Saturday June 16, 2012
Enduring lessons from first job
By SOO EWE JIN
DATUK Seri Idris Jala has come a long way since his first job as an industrial relations officer in Shell Malaysia. If not for an interesting twist of fate, he could well have been an unknown professor sharing his insights to a limited audience a classroom of undergraduates or at an international conference with his peers.
The CEO of Pemandu and also Minister in the Prime Ministers Office recalls how he was torn between staying put at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) to pursue an academic career or venturing into the workforce.
“During my final year in 1982, I was made an offer by the university to join them under their academic staff training scheme to pursue my Masters and PhD to become a lecturer,” he tells StarBizWeek.
“Around the same time, I came across a Shell advertisement in the New Straits Times for the position of industrial relations officer.”
What attracted Jala was not just the job itself but that the interview would be held in Miri, his hometown, and the company would pay for the air tickets.
He did well at the interview and was given his first job. Four months later, he decided to quit to take up the USM offer.
“But Shell counter offered. They promised me that if I performed well in my first two years in service, they would send me as a Shell scholar to complete my Masters degree in Industrial Relations at Warwick University, Jala recalls.
That was to mark the beginning of a 23-year career line in Shell, mostly in overseas postings, for this Kelabit from Bario. He was only 24 years old then.
“They threw me into the deep end and I had a lot of opportunities to learn on the job. Shell is an excellent company which places talent development as a top priority,” he says.
“I had bosses who gave me not only real job challenges but also taught me to be completely thorough.
“John Jolly and Robin Aston were two bosses who pushed me to deliver what they called the complete staff work'; they demanded that any work done had to be top quality, almost to the point that no amendments are required.”
For Jala, he also learnt that once you get into a company like Shell, paper qualifications do not matter anymore.
“Shell's policy is once you get in, your paper qualification is almost forgotten. They expect you to deliver. It is the results that count, not your degree,” he says.
As industrial relations officer, Jala's monthly salary was RM2,000 and he recalls what he did when he got his first pay cheque.
“I was living with my parents then in a rented flat and we did not have enough money to buy curtains. In our living room, we had four wooden chairs and a settee which did not have cushions.
“When I got my first salary, I went to town with my dad (who is the first Kelabit teacher) to buy cushions for our wooden chairs and also curtains. I also bought myself a Pioneer hifi system so I could listen to my favourite rock and blues cassettes (no CDs then). I remember how happy mum was when we got home.”
Asked what was the most enduring moment of his first job, Jala recalls the time when he was asked to fly to Kuala Lumpur with his team to make a presentation to top management.
“On the eve of our flight, my boss told us we had to wear the bush jacket for the meeting. I didn't have any but I managed to convince our local tailor to give me one that he had already made for another customer (incidentally, our MP!).
“Next day, when I boarded our corporate HS125 jet, to my horror, I was told that being the youngest, I had to serve drinks to the senior managers and directors on board.
“I was very nervous as I wasn't sure how to mix gin and tonic, whisky on the rocks and so forth.
“A Scotsman came to my rescue. He must have seen the look on my face. That day I was temporarily part of the cabin crew.”
Upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur, Jala made his presentation. It went well and later that evening, the boss took his team out for dinner and drinks to celebrate.
Jala believes that the lessons he learnt from his first job have a lasting impact on what he does today.
“I learnt to be thorough and to always strive to do the complete staff work'. When I completed a task, I would put myself into my boss' shoes and I would ask questions like what is missing', how can it be improved', etc.
“After that, I would go back to the drawing board and redo the work until I was completely satisfied. That's the essence of complete staff work'. That was what I learnt in my first job.”
Jala believes that those who want to do well in any job must set themselves seemingly “impossible” targets, tell everyone about it and have the discipline to deliver as promised.
“The act of setting challenging targets will force out-of-the-box thinking. Telling everyone about the targets is making a public commitment that one cannot walk away from. And delivery of promises requires discipline of action.”