Episode 5 Transcript – Kelvin Tran Episode

Ascend Canada > Episode 5 Transcript – Kelvin Tran Episode

Bhavna:

Hello everyone, and welcome to another special episode on Ascend Canada’s podcast. Ascend Canada’s vision is to have a diverse and inclusive Canada, where Pan-Asian talent can achieve their full potential. I’m Bhavna Duggal, and I’m very excited to be your host today. In my day job, I am a partner with Ernst & Young in Toronto, Canada. I have had the most amazing five years volunteering with Ascend in many different roles. There’s nothing more fulfilling than giving and working with your community. In the last two years, I have been on the board of Ascend Canada.

Bhavna:

The real reason why we’re all here today is, in today’s episode we are really excited to have with us a special guest who is going to share his perspective, and his years of expertise on leadership and times of crisis, and how to effectively lead teams remotely. We are super pleased to welcome the founding president of Ascend Canada, Kelvin Tran. He has been the light and the guiding force leading Ascend right from its inception in 2012 right to last year in 2019 before he relocated to America. In his current role, Kelvin is Chief Financial Officer of TD Bank, America’s most convenient bank, where he leads a global team of more than 500 professionals responsible for planning, managing and reporting the bank’s financial results as well as capital. He has been with TD for over 20 years in progressively senior roles.

Bhavna:

Kelvin, thank you for your time today. First things first, how are you feeling in light of the current situation, and someone who has been through the 2007/2008 financial crisis, how does the current health and economic crisis compare with that? How does one make sense of all this?

Kelvin:

Hi, Bhavna. It’s great to hear from you. Thanks for having me on the podcast. I would say this is a very different crisis than back in 2008. Back in 2008 was very much contained as a financial crisis. This time, it started out in March like a financial crisis, but it became a full blown operational crisis because as stores go into lockdown mode, it starts to spread and impact jobs and livelihood of everyone. If you recall in the news back then, people were hoarding toilet paper. This is how traumatic it is. I would say it’s quite different, and quite scary I would say.

Things are much better now, and we’re talking about opening stores. I would say I feel in a way privileged because I’m able to work from home. I remember just talking to my daughter the other day, we were walking outside, and I said to her, “We’re working hard, but I’m privileged because I have the opportunity to be able to work from home.” You have the frontline healthcare workers who have to still work at the hospital, because their job is to save other lives and I’m forever thankful for that. Then you have an entire industry of businesses who are considered non-essential, and those businesses are shut down. So those individuals, even if they want to work, they can’t. They’ve lost their jobs. They’re going through a really, really tough time.

I would say in a way I feel thankful and privileged, and we just need to think about not just ourselves but those of us who are privileged and have the opportunity to help our community and our friends. The best way how we could do that is reach out and touch and help someone.

Bhavna:

Well said, Kelvin. Well said. For a lot of the millennials, this is going to be their first real global crisis. They haven’t had the chance to go through any of that. So, what we’ve done is… We’re very interested and curious to hear your thoughts. You’ve broken it into a couple of sections. The first section talks to exactly what you were alluding right now, leadership in times of crisis. In light of this pandemic, what according to you defines the importance of leadership, especially during a global crisis that none of us have ever experienced before?

Kelvin:

Well said. It’s never experienced before. I think this is totally new for everyone. Even the World Health Organization is figuring out on a day by day basis what to do with it. I would say we need to, as leaders, we need to keep calm. There’s a lot going on, and people are upholding to many different directions. Something new happens every single day, if not every single hour. In March, people realized how challenging this crisis is, and now we’re talking about reopening stores. Who knows what’s going to happen? Are we going to be able to contain and not have a second wave? We need to be prepared.

Great leaders are people who would help everyone focus on what matters, because we all need to work towards one common goal. In times of crisis, we are distracted. Now, I would say a lot of leaders would appear to be calm. They would speak calmly. They would act calmly. But their actions do not necessarily reflect that if they are very anxious and they change their mind every hour or every day. As a leader, people watch what you’re doing. People listen to you. People look for direction. So, just make sure that it’s thoughtful before you act.

