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Connected Paths



My own career paths changed considerably from being an academic in building science to an international public sector consultant.  I would not have known when I studied Architectural Engineering and later a PhD in energy conservation (both at Leeds University) that I would one day become a management consultant.  What I knew then was, when given the choice of more mathematics or philosophy as optional modules, I chose philosophy.  Later, for the PhD, I chose to study how people heat their homes rather than a technical subject. 


Although the 2 careers are very different, for me, they became one connected pathway. 


As a child, I did not have a notion of what I wanted to be.  In Fifth Form, medicine was a possibility but after getting my “O” Level results, I realised that I will not get the results at “A” levels needed for medical school.  My father was very disappointed when I told him.  He felt I was giving up too easily, whereas I felt I was being realistic.  In Sixth Form, I developed an interest in Biology and was accepted by a local University in Malaysia.  My father stopped me saying I would only be a poorly paid teacher.  Instead, I could go to a UK if I chose a professional course.  I decided on Architecture and worked in an architectural practice for a few months.  However, without a proper portfolio of artworks, I could not get a place in an Architecture school and eventually decided on Engineering, as the next best thing.


From Academic to Consultancy


We cannot always get what we want in the early stages of our career path.  Engineering was my last choice, yet I did find it interesting, and the discipline gave me a framework for logical analysis.  I found wriggle room as I elected for my options Architecture and Philosophy rather than Advanced Mathematics.  As a Research Assistant in Leicester De Montfort University, I was working on passive solar heating modelling heat flow though construction materials.  As a lecturer in Liverpool John Moore University, building science is a technical subject but I got involved with a large Healthy Cities research project which is more people oriented.


About 5 years later, during a lecture, I found myself listening to myself repeating the same lecture and decided that I can’t continue like this for the next 30 years.  I came across an advertisement from Birmingham City Council recruiting staff for an internal consultancy unit.  The Thatcherite reform of introducing market forces into local government was just starting and many public services had to become business units and compete with the private sector. With no background in business, management and no knowledge of local government, I somehow persuade the interview panel I have the potential to excel.  The first year was hard as I was learning on the spot, but my true talents began to emerge.


I was working with 2 management teams, one providing property management services and the landscape design, supporting them to prepare for compulsory competitive tendering.  I found both management teams in disarray, fearful and in conflict on how best to proceed.  Obviously, as I had neither knowledge nor practical experience of these 2 sectors, I could not help them with their technical bids.  However, I discovered I have a talent of calming the management team, drawing out their ideas which were sometimes contradictory and re-presenting them within a strategic framework for consensus building and further development.  Once a strategy was agreed, the management teams were able to write their business plans, construct their technical bids and reorganise their structures and systems to be more cost effective.


Knowing My Strengths


My next turning point was becoming an international consultant.  The leaders of our little consultancy unit were ambitious and successfully collaborated with the University of Birmingham to win a DFID tender to strengthen local government in the Northern Cape, South Africa.  The ANC has just taken over and needed help with capacity building.  An enduring memory was visiting a township where the young mayor told me that his only experience was throwing stones at armoured vehicles.  What was he going to do?[1]  I was still a Malaysian citizen then and was able to empathise with both black and white staff.  In the Northern Cape project, I developed a method to analysis and problem solving by combining both logical and organic approaches, a way of understanding the ‘energy dynamics’ of a situation and going with the flow.


The next significant turning point was in 1997.  The City Council had a new CEO, and he did not want an internal consultancy unit.  I started applying for jobs with the large consultancy companies and went through to the final stage of interviews with PE International.  Although I did not get the job, I was given a detailed assessment of my abilities.  The report concluded that I think outside the box, can work across sectors and provide unexpected and innovative solutions.  However, because of the silo nature of the company structure, they could not decide where to place me.


Found My Niche


I gained a lot of confidence from the interview experience and report, as it confirmed who I am and my strengths.  I therefore took a redundancy package, rather than being re-assigned into another post within the City Council.  Together with my life partner (later my wife), we set up People and Organisation Ltd.  I was then contacted by the team leader of the Northern Cape project to join him and the University to work on a capacity building project in Vientiane, Lao PDR.  From Lao PDR, for the next 20 years, I went on to Vietnam, China, Myanmar and to a lesser extend other Southeast Asian countries, working mainly on governance, public administration reform and capacity building for both state and non-state organisations.


In my early 40s, I am where I should be and doing what comes naturally.  Working as a consultant in Southeast Asia was like a fish returning to water.  


Having grown up in Malaysia, I innately understood the culture and value systems.  I could explain Western concepts of management and leadership in ways that were better understood.  As my attitude and behaviour were Malaysian rather than British, trusted relationships with local consultancy teams and staff from government agencies grew naturally.  They know that I put their interests first, helping them to achieve project results that satisfied both the international donor and their own government, without influencing them with Western values. Unlike my Western colleagues, I did not have the historical baggage of coming from past colonial masters. 


My last in-country projects were in 2018, when I realised that age is catching up.  Although since semi-retired, I continue to work on a small number of projects remotely.  Over the years, together with my wife, we continued to work on projects in Birmingham, mostly around community consultations for redevelopment of urban parks and local areas, as well as capacity building and evaluation for voluntary and not-for-profit organisations.  It was important that I remain grounded in Birmingham which had become my home.




Concluding thoughts from my working life:

  • We will not always have a choice of what jobs we get, especially in the early years.  However, we should always pay attention to what we are given, there is always something interesting to find.  We should do the job well, as work changes something in us.  Not just the skills gained but more importantly the building of character, working in teams, handling social relationships and being open to opportunities.  These are qualities that we bring to our next job.


  • Each job adds to our skills set, experience and personal growth.  For me, my academic years in science and engineering enabled me to approach management consultancy from colleagues with non-science backgrounds.  I was able to construct logical models, like Theory of Change for development projects, but at the same time knowing that models are not true reflections of real-world conditions.  I am a strong advocate of emerging strategies rather than following a strict strategic plan.

  • A general advice often given is to build up weaknesses.  I prefer instead to hone my strengths unless a job required a specific weakness to be dealt with.  Of course, we need to understand our weaknesses.  For me, the key factor is collaborating with others with complementary strengths and knowing enough as a team leader to integrate inputs by other experts into a cohesive whole.

  • It is very important to take pride in producing excellent work.  People see who we are, not from our projections and self-promotion efforts, but from our actions and the results we produced.  We should of course have ways to market ourselves.  The key is to enable the quality of our work to speak quietly for us through our professional and social networks.


Although there maybe twists and turns in our jobs, ultimately it is one connected pathway that gives meaning to who we are and our place in life on this world.




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