The value of leadership and teamwork
Mahbob Abdullah 

In the estates outstanding results have to do with managing trees, but equally it has much to do with managing people. The trees will always be there, and they would need to be treated well, get their food and water on time, and be free from competition. This can be done only with an effective team of people, and it needs a strong leader to hold them together. Looking ahead, these two aspects of leadership and teamwork are growing to be more critical for the industry.

I have seen how teams have been formed in the past, and invariably, the leader is the glue and inspires them to do more. Fans of football can see this too, where the captain can make a big difference. It is no less so in the estate, except that instead of having 11 players, there would be about 100 players in a 1,000ha estate.

Once, I was running a division of 1,600ha, and I had to have about 160 workers and half of those were harvesters. To be effective, I knew them by name. I walked in the field with the senior supervisors and we would chat when things were going well; they were very efficient and knew precisely what to do. One of them was Mr Kenganathan, and another was Mr E Rajagopal. In the afternoons, in the office, the crop figures were displayed on the boards to show the trend, and we put pins on the wall charts to show green where weeding had been done, black where it was due, and red when work fell behind.

The supervisors and headmen responsible for delayed work knew they would be called in for my long talks and in the end some may find themselves working for someone else. I could get to choose another person whom I could rely on more solidly. I built my support that way. The office clerk, Kong Tong Ching was diligent, and kept telling me about the monthly deadlines so that I was often the first to get my reports in, and with the teams that I had, sometimes I could also send harvesters to help in other divisions.

In many ways I was lucky to have inherited the core team of people who were trained by my predecessors. They had put in much effort. But I was also aware that training must go on, to have people to understudy those due to retire, some would be taken from me to help with expansion, and a few would decide to change careers. A gap can open in the team.

So it is important to take on trainees so there are replacements in the pipeline. This can be done more easily when times are good and the prices of palm oil are giving a fair margin. Trainees who stay have a chance to do well, for they would know about the culture and the way that things are done in the company. Where I worked in Unilever’s plantations, it was usually about working hard and following through, ideas were welcome, and mistakes were forgiven. After all we were family. But one infraction on integrity by anyone, and he was out.

The competition was high among peers to get promotion. We could show how hard we worked, rivals played on their strengths, and many of them I could not match. Some were very good on technical details, which would always be hard for me, and I had to check my notes much of the time. I was also not good in figures when it came to big numbers. Some were strong on engines and machines, knew all models of tractors, and engine parts, and were completely at home tinkering in the workshops. Some others were natural leaders, who got all the attention at dinner parties, and at meetings would command a certain presence. But together we formed an effective team.

For my part I found that I could develop a leadership skill very gradually. I did not know that I was able to do it for I was not a team player and I did not play football. In school I was a follower. I was good at individual sports, and that included boxing. It was organised each year by the Federation Military College that I attended, and I found that I could outlast my opponent in the ring as I trained hard and ran cross-country to build stamina.

On the plantation it was to show by example, getting out of bed as early as the workers did, attending muster, and being on hand when needed. When I had visitors from head office I showed off the team and introduced them and spoke on the latest good that they had done.

It was an easy style. In the afternoon after office work I would sit back at the edge of the football field to watch the team from the division play, knowing that Encik Samad the captain and I had picked the best from the choice we had. He inspired them to do their best, defending solidly or marauding from the wings to hit the ball to centre and hopefully to yet another goal. If we were down, it was to rally again. He was good at that, while my role was to shout from the sidelines with the rest of them.

When I was moved to a bigger job, the process would start again and I would look at ways to put more strength in the team, and the company could see this need and add more people with skills that I did not have. I would use my way to delegate, for I had noticed that it is true some tasks are so easy for someone else while I would toil over them in vain.

On the other hand, not having a good team is a handicap and you will not be able to get the results expected. To build the team, however, takes much effort, and wherever you go it is helpful to spot at all times who would be a potential member to join you.

To build a team costs money, especially for taking on someone at mid-career. There is also a risk of making a mistake despite the excellent credentials the person might bring. However, if the selection is right, the person will be a boon to the business. So it pays to go deeply into details about the candidate to minimise the chance of making a mistake, which can be costly due to the loss of time in growing the business.


How much is a team worth?

Even many big companies know that it is incalculable. They say in their annual reports that people are their most valuable assets. Despite the cynicism that this statement might provoke, it is clear that the companies with the strongest teams are delivering the best results. They have people who can fit in, have the same work ethics, and values, and together they build the momentum to take the business further. It is a simple statement, and it hides the amount of effort that had gone in.

Mahbob Abdullah is a former planter. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 257.