I would say the second thing is that things will not always go according to plan, and that’s okay. You would expect that to happen. Just over the last few months, there are a lot of issues that could have gone better. You would hear people complaining about this or that. As a leader, our job is to just bring everybody back to reality. The fact that things don’t go always according to plan, doesn’t mean that we’re unprepared. It doesn’t mean that we don’t know where we’re going. We’ve been trained our whole lives to take on the unexpected, so I would say trust your judgment, trust your experience, and then lead the way.

Last but not least, I would say people’s lives have been turned upside down. Be mindful of that. Be mindful of your team and what they’re going through. Your job as a leader is to think about how you can support them in their personal lives, and that will determine how successful they would be at work.

Bhavna:

Thank you for sharing that, Kelvin. I couldn’t agree more with what you just recommended as leaders. I just wish a lot more leaders would embody that, especially in times of crisis. Now, there are all kinds of leaders across the spectrum. What would you say are the most important skills that a leader needs for effective crisis management? Everyone’s doing crisis management, but to effectively lead at the forefront is not something that every leader can accomplish. What are your thoughts?

Kelvin:

There are many different skills that are important for effective crisis management, but it always boils down to the same leadership trait that makes you more effective than others. It starts with caring about individuals around you, because people don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care. It starts with that, and once you care about people you are interested in what’s happening to them, you’re interested in their perspective. That will result in having empathy. Empathy, we talked about that a lot, like leadership skills, empathetic leaders, but you cannot be an empathetic leader without truly caring about the individual because it just flows from caring about other people.

Empathy is about understanding where the other person’s coming from, what their perspective is, and then try to take that into account as you are devising an action plan for the next steps. I think if you do that, you would be able to bring everyone along to meet the common goal of your organization.

Bhavna:

Thank you so much, Kelvin. Empathy is key these days, and again, we see that in a lot of messages that are coming across from leaders. The one thing that we also wanted to discuss was, in a crisis situation like the one we’re going through right now, it brings out both the bad, but also the good. We’re seeing this through everyday people who are real-life heroes and doing extraordinary things. Selfless acts from our medical professionals, our healthcare workers, or those in other essential jobs like grocery store employees, how do we see the opportunity and the silver lining in a crisis?

Kelvin:

In the crisis you see, as you said, good and bad, because people want to protect the ones they love. Sometimes that looks like a selfish act, but it is also an act of love. We should never forget about that. I would just say give people a break before we judge. In terms of opportunity in a crisis, I would say a few things. First, I’ve learned that we should never waste a crisis because people tend to be… I would say change is hard, and to improve, whether yourself or your organization, you need to make change. You need to make bold change. Without a crisis, it’s hard to change habits. People are familiar with, or people are comfortable. So, take this opportunity as a crisis transform yourself, transform your organization. That’s how you’re going to be successful.

In terms of what I have observed just in my team, I’m just so proud of how they’ve all come together because the pandemic has a lot of impact to the workload of my team. It is unevenly distributed. Some people’s workload has doubled, while others have slowed down. What I’m so proud of the team is that they volunteer. Those people who have a lighter workload in the situation have volunteered to step up and help other teams, and just completely different teams. That makes me so proud of them because they’re not just selfishly thinking about their own job, their own goal or objective, but they’re thinking about those of their colleagues.

By doing that, they’re also taking assignments because they’re working on something that they would normally not work on as part of their regular day to day job. That will help them develop leadership skills and other skills. The last thing I want to talk about is one our employees did have a tragedy impacting their family, and the colleagues started a fund in order to raise money to help their friend. So, your colleagues that you see at work are really your friends, and not just colleagues, but your friends and your neighbors. Because of that, I heard about it and we are so pumped. We also then created a webpage internally to drive donations to a food bank, because with the pandemic a lot of people need help. So, I also pledged to match the donations for my team.

We made it a good initiative, a good project, something that we could all rally around, but also helping friends, family, colleagues and the community at the same time.

Bhavna:

That is absolutely wonderful. Thank you for sharing that, Kelvin. Kudos to you and to the team, and for actually bringing home the fact that everyday heroes can actually be at the workplace itself, and in a crisis, in the pandemic that we’re in. Within our teams, we can have everyday heroes.

