of COVID-19, the ‘What?’ might be the observation that it’s a tough employment market to be in.  The ‘So What?’ depends on your frame of reference – if you adopt a Growth Mindset, you might view it as a great learning opportunity because the opportunity cost of doing something different is lower now; the ‘Now What?’ if you had that view might be to create a start-up and make jobs rather than trying to get one!

I think you could make the case that there is undue pressure on our youths today. While some pressure may be structural, i.e., the older generation always thinking that the younger generation is not as good as theirs, in today’s world, the impact of this is amplified many times, through peer pressure and social media. It is easier for youths to compare with one another and put additional stress on themselves.

I don’t have any secrets to thriving in this era but I guess one thing is to know when to ignore others and when to listen to them. Sometimes, the well-meaning intentions of other people may be better to ignore. Sometimes, you have to be humble enough to listen when you are out of your own depth and someone has the interest and heart to communicate something difficult to you.

I don’t keep many stories but there is one that I reliably tell when it comes to life, the universe and everything…

A new boss of a company seeks advice to make him a great leader. He goes to the hills to find the Guru.

He climbs up the hill, sees the Guru and asks: “Guru, what do I need to be a good leader?”.  The Guru strokes his wise white beard for a bit, and then says: “Good Judgement!”. Happy with the reply, the boss goes down the hill.

When the boss gets to the bottom of the hill, he thinks to himself: “How do I get Good Judgement?”. So, he climbs up the hill again and asks the Guru: “Guru, how do I get Good Judgement?”. The Guru strokes his wise white beard for a bit, and then says: “Experience!”. Happy with the reply, the boss does down the hill again.

This time when the boss gets to the bottom of the hill, he thinks to himself: “How do I get Experience?”. So, he climbs up the hill again and asks the Guru: “Guru, how do I get Experience?”.

The Guru strokes his wise white beard for a bit, and then says: “Bad Judgement!”

I think one has to accept that to learn and grow, one must make decisions. And sometimes, they are bad judgements. But if you are willing to learn from them, I think the experience you can gain will help you make better judgements over the long haul. I’ve had my fair share so far and I’m still learning everyday.