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Robert Walters Leadership Podcast E10: Conversation with Kenneth Tan, Varian

In a post-pandemic, VUCA world, the impetus is on leaders and organisations to move beyond a mere ‘recovery’ mindset into an approach of ‘renewal’.

Episode Ten of our Powering Potential with Robert Walters podcast in South East Asia sees Kenneth Tan, SVP and President, Radiation Oncology Solutions, Asia Pacific & Japan at Varian, a Siemens Healthineers company, advocating to listeners on how we should all focus on fundamentals and relook at truisms, while personally staying grounded and be humble ‘learn-it-alls’.

Even as healthcare companies seek to undergo Digital Transformation and work on ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) efforts, hear from Kenneth on how Asia-Pacific leaders in healthcare have a special mission to elevate healthcare standards and make a positive impact in what is a very socio-economically diverse region.

Our Robert Walters Leadership Podcast is part of our Powering Potential series, where we feature leaders from diverse industries and the sharing of their experience, advice, and insights into the world of work. Watch the videocast of this episode here.

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Wendy Heng: Hi, I'm Wendy Heng, Associate Director of the Sales & Marketing, Healthcare and Supply Chain divisions at Robert Walters Singapore. I'm your host for this episode of our Powering Potential with Robert Walters. This episode is part of our leadership interview series, where business leaders, recruitment experts, and career growth specialists share their insights on careers, leadership lessons and the latest talent trends.

Today, I'm delighted to have with us Kenneth Tan, President, Asia Pacific & Japan at Varian. Welcome Kenneth and thank you for making time for us.

Kenneth Tan: Thanks Wendy. Thanks for having me on this podcast.

Wendy: Okay. Let's get started then. Firstly, looking at your career history, Kenneth, you have over 20 years of experience in the healthcare industry. From sales and marketing to P&L roles in the commercial side of leading healthcare businesses, what made you enter the healthcare sector in the first place, and what continues to drive you and your interest in Healthcare?

Kenneth: Wendy, Science and Literature have been an integral part of my life at a very young age. Biology and chemistry captured my curiosity because I just saw so much relevance and daily application in them. At a very young age, I could not see how Physics could explain life. Of course, becoming part of Varian changed that. As I joined Varian, I met many physicists who would tell me that "Life is Physics", and I'm beginning to understand that.

I graduated with a diploma in Biotechnology at 19. And like every other male citizen in Singapore, I served two and a half years National Service, but I did my national service with the Singapore Police Force. I then went on and completed my degree in Business Administration. Healthcare has always been a calling for me. A few people are blessed to be in careers that allow them to apply their academic knowledge to what they do daily. I have not looked back since I started my first job as a Pharmaceutical Sales Representative selling Cardiovascular drugs.

I continue in the Cardiovascular space as I moved into MedTech, joining Boston Scientific just when Drug-Eluting Stents were about to revolutionise Interventional Cardiology. I then joined Covidien, who was a leader in surgical instruments, whose technology drove the widespread adoption of minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery. Covidien was acquired by Medtronic in 2014. And I served as the Managing Director of their Thailand and Indochina business during that period of time, before joining Varian in January 2017.

Cancer held a very special place in my heart because I lost my mother to cancer in 2002. I witnessed and experienced the fear, the anguish and the despair that a cancer patient and their family go through. When I met the leaders in Varian, and I saw how committed they were to creating "A World Without Fear of Cancer" - I knew I had to be part of this fight to beat cancer.

Wendy: I'm so sorry to hear about your mom, and thanks for sharing something so personal with us. With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to affect millions worldwide, how has the pandemic affected the healthcare industry so far, especially since it's been going on for nearly two years with no end in sight?

Kenneth: I think COVID-19 has posed many new questions to us all when we think about business continuity, and in Healthcare - treatment continuity for the patients. We are now acutely aware of how an unforeseen global health crisis can shock the healthcare infrastructure. COVID-19 has amplified just how vulnerable we and our healthcare systems are when it comes to feeling the strain of dealing with a new unknown.