Kelvin:

It’s interesting you mentioned that because the thing we do have a theme of our newsletter with different things that we send out, and it’s actually called Everyday Heroes. We share different heroic moments from our team members. Some shared that they are making masks, or face covers during the crisis to help people.

Bhavna:

That’s absolutely wonderful. I wanted to move on to the next question, Kelvin. In the current environment where we are all living in self isolation, whether we’re working remotely and away from our teams, or whether we’re away from our families and our loved ones, how do we go from self-isolation to self-development?

Kelvin:

The self-development is about doing something different and learning a new skill. I would say there are no shortages of work during the crisis. What we need is people to raise their hands and willing to help out. That’s how you’re going to develop. I remember one of our board members told me at the beginning of this crisis, he said, “Kelvin, you’re going to learn a lot. You’re going to work very hard, and you’re going to learn a lot. There are certain things in a regular day to day job as a CFO you would not encounter until you’ve gone through a crisis.” That’s very true. But that’s not just true for me, but for everyone, if you want to step up and raise your hand for that opportunity to express yourself.

Bhavna:

Very true, Kelvin. I guess that’s how we can all also re-skill, up-skill ourselves, and at the same time manage our careers to the extent that we can while we’re in a pandemic. How do we, as coworkers, as employees in our organizations, how would recommend as a leader that we re-evaluate our goals in light of this global pandemic?

Kelvin:

It’s interesting when you say “goal” because we have so many goals in life. I would say it’s a good time to look at your personal goals first and forget about the work, because work’s always going to be there. You need to look at what you want to achieve as an individual, as a father, as a spouse, as a friend. Then think about what you do differently. Then after that, then think about the goals at work. When you think about goals at work, you should think about the greater common goal, because if you look at leadership it’s about thinking about the greater common good for the entire organization. Those people who exhibit that type of behavior are going to be the one who would be promoted to lead your company, because those people are not selfish, they think about the entire organization, and those are the people who would get support.

I would say, first focus on yourself and your personal life, and make sure that that is in order, and you’re happy. Then think about work, but as a broader goal for the entire organization.

Bhavna:

Thank you again for that, Kelvin. Is there anything from maybe a personal example that you would like to share, where early on in the crisis, how did you manage to get the message out, and then what are you doing to stay connected with your team so that they can reach that common greater goal?

Kelvin:

Right, yeah that’s a great question because at the beginning of the crisis, there were so many moving parts. I have to adjust personally at home with my teenagers around, and I’m the type of person who likes to walk around the office, see my team, and talk to them face to face. That was quite different. I couldn’t imagine if I have elderly care I have to be responsible for, or if I have very, very young kids. So, I have to think that they are also stressed. We thought about how do we tell people or provide advice to people on how to manage your situation, but in a way that is funny? The first thing I did was make a video making fun of myself taking conference calls with my teenagers interrupting me during the call.

I think then that’s fine. I was just telling people that’s the license to deal with the crisis. People have to be interrupted during calls. Then I start getting emails on, “Well, this is what’s happening to them,” because they have to change diapers at the same times that they’re taking the calls. Sometimes they would put us on pause. We would ask questions. That individual cannot answer right away because their hands are busy. We just need to be patient. In the past, we are punctual. We want people to come on time. If we ask a question, we want the answer. I think in this situation you just need to be flexible and understand that people deal with it in their own way.

What I’ve started to do is even adapting my style. I make sure that people don’t have long pre-mail documents because then that would force people to be in front of the computer as they’re having a call. Then they cannot multitask, so we need to think about that. We also need to think about when I provide feedback to them on a particular long document. I usually like to do it once and for all, but knowing that everybody has a different schedule, they may have 15 minutes here, 15 minutes there. What I try to do is cut my review into a few sessions, and when I have half the work done, I’ll send some feedback to them so they can start looking into it.

It’s really thinking about how I could facilitate their work as opposed to everybody needs to adapt in their environment to mine.

