Cracking up over super-chickens

Author and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan says people are more productive at work when they care about their colleagues.
Author and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan says people are more productive at work when they care about their colleagues.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Margaret Heffernan regaled the readers at this month's Big Read Meet with her witty anecdotes

Building state-of-the-art facilities to house 2,500 competition horses from many countries for the Olympic Games would be a badge of honour for any architect, engineer or contractor.

But when global consulting engineering company Arup was asked to do just that for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the Arup employee entrusted with the task initially baulked at the prospect, British-American author-entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan said at the Big Read Meet on Wednesday evening.

Recalling this to an audience of 105 readers at the Central Public Library in Victoria Street, she noted that the most important question he first had to answer was: How much waste would 2,500 highly neurotic, jet-lagged horses produce?

Having zero experience in building for horses, the employee tried to work out how much horse manure he would have to deal with by using Excel spreadsheets and estimating how much horses would eat and drink in-flight. But even after all that, she pointed out, his efforts were guesswork at best.

Fortunately, his colleagues at Arup are famous for, as she put it, their "culture of helpfulness", which sets them apart from many other leading global companies. So he sent an e-mail to his colleagues all around the world for help with his horse dilemma.

Within 24 hours, one of them wrote back thus: "I've just built a jockey centre in New York. Here is the exact formula to calculate how much waste the horses will generate."

Ms Heffernan, 60, shared this and many other witty, pithy anecdotes over 11/2 hours, in a special session of the Meet, which is The Straits Times' non-fiction book club that I host every month with the strong support of the National Library Board.

The big idea Ms Heffernan champions in her award-winning 2014 book, A Bigger Prize, is that people are most productive at work when they care about their colleagues, do work they really love and aim for outcomes that benefit everyone, and not just themselves. And the only way leaders can have such workers is to foster a culture that rewards everyone from the bottom up for listening to everyone else, sharing their best ideas and helping one another in small, meaningful ways when- ever they can.

That, however, takes a lot of effort, as she learnt when she ran an American software company in the 1990s. When her colleagues resisted her attempts to foster a collaborative culture, she recalled: "I decided that if it wasn't going to happen naturally, then it was going to happen unnaturally."

So she made all of them have lunch in one spot, during which every one of them had to share with everyone else their life experiences. This helped them empathise with one another, which led them to support and trust one another better as staff at Arup do.

Conversely, she told the audience, until very recently, software giant Microsoft had an established workplace culture that rewarded its top performers at the expense of 90 per cent of its workforce such that the Bill Gates-founded company "missed the Internet, was late to gaming, late to mobile technology and is still figuring out what to do about search engines".

So, she stressed, there was no proven link between being hyper-competitive and being successful for long. In fact, she pointed out, a study by Professor William Muir of Purdue University in the United States has shown that the reverse is true.

Prof Muir tracked six generations of chickens, separating the "super-chickens" among them from more ordinary breeds. The super-chickens competed so brutally that they soon killed one another, while the run-of-the-mill hens were happily laying lots of eggs. "Don't be a super- chicken," she advised, to much laughter.

The audience's questions came thick and fast. Homemaker and Meet regular Ong Min Yee, 60, asked her if Singaporeans' penchant for kiasuism would make it doubly difficult for them to work effectively with others.

Ms Heffernan said: "When I talk to Hungarians and Czechs about collaboration, they say it is uniquely difficult for them to do so. When I talk about it to the Dutch, they say, 'We're too conformist for that and being Calvinist makes us highly competitive for our own sake. And Americans can be so competitive that they can hardly speak to each other".

"So," she added to more laughter, "I've concluded that collaboration is, in fact, a global problem."

To a question from full-time national serviceman Tan Yang Long, 19, about the wrench between winning the rat race and pursuing one's dreams, she pointed out that doing work that one actually loved was crucial to lasting success and, that "if you do not do something about your dream, you will certainly never fulfil it".

She then mused: "If you told me at the start of my career that I would one day be in Singapore, sitting here in the National Library and talking about the books I have written, I would not have believed you. But here I am, doing something about my dream."

Mr T. Priyaranjan, 43, regional manager of German insurer Allianz here, asked her what exactly it would take to collaborate well, and how the experiences of working together might vary among Generations X, Y and Z. It was the father of two's second time at the Meet with his homemaker wife, Ms Presenna Devi, 38.

He said after the Meet: "Margaret answered everything clearly, precisely and to the point, without hesitation. And as she rightly pointed out, most organisations treat collaboration as an effort, when it should happen naturally among people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2015, with the headline 'Cracking up over super-chickens'. Print Edition | Subscribe