On a personal level, working remotely means making a greater effort to stay connected with employees and customers. Working from home has also given me time to reflect on the impact we as a team at Varian are having on supporting those very healthcare systems to change for the better. Coronavirus is wreaking havoc on the provision of care all over the globe and exhausting frontline healthcare workers.

However, we cannot forget that before and after the coronavirus, millions of patients were and still will be in need of regular hospital-based care. Healthcare companies have a responsibility to keep driving the economic and clinical efficiencies that will improve healthcare access to those who are providing care and to those who need it most.

Our response as a company has been to consider how we can help oncologists and patients maintain treatment continuity, and help healthcare providers rapidly put plans into actions to achieve it. We harness technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and Data Analytics to advance cancer treatment, and to expand access to care of patients globally. We are also partnering with oncology care providers and governments to facilitate the adoption of ‘telehealth’ to build and expand capacity in healthcare systems throughout the region.

Today, we are training more healthcare professionals than ever to use our technology, to provide remote clinical support to generate greater efficiencies in treatment. Ultimately, this helps our customers continue to deliver life-saving treatments to patients, whilst keeping their staff safe at the same time during this pandemic period. I like to think that the training we are offering will not only help healthcare professionals navigate the COVID-19 crisis, it will also be a key contributor to helping them adapt to the digital future. We are using this time to help our partners future-proof themselves. What has been particularly rewarding is to see that healthcare providers who may be previously reluctant to adopt remote approaches to cancer care, or new ways to shorten therapy, they are turning to companies like us in Varian, and asking us to help them move forward into the digital future.

COVID-19 is testing the resilience and agility of all organisations, but I'm confident that our commitment to bring people, data, technology together to provide a more intelligent approach to cancer care. It will allow us at Varian to stand in good stead for the new world that is going to be upon us.

Wendy: Have you observed anything different from the current leaders in terms of tackling this prolonged crisis situation?

Kenneth: I guess many of us leading our teams in Asia-Pacific are still operating in an environment of uncertainty. In such times, it is important for us to be extremely transparent with our leadership team because transparency builds trust within the leadership team. It shows that a leader is truly inclusive and that he or she is sensitive to what individual members think, perceive and feel in an environment of uncertainty. Ultimately, a team that operates on a high-trust quotient is going to feel safe and they are going to feel fairly treated. It builds tenacity in their mindset and also in their action.

These times people call it VUCA, (V) Volatile, (U) Uncertain, (C) Chaotic, and (A) Ambiguous. And as leaders, I think it's important that we emerge with a heightened candour. We need to be able to speak about how we feel, what we care about, our hopes and our fears. It is important to realise also that being candid and being transparent is very different.

Being transparent as a leader means being able to share as much information as possible. Being able to share insights on how we think and make decisions during the crisis. This actually helps us build a high level of trust within our own leadership teams, and trust begets trust. When our teams and our leaders know us and trust us, they then go out and in turn, lead fearlessly.

So I feel that during these times, and not just in the past 18 months or in the next six months, but moving forward into the future, we must build tenacity and trust in our teams through an ‘Extreme Transparency’. When the going gets tough, I think as leaders, we just need to communicate more, listen more, we need to care more, and we just need to trust more. What we then also see is many leaders today are still very caught up in a ‘recovery’ mindset. And I think over the past nine months, I've taken proactive steps to shift the organisation into a ‘renewal’ mindset, rather than a recovery mindset.

And that renewal mindset is built on a few key pillars. I think all organisations have a vision and purpose. And a part of the renewal is going to be built upon focusing on the vision and purpose. Vision and purpose continue to serve as the North Star. Particularly for Varian, I think it's a very simple vision - we are continuing to be guided by a desire of a world without fear of cancer, and that just will keep us going and will continue to drive us forward. What I also see is COVID-19 brought out the best in many people, not just in organisations, but across the world. We've witnessed so many acts by employees that exemplified the company's culture and cultural beliefs. And moving forward, it is important for us to model these cultural beliefs beyond the crisis - not just in crisis.