Bhavna:

Those were some great examples, Kelvin. I’m so glad you shared them. It makes it more relevant and brings it home, like in a crisis when you see your team members either involved in personal responsibilities with their family, with their seniors, and how we are all learning to accommodate everyone as we are all going through this journey of living in the “new normal”. The example gave us small and a brief glimpse into how you might have developed as a leader during the crisis, but is there anything special that you’ve learned about yourself as a leader?

Kelvin:

Right, as a leader you learn how resilient you are and how resilient your team members are. Every time I talk to one of my team members I try to get to know them, than looking more through the callback. I try to end the call early so I can join another call a little bit earlier. Because I’m early at the other call, I can have a small chitchat and get to know them better. Everybody is dealing with, like I said, very, very different personal issues. They’re so strong. I’ve learned from a very young age even, and you know my background Bhavna, that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

As a refugee, I left my home country and my family when I was very young, in the middle of the night on a boat. We spent six days at sea. We lived in a refugee camp with nothing on our backs but our clothes. That taught me a lot. That taught me that living with a lot of people who are in the refugee camp, who are like us, that we can survive hardship. It’s the willing to live and outrun challenges that are in front of you that would determine your success. I think in a way, crises are never good. But if there’s a positive thing that comes out of the crisis, is that people will, and all of us, will learn how resilient we truly are. That would help us grow confident over time.

Bhavna:

Thank you for sharing that, Kelvin. I think you’ve, despite sharing, how in your journey from as a child when you were as a refugee to how accomplished and successful you are right now in your career. As a leader, you’ve demonstrated that you’re vulnerable. You’re opening your vulnerability. That itself creates an environment of empathy and trust. So, thank you for sharing that with us.

We’ve gone through the first section, which was more or less about leadership in times of crisis. Now we want to know how do we, as a leader, how would you consider leading teams remotely in the current everything? We have a few questions lined up for you there. Currently, we’re in week 12 of the work from home experience and there is no immediate end in sight at the moment. Whatever boundaries that there were between work and life have meshed together and kind of disappeared.

Working at a distance means working with virtual groups where trust, and understanding can be hard to develop. What are some things that you would advise as a leader should be doing to be there for their teams? I know you’ve given us enough examples, and we’ve briefly touched upon this, but if you wanted to expand a little bit more, Kelvin, that would be nice.

Kelvin:

Thanks, Bhavna. I would say again, be flexible. I think about scheduling is probably the toughest thing for my team members, and I’m sure within different teams there are different challenges. For example, last week I had invited somebody to come and speak to my management team. “I can’t make it that early because I have young kids.” So I said, “Okay, fine we’ll just re-jig the agenda and have her join us later.” I would say two things to note there, one is that she was comfortable enough to raise the issue and say, “Well, this doesn’t work for me. Can we re-jig the time?” I think that’s important. As a leader, we talk about what we do, but in times of crisis, if you want feedback, if you want to be able to deal with situations that are different from everyone, that trust was built a year or two years ago if you know what I mean.

It’s through various actions leading up to that point so that that individual would be comfortable enough to say, “The timing doesn’t work for me to come to a very senior group and make that presentation.” Secondly, we as a leader needs to be open to those ideas, and adjust your schedule to be flexible. That’s what I did too when I managed a global team in Singapore. I remember talking to them for the first time, just chitchatting about their work and their meetings. They go, “Oh yeah, I have meetings with Toronto very frequently. Usually, it’s during dinner.” I go, “What do you mean?” “Well, because of the timing. Time zone difference.” They’re eating dinner while it’s morning here in Canada.

So I heard about that, and since then I’ve purposely booked the call for when it’s their morning and it would be in the evening in Canada. That’s the least I could do to adapt to what’s convenient for them. I would say that’s important. It’s also important to stay connected. We have these weekly newsletters to stay connected on various topics. We have staff filming themselves for cooking lessons, or how they are coping with the crisis now that they have new coworkers at home. Then we now have a series talking about good new stories, sharing good news stories from our team members because there’s enough obviously bad news out there, that we want to share good news to lift everybody up.

The work would be there, and that’s very simple I would say, compared to the emotional wellbeing of our employees. That’s what I want to focus on.

Bhavna:

That’s a