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Going corporate without losing yourself: Excerpt from Ignatius Low's new book, Life is a Mixtape

It was a love of writing that propelled Ignatius Low to become a journalist some 18 years ago. Now, he worries about returning to corporate life as Singapore Press Holdings' head of media solutions. The column below is from his new book, Life Is A Mixtape, a collection of his writings that celebrate pop culture and his memories of Singapore.

There is a moment in the hit Netflix series about the British royal family, The Crown, that I will never forget. Maddeningly, I could not find it when I was writing this column, either on the Internet or by scrolling through past episodes on the streaming network.

In the scene, the young Queen Elizabeth II is talking to either her mother or grandmother. She is having one of many identity crises since ascending the throne.

As usual, they are advising her to separate her personal feelings and opinions from her official life as monarch. That while she may have an established identity as someone's wife, mother or sister, her new identity as Queen of England must always win in any conflict.

The young queen looks thoughtful and then sad before she replies. "Then what is to become of me?"

I have found myself asking the same question lately, because of a recent change in my career.

 

After 17 years as a journalist and an editor in The Straits Times, I moved last year to a new role in the company as head of advertising sales.

Looking back, it was a very big change for two reasons.

The first was that it was the type of corporate role that I had, in my youth, tried very hard to avoid.


ST ILLUSTRATION : ADAM LEE

Before I became a journalist, I was a civil servant - thanks to the government scholarship I took that enabled me to study overseas.

When I returned from my studies and started work, I was put in a management role immediately.

The work I was doing was interesting and meaningful enough, but as a young man, I did not like the machinations of corporate life - the endless meetings and e-mails to coordinate plans and execute them, added to the complexities of dealing with bosses and subordinates.

At least, I did not like what I thought I saw.

So I took whatever skills people said I had (mainly an ability to write clearly) and parlayed them into a new career in journalism.

As a young journalist and editor, one was indeed blissfully free from many of the worries of corporate life.

You got an assignment and at the end of the day or the week, you completed it. The payoff was immediate, more or less directly commensurate with the effort you put in, and best of all, not really quantifiable in any corporate sense.

I was happy to have escaped corporate life, but I later realised that I was postponing the inevitable.

As I rose through the ranks and became a senior editor, the job became more about managing people not stories, resources and not reporters.

Still, the decisive move into sales and the corporate world, with its targets and KPIs (key performance indicators), was jarring for me. And six months in, I find myself still adapting to its distinctive rubric and rhythm.

The second big change that happened was that I suddenly became in charge of a very large team.

This was not the first time I had taken a leadership role in my career, of course.

But I was used to a flatter reporting structure and smaller teams where I could interact directly with most of my subordinates daily.

I had also done a lot of work in temporary project teams with no hierarchy that cut across desks and departments, enabling the examination of issues and ideas without the distraction of the politics of rank or rivalry.

With a large team, however, a leader becomes further divorced from the ground, often sitting several approval levels up the chain.

For the first time in my life, I understood why people say some leaders function in an "ivory tower".

I am certainly not the Queen of England, but that doesn't mean that I can't appreciate the detachment she must have felt.

The changes in the nature of my job and the size of the team are not, however, the key reason why I brought up her words in the television series.

Rather, it is the idea that in taking up a leadership role in any official capacity, a splitting of the self often occurs.

The corporate self is built around the goals one is set and the organisation or industry one is in. Depending on the job or position, one may have to be sterner, more ruthless or artificially gregarious.

One may have to put aside personal opinions to argue a different viewpoint, or personal friendships for the greater good of the company.

The private self gets relegated to the precious hours spent with family and friends at the weekend or on vacation.

Over time, if one is not careful, it may get left behind altogether or, as the existential French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre dramatically put it, even suffocated by the "viscosity" of obligations imposed by the corporate self and other identities that one is expected to have in life.

That is why in quieter and less formal settings, I sometimes ask corporate leaders these days (now that I am not a journalist) not about their business but how they deal with the separation of selves.

Many of them surprised me by saying that the answer is in trying as far as possible to ensure that such a separation doesn't occur.

"You have to be yourself at work, the real you - not the 'you' that the company expects you to be," one longtime business contact told me the other night. "That's actually harder to do than a lot of people expect."

I guess that is what ultimately scares me the most about going corporate. This is especially because I seem to be doing it relatively late in life - most people cleave to their corporate selves first and explore their private selves later when they are middle-aged and are more financially secure, whereas I have done the opposite.

Amid all the task lists and performance dashboards that track the success of my new trajectory, one KPI stands out.

It is for me to stay me, and expect no less from others, as I set off on my new life journey.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 07, 2017, with the headline 'Going corporate without losing yourself'. Print Edition | Subscribe