Crisis brings out the best, but I think it's important to ensure that people continue this beyond the crisis. What we also saw was that during crisis, teams across the region demonstrated a higher level of resilience. This was very evident in our ability to execute in the field under adverse conditions. In the new normal, it's important to move the mindset from resilience and scale it to this agility mindset. I think agility is the ability of an organisation to adapt quickly to market changes, and we know the market has changed post-COVID. Agility is the ability to respond rapidly and flexibly to customer demands, and continuously to be at a competitive advantage. And if organisations are agile, this agility will open new opportunities in the new operating environment post-COVID.

Another key piece of this renewal is to transform the digital capabilities - to find new ways to engage our customers remotely, train ourselves and our customers remotely, to build competencies and acquire talent that can accelerate our digital transformation in the way we do business. Ultimately, the best way to predict the future is to create it. And the best way to create it is to be agile and be resilient at the same time. I guess that's the solution for me.

Wendy: Now as you've progressed through your career, what struck you as the most important factor for firstly, professionals in this healthcare industry, and secondly, leaders driving growth for a healthcare business?

Kenneth: I think the world today, like we mentioned earlier, is rapidly evolving. All companies, all corporations, especially those in healthcare, will soon face what I call two reckonings - the first reckoning is going to come in Digital Transformation. The second reckoning is going to come in ESG, (E) Environmental, (S) Social, and corporate (G) Governance, which is an evaluation of a firm's collective conscientiousness for social and environmental factors.

So these two reckonings are upon us. I believe that leaders in healthcare thrive because we have a common passion and purpose to do well and do good by elevating healthcare standards and making a positive impact. Those of us who have significant tenure in healthcare in Asia-Pacific have a special responsibility because we have deep insights into the healthcare needs of this part of the world. And we are better equipped to grow businesses and address the growing demand for high quality and affordable healthcare. And in a very socio-economically diverse region, that's very important for us moving forward in this region.

This is also why three other senior executives in the healthcare space in the region and I founded the Asia Mentors Circle, a mentoring network with the goal to mentor and nurture 100 healthcare executives to take on senior leadership roles within the region in the next 5 years.

To face these twin reckonings that I was talking about, leaders who learn it all are going to definitely beat those who think they know it all.

This is particularly important in today's volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous (VUCA) world because the best practice today can very quickly become obsolete tomorrow. And that's why learning is very important. We must build a learning culture in our organisations by creating a very specific kind of accountability moving forward. This specific kind of accountability is one that should lead people to think again about their decisions because the world is changing; whatever decisions that we make, has to change. And we do need to rethink those decisions.

I guess that's different from the way organisations are focused today because organisations are very performance-focused. In performance cultures, people often get attached to best practices. The danger of best practices is that once we have declared this the most effective, it becomes frozen in time - we don't revisit it. We preach about its wonders, we stop questioning its shortcomings, and we are no longer interested in where it's imperfect and where it could improve. Organisational learning should be an ongoing activity, but best practices simply imply that it's reached an end point. But in reality, it will be better for organisations to continue the attempt to find better practices than accept best practices for the way they are.

Wendy: Okay. I think you've touched a little bit on this, but I'm still keen to see what important trends you might foresee within the healthcare sector, and how businesses like Varian can also prepare themselves for these trends?

Kenneth: Yep. I think the biggest one that I mentioned earlier is the impending Digital Transformation that all organisations are going to face. But healthcare companies are going to face a unique version of Digital Transformation. Why? Because many MedTech companies today talk about a digital transformation strategy. As a leader in a MedTech company, we must build our growth on people and health outcomes, not just technology itself. We are in an era of unprecedented disruption, and technology alone is not going to prepare organisations for the uncertainty ahead.

I actually advocate for what I call a ‘Purposeful Digital Transformation in Healthcare’. This is because healthcare companies have a special calling when it comes to driving digital transformation. Whatever digital solutions that we provide have to be patient-centric, and our organisations have to be human-centric. We have to see technology as an enabler, not as a panacea.

Leaders have to understand the subtle differences in digital terminology. Digitisation refers to the internal optimisation of processes that may result in cost reductions. Digitalisation is a strategy that goes beyond just implementing strategy. It implies a deeper core change in their entire business model. But Digital Transformation is actually a lot deeper than that, it reaches beyond. It requires a much broader adoption of digital technology and cultural change itself. Digital transformation is actually a lot more about the people than about the technology. It requires organisational changes that are customer-centric or patient-centric in healthcare, driven by leadership, backed by a radical change in corporate culture, and technology that we use has to empower and enable employees.

The foundation of Digital Transformation should be rooted in purpose. Hence, leaders must create a shared sense of purpose that galvanises people to drive in the same direction, as we face the current and future challenges. I think that's a very critical piece. I think what happens is MedTech companies have built the capabilities needed to develop launch and sell physical products, few have the competencies to drive growth from digital and healthcare solutions, such as data integration and analytics. To win, a culture that embraces agile ways of working becomes a prerequisite for success in a rapidly changing digital environment. And to really scale for MedTech to the future, digital health tech companies must prove the impact of their solutions and products on patient outcomes. And at the same time, secure patient privacy and secure the consent.

One heart-warming thing about Digital Transformation is even in Digital Transformation, the traditional leadership behaviours like trust, integrity, honesty, purpose, and commitment to continuous communication still remain vitally important. So the foundations on leadership behaviour are still going to be important in the Digital era.

Wendy: According to your LinkedIn profile, the hallmarks of your career are Strategy Execution, Growth Acceleration, and Business-Model Innovation. Tell us, what are some key misconceptions people tend to have about strategy and business growth? And what advice do you have for leaders seeking to grow their business in this current uncertain climate?

Kenneth: Wendy, there is so much truth in the words "If culture eats strategy for breakfast, then talent sets the table". I picture this as a circular relationship between culture, strategy and mindset. The three elements actually feed off each other and grow; their relationship is not a linear relationship. When we as leaders solve for culture and strategy, we are actually solving for growth.

And the fundamental building blocks are the same. The fundamental building blocks are - we need to create a culture of trust; we need to build a mindset of learning; we need to enable an environment of growth; and we must remember that talent is actually the most important enabler. Hence, we need to build strength in diversity at all levels of the organisation because the best people are going to solve the most complex problems. Now, when it comes to strategy, the one thing I can say is status quo is definitely not a strategy.

And you hear me talk about agile, you hear me talk about the need to adapt and transform. Status quo is definitely not the strategy. If we look at our daily lives, how often have we heard this in our work, "we have an established process to do this, and it has worked well for years" or "we are the market leader"?

And it's important also to look at ourselves and say, how often do we say this? Because these what we call truisms that we talked about and we speak about are often baggage in this changing world. As leaders, we need to know that these narratives are just narratives. We must know that data matters more than narratives. And these narratives, especially if they are antiquated ones, are not going to help businesses grow or organisations grow; they're going to hold organisations back.

So if you look at strategy, strategy is simply solving for growth. And recent research shows that we are better at solving problems when we think about odds rather than certainty. So we do need to approach strategy with this thing called epistemic humility, meaning we need to approach strategy with a learning mindset. We must start by challenging solutions that imply certainty. We can actually do that by asking simple questions, like "what would we have to believe for this to be true?". In the world today, perfect knowledge is actually in short supply. And if we want to solve complex business and societal problems, we do need to embrace the reality that information is imperfect, and imperfection can actually lead to more effective problem-solving.

It is practically a must to embrace this imperfection, especially when we are facing situations with high uncertainty, which seems to be almost every day in these days. I think some leaders see many potential possibilities in circumstances, others will see few possibilities left after accounting for all the limitations that we are aware of. And I think as leaders, we have to decide whether we want to be the leader who enables growth, or the kind of leaders who want to enforce the status quo. I think that's a choice to us and our mindsets would determine what kind of leaders we are.

Wendy: Looking back Kenneth, what is the most important lesson that you have learnt over the course of your career? Have there been challenging times during your career where you felt like giving up, and how did you overcome them?

Kenneth: I think as I look back, it was never the pleasant outcomes, but the difficult processes that shaped me. Since I've been in my early teens, I sort of like internalised a motto of "The impossible we do straight away, miracles take a little bit longer." What that has helped me to do is these words have allowed me to view adversity and uncommon circumstances as part of growth. And then after that, take personal action and step into the unknown, while having faith that we are going to be successful and knowing that even if you fail, we are not going to be alone.

So I think that is to a certain degree what we call having faith and trust in yourself. The other thing I have also realised is growth is not always an upward or forward trajectory. And in the growth process, it is inevitable that we experience some adversity and a lot of self-doubt. And that self-doubt actually is good because it actually means that we are growing. The way forward is to approach it as a learning journey with an intellectual humility.

There is never failure in discovering our limits. We always end up better than where we started when we do that. I think as leaders operating between a spectrum of overconfidence and self-doubt actually helps keep us intellectually honest. And I mentioned earlier, eventually, learn-it-all is going to beat know-it-all. So it's better for us to have this learning mindset and stretch all the time.

Wendy: Knowing what you know now, what is the one thing that you would have done differently in the past?

Kenneth: I think I would've spent more time learning from and about other people who are very different from me. I think that development cannot happen without continuous learning. Hence we must be curious - continuously seek the real truth rather than the convenient truth, and make a conscious effort to go out and seek a perspective that is contrarian to ours, I think that's important. Having a diversity of experiences is key to development and innovation. To do things that we have never done before, to put ourselves in situations that we have never been in, to do something different, even if things are working well - just to do something different.

The one thing that holds us back from personal innovation and my greatest fear today is this concept of intellectual hubris. And because of this fear of intellectual hubris, intellectual humility becomes the most important self-awareness aspect for my own development. We need to constantly review our own learnings.

As leaders, it is important to have strong opinions, but it is also equally important to ensure that these opinions are weakly held and give us an opportunity to change those opinions. And I think to do that, we need to listen tirelessly even to those who do not share our views. We have to question curiously to seek to understand. Questions are powerful tools but very often, we question to challenge and defend rather than to understand. So we do need to have that curiosity. We also must speak fearlessly because when we speak fearlessly, we actually send a message to the people around us that candour is appreciated and not only is it appreciated, it is admired. And in turn, people will speak honestly also. If we do this, we create a safe environment for everyone to experiment or people around us to take moon shots. Through success and failure ultimately we learn, we innovate, and we develop in this process.

Wendy: Finally, as you know, I've always been very impressed by how you are able to manage your time and stay on top of your game, not just at work but outside of work. Do you have any tips for our audience when it comes to work-life balance, especially in this new hybrid workplace and growing concerns over mental wellness?

Kenneth: Well, I've realised that success and joy come when we are grounded in our purpose, values and beliefs. Taking the path of least resistance is what makes men and rivers crooked. That's why I encourage leaders to craft their own purpose statement. And constantly be public about it and allow people to challenge their purpose statements.

It's important that we be very grounded. The last time I wrote my purpose statement was in 2012. And recently, I took the time to refresh it, and refresh it for the new normal that we are actually racing towards. So the new purpose, I will share this with you Wendy, is to feel blessed daily and lead with kindness and humility, while constantly reflecting with an independent mindset. Learning strategically and striving to create an empowered and equal world. I feel that it is imperative to lead from deep within ourselves. We have to do it with a deep sense of thanksgiving, we have to do it with a deep sense of well-being, whether it's spiritually, psychologically or physically. I hope that I will remain true to this purpose statement moving forward.

And I also hope that leaders out there have a very clear purpose statement, and they are also all going to be living very true to it.

Wendy: Thank you Kenneth. And I think we've come to the end of our podcast session. Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview with us. I personally learnt a lot about strategy, accelerating growth and the healthcare business during your sharing.

And I'm sure our listeners and viewers will as well. ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast, and talent sets the table’ is a statement I won't be forgetting for a while. To all our listeners and viewers, stay tuned for the next episode of our Robert Walters Powering Potential. Goodbye.

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