As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ween Niu. He is the general manager at Advantech North America, accountable for regional sales and marketing revenue as well as oversees strategic business planning. His career path has taken him from Acer and Twinhead where his reputation for excellence and commitment was displayed in full. Under his 15 year tenure at Advantech, his leadership and integrity has guided the business to incredible growth and expansion reaching key milestones year after year. His experience and contributions to Advantech, both locally and globally, has had a significant impact on business development and has allowed mindshare for keys to success.
Ween has always stressed the importance of teamwork and, following in the footsteps of our corporate commitment to an altruistic enterprise, has given back to charities and stressed social contribution. His role as a leader and often times a mentor has been instrumental in shaping Advantech’s progression.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I received my master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Penn State in 1990. After that, I worked in the commercial computer industry for 10 years. I decided to join Advantech because I realized my personal value wasn’t being maximized. I now contribute to the industrial computer market at a higher, more impactful level than before, even though the business scale is smaller.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Once I went to an interview for a product manager position at a commercial computer company, even though I didn’t have any sales or marketing experience. After I joined the company, my department head asked me why I took the job with almost no knowledge of how to do it. My answer: “If you dare to hire a person without any experience like me, I will dare to give the job a try”. He liked my fearless approach, and it has since helped me successfully face challenges throughout my career.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Advantech’s CEO, K.C. Liu, is the person I want to thank the most. While we may not always see eye-to-eye on every business arrangement, he almost always allows me to make my own decision and execute my business proposals. His trust and the freedom he allows, have helped me come into my own at Advantech and has greatly contributed to my professional success.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Paying it forward is what drives my business goals and decisions. Continuing to grow the company revenue allows me to hire more employees. Hiring more employees means more families can receive indirect support from the company — that is my best way to support Advantech, society and my community.
Thank you for all that. Let us now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
In 2008, Advantech’s business was impacted by the economic downturn. I told the managers and employees that now was the best time for Advantech to invest. We hired more people and enhanced our business capabilities in 2008 and 2009. As a result, in both 2010 and 2011, our growth rate was over 30% — and we almost doubled our revenue in just two years.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I, like everyone, face frustrations and disappointments in my professional life. While I may experience a slump from time to time, I never give up because at the end of the day business is fun. Overcoming obstacles, winning a new account, having a smooth organizational transition and the other small victories of business life are what drive me to keep going.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
One of the biggest challenges leaders face, especially during difficult times, is when employees doubt or distrust their leaders’ business decisions or action plans. Greater communication, transparency and patience are key to changing employee perspective and inspiring trust and loyalty.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Keep the information transparent by sharing both the good and bad news with your employees. Let your employees know the company’s direction and business plans and let them weigh in and be a part of the decision-making process.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be honest and transparent. By doing so, we enable everyone from within the organization to be informed and then come together to face any challenge head on as a team. This same approach works with customers, as the more transparent and honest you are in a difficult situation, the more time they have to change plans and take preventive actions, which they will appreciate and thank you for later.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Opportunities always go hand-in-hand with risks, which is why I make plans based on the readiness of the team. As long as the team is fully prepared for the risks, we do not need to worry about an unpredictable future. If Advantech has a plan for every situation, we can outperform our competitors and see positive business outcomes, where the future is no longer unpredictable.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Dare to face the challenges. Be fearless and embrace difficulties, as they only make for a stronger more enduring organization.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Reducing scale and letting good talent go from the company are some of the most common mistakes I see businesses make during difficult times. They should look at shrinking investments and cutting costs, instead of finding and generating more business. Forget customer centric and employee centric.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Go deep and wide on vertical markets and accounts. For vertical markets, Advantech will do business at the sub-market level, instead of one big vertical market. For customers, Advantech focuses on winning more business from the same team or from other teams with different solution offerings or in different geographic locations.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Enhance and improve your team’s capability — get them ready to weather the storm.
- Be transparent and communicate frequently and consistently with your employees and customers.
- Invest more in your company’s most successful business sectors and reduce or remove weak business sectors.
- Be fearless to make changes and big decisions, while always giving employees a clear business direction and a positive outlook.
- Keep functional teams dynamic and agile, so they can handle unpredictable business challenges.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Opportunities and risks always co-exist. If we are more ready and prepared than our competitors, the same business case might be Advantech’s opportunity, but our competitor’s risk.
How can our readers further follow your work?