ICE Interview: Julian Neo, Managing Director, DHL Express Malaysia & Brunei

Julian is currently the Managing Director of DHL Express Malaysia and Brunei, the regional division of the world’s largest logistics company. He assumed the role since February 2019.

Julian started his career with DHL Express Malaysia in 2000 as a global account manager and soon expanded his portfolio to include several leadership positions in sales for both Malaysia and Singapore. 

This week, DHL Express secured their two years in a row as the #1 Great Place To Work Asia’s Best Workplace 2020!

Julian believes that EQ plays a more important role than just having a high IQ. DHL Express is one of exceptional clients to DT LEADERSHIP – innovation and leadership coaching company. Having worked alongside with Julian, his senior leaders and teams, I found he is someone that inspires others and never hesitate roll up his sleeves… and pants too!

Read on my interview with Julian Neo on ICE – Innovation, Change and Entrepreneurship.

KHAIRUL (KA): What is your biggest challenge in encouraging teams in adopting design thinking and innovation as part of the business tools and decision making?

JULIAN NEO (JN): As in any organisational setting, especially a company as large as ours, there tend to be certain modes of operation that have come to be accepted as the standard. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, established systems allow various teams and functions, in spite of their differences, to move as one towards a common goal. On the other, some pushback is to be expected for unfamiliar ways of doing things. This can be a major obstacle for a philosophy so focused on innovative solutions as Design Thinking.

Buy-in takes time, and this should come from the leadership down to general personnel. At DHL, we have built a culture of continuous improvement through our training and First Choice programmes that encourage cross-departmental input. I personally think that Design Thinking is a great compliment to our current First Choice programmes as it really amplifies putting the customer in the centre of everything we do. It is essential that our colleagues do not just see the value of Design Thinking to the business, but also to themselves.

KA: How best to educate the workforce to have courage and tenacity to be creative and innovative?

JN: Creativity is not a born trait, and neither does it thrive in a vacuum. Many components factor in the equation, with culture, motivation, and resources being the crux of an innovative workforce. 

Care is put into composing teams of diverse experience and skills, minimising homogeneity of thought and allowing for the interaction of different perspectives. Employees must also be incentivised intrinsically.

Monetary rewards and leadership recognition hold weight, but can be unsustainable in the long run and breed competition instead of cooperation. They should believe that their voices matter, giving them the freedom to bring their opinions and ideas to reality. In this pursuit, they should be afforded the time, space, and support that do not feel like an extension of their daily duties.

It’s very similar to a Change Management process where at times, support from a neutral external helps to accelerate the whole learning journey. 

KA: How do you deal with rejection from staffs and employees that refuse to innovate or change?

JN: It is important to understand that pushback does not come from a place of hostility towards the company. There would naturally be some measure of reluctance or scepticism among teams asked to adopt a new change in direction and priorities, disrupting the way they have been delivering projects, products, and services for years. 

Setting a common goal, taking everyone along the whole journey and introducing a support structure of training, incentives, and feedback can help ease employees with the transition.

While time pressure can drive creativity, it should be eschewed in the beginning in favour of giving staff space, both physically and in their schedules, to be more deeply involved in problem-solving so that they are personally invested in improving what they do.  

KA: What is your advise on organization & workforce that wishes to innovate and change?

JN: Building a culture of innovation is an ongoing process that needs to be maintained. The executive team should be fully onboard or the whole thing is doomed to fail before even getting off the ground.

Innovative leaders do not necessarily have to be generators of creative ideas themselves. They instead focus on the big picture and work with innovative thinkers who can enhance that vision. In this regard, communication is key.  

Any initiative should be geared to a hands-on approach, not one simply about ensuring KPIs and deadlines are met. By providing a platform for the seamless exchange of ideas between leadership and staff, innovation can become second nature to the job. Having a servant’s heart will greatly help the journey!

Thank you so much Julian and DHL Express Malaysia team that makes this interview possible. DHL Express Malaysia just recently launched a new digital tool for shippers via Whatsapp.

This interview was conducted in early March 2020, prior the Movement Control Order (MCO). Since the MCO, DHL Express operations become the backbone to ship things internationally particular life sciences and healthcare stuffs. Let’s give sincere hats off to all of them.

Their “Can Do Attitude” and “Dedication to Work” deserve all the appreciation. Thank you for going the extra mile. Yes “We deliver because they do.”

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