By PRETHIBA ESVARY
Recognised as a young, female entrepreneur from Penang for her growth-hacking abilities and unconventional approach to doing business, this start-up leader was also listed as a finalist for MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Technology Review magazine’s 35 Innovators under 35 list in 2014 , and is a member of Forbes Technology Council.
I’m referring to the chief executive officer and co-founder of Piktochart, Goh Ai Ching!
Leaderonomics recently got the opportunity to have a chat with this inspiring yet humble leader to gauge some of the leadership lessons that she learnt while growing her business.
Some of you may have heard about the story of how Goh and her co-founder and husband, Andrea Zaggia, grew Piktochart—a web app that helps non-designers to create beautiful infographics—into a profitable business without any external investments.
And it doesn’t end there. The company has now amassed six million users within a span of four years, with 60% of their users from the United States and Canada.
A continuous journey of learning
Roshan Thiran, the CEO of Leaderonomics, once wrote about how amazed he is by Warren Buffett who finds the time to “read for hours every day in order to keep on top of news, latest trends and developments, and what’s happening in his business”, despite his old age and prodigious wealth.
Continuous learning not only broadens a leader’s knowledge, but it also spurs their growth, opens up opportunities, and brings success to their business.
With no prior experience in managing an organisation, Goh began leading her own company at 26 and had to quickly master the art of leadership as her business was growing quickly.
When asked how she did it, she said, “It takes a lot of reading, praying and reflection.”
However, no matter how much a leader reads, some things can only be learnt through experience.
When it comes to giving feedback to employees for instance, Goh constantly reflects to see if any of the characteristics that she observes in someone else exists within her. It is only then that she is able to give valuable feedback to her employees.
She admits that leaders may not have the answers to everything, especially if they are working with people who are smarter than them. Thus, leaders need to constantly upgrade themselves, and also respect and empower their employees who may be better than them in certain areas.
Jack Welch of General Electric has taught leaders that while a CEO’s time is incredibly valuable, it is important for a leader to spend quality time with his or her employees to mentor them, to ensure they have the right understanding and capabilities to help take the company in the right direction. Goh is doing exactly that.
Besides mentoring her Piktochart employees, she and Zaggia conduct quarterly mentoring sessions for entrepreneurs and start-up founders, whereby external speakers are also invited to give talks.
While Goh may not have as many years of wisdom as other influential leaders out there, she believes in imparting the existing knowledge and experience she has gained unto others and growing the start-up community in Penang.
Bringing in the right people
Hiring intelligently is key to ensuring that not only do your employees fit in with the company culture, but are also able to drive performance in your business.
While some of Goh’s employees work remotely from Europe, the Americas and Asia, an obvious question would be how she would know what her employees are doing and the hours they put in.
To this, Goh says:
“It’s about hiring right, having trust, and having the right processes and systems in place to ensure we are measuring the right things.”
Her philosophy is that it’s not about the number of hours one puts in, but the outcome that really matters.
Setting the right culture
One of the key driving factors of culture in an organisation is its people. Because the core beliefs and values of people are usually quite consistent, it thus necessitates leaders to ensure that each employee has values that are aligned to the company’s values.
Consistent with this concept, Goh conveyed that an ideal employee is someone who is not only smarter and better than others, but whose values are in line with the values that the company stands for.
One may ask, how does a leader know what is the right culture for their company?
In Goh’s first job, due to a lack of a cultural fit and misaligned expectations, she was incredibly frustrated and burnt out, and eventually decided to leave.
She said, “. . . I knew I couldn’t go back to the same environment. Everything that my company stands for today is the opposite of what I experienced in my first job. I merely took all of the good and changed all of the things I didn’t like.”
When asked to describe the culture at her company, Goh likened it to a family. With 57 employees under her belt (including the few who works remotely), she places a lot of importance on ensuring that the teams are constantly engaged.
Serving others is a pre-requisite to leadership
When asked the biggest leadership lesson she learnt in her journey as a start-up leader, Goh said:
“To learn to love and be firm at the same time.”
She pointed out that it can be challenging to let go of the people you care about, but it is important to remember that in order to really serve your people and let them grow, you have to be firm and give them constructive feedback.
In the leadership sphere, it is an accepted fact that the best leaders place their employees’ needs before their own, and based on all of the responses that Goh has given during the interview, she has demonstrated the traits of a servant leader.
She recounted a dinner event that she and her husband hosted at their house for their expat employees. Her parents who were also present, asked her after the dinner, “As bosses, why do you run around with plates and wine, offering food? Why aren’t you sitting down and having dinner? You’re the boss.”
To which she said, “No, that’s not how leaders are supposed to behave. Leaders eat last.”
That was a simple yet evident example of a leader who puts others before oneself.
Her continuous passage of learning, practice of service before self, humbling efforts to mentor, and her drive to sustain employee engagement and motivation, not only make Goh a successful leader, but an inspiring and influential one.
Her parting advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and young working professionals is to be a positive change agent. She says that the young these days give up too easily. She admits that she herself may have given up too quickly in her first job and regrets her choices at the time. She thus advises that even if the going gets tough, try to initiate a change and perhaps even champion a cause, or at least start a conversation, before opting to raise a white flag.