Jonathan ES Lin
Life · Tech · Faith

High School CEO

Jan 15, 2022

I went to Berkeley with the aim of becoming a CEO. Naive and young as I was, I was inspired by the Hewlett Packard founders, who took HP to great heights, as documented in their book "The HP Way", which I read in high school. Never mind that now HP is considered a sunset brand and is no longer revered.

My thinking was, well I could either study electrical engineering like Hewlett and Packard, or I could go and do a generic undergraduate business degree. Inspired by HP, it's no surprise I went for engineering. I figured that well, I can just learn business on my own.

Fast forward 10 years after graduation, I am still very much stuck in engineering. If I really wanted to become a CEO, I am taking a really unoptimized route there. To increase my chances of becoming a CEO, I should have joined an elite management consulting organization after graduation. Alternatively, I should have joined a management trainee program and climbed the ranks and stuck to the same company. Even so, the odds of becoming a CEO is very low and is down to much luck and soft skills as well.

Recently, I had an opportunity to jump onto a "Head of" role. I had a glimpse of what the role entailed, what the CEO wanted to achieve, and… I balked. I just said "No". I even flaked the appointment to meet said CEO about the possibility of the role. It was a high risk, high reward role, and it just didn't feel right. I ran away. Why?

I said no partly because I had a bird in hand to become Cloud Solutions Architect at Atos (a global French IT consulting firm). It was secure, it was in hand, and it was not a jump from what I was trying to do previously. It was incremental evolution, lower risk. Yes, "Head of" role sounds really good for someone aged 33. Ego boost aside, it is a role where you slog and try to make people do what you want them to do. Many counterparts to answer to. It's like trying to climb a hill everyday. Via Microsoft Teams and Outlook. What if you fail to deliver? What if you merely achieve mediocre results? I see some people in "Head of" roles that simply move from "Head of" here to "Head of" there. You may end up stagnating and becoming lost as well, just hoping for another promotion to a new level of incompetency. Also, in line with my current mental health challenges, I decided to cut myself some slack at work. But I still have doubts over where I made the right call. Maybe what I really need now is some leadership career boost to get back on track rather than stagnating in a technical career. For now, I follow my gut and stay on the mainline digital transformation agenda, which will continue to be a thing for the next 30 years, no question. Maybe one day I will have a shot at being a Chief Digital Transformation Officer by tacking on an MBA. But first, experience is sorely lacking on my part.

Anyway, that is not the point of this blog post. The point is, I don't really care about being a CEO or not, because I have been there before. It was great, but I don't miss it.

I was Head Prefect at SMKDJ from 2004-2005. I implemented (with the core team) many initiatives to really transform the prefecture of 80-100 persons into a lean and mean machine of competency and high standards. As a teen, I took the job very seriously. I read many leadership books, including books for CEOs. I literally took advice from books and made it happen in the real world, and it was fascinating to see positive results. I had BOD meetings to touch base and push department leaders for results. I wrote more about some initiatives in another blog post.

I was Head Prefect three times. In Standard 6, in Form 2, and in Form 5. Oh my, the teachers must have really liked me.

So I've been there. People looked up to me. I was also killing it academically, always Top 3 in the entire cohort. I felt worshiped around school like some god figure. Respect, adoration, envy. I had them all.

I also noticed that when I tried to act so smart outside my area of competency, I acted foolishly. It's like I was so great, so likely I will also be so great at this other thing, but I wasn't. And then I had glimpses where I started doing some dumb things. So yeah, I've been through the entire cycle of what you see very successful people in the news doing. They succeed at some great thing in their area of competency, then suddenly they try to do shit outside their area of competency and look like a fool. Because you think you are invincible, and god-like, but you actually aren't.

So anyway, the adoration of being a CEO. I've experienced it and know what it is like. It was the most memorable time of my life. I was living it up. I come to "work" daily, super excited to implement initiatives. I was crazy driven and supercharged. It was great. But after a while, it's just empty. The novelty wears off. Sometimes you just wanna live without being recognized. You just wanna enjoy life on the slow lane. It's a mental drug, sure. But how long do you wanna be on drugs?

Also, let's face it. Being a CEO in the modern corporate setting is a heck of a difficult job. You have to transform the company culture. You are also (currently) held hostage by slow digital transformation. Everything is on fire. You must be extremely people-oriented. Your work must revolve about organization design and processes. Your job is to get others to do theirs well and get out of their way.

Tune Protect (a company I previously worked for), has had three 2-year CEOs when I joined. If you don't move the needle within 2 years, Tony Fernandes tells you to pack your bags. Atos (my new company) recently had their 2-year CEO resign because the stock price dropped 50% under his watch. It's brutal.

So yeah, what's the big deal about being CEO? You're inviting yourself to the chopping board. You get revered, sure. You get nice perks and nice compensation, sure. But you are also tasked to move the Titanic with a small paddle.

Incidentally, I noted another thing after my Head Prefect stint. After my term ended, my successor simply ended my initiatives or didn't continue with it. Some things continued to pass on, e.g. the culture, but on the other hand many things didn't. It was another vanity under the sun. All that hard work to be messed up by another fella after me who had other ideas. This is the reality of life.

Everyone is a CEO. You are the CEO of your family. Your small business. Your department. Your team. Your classroom. As long as there are problems to solve and you are in the power of solving them, you are the CEO. Act like a CEO and take charge, because many others are counting on you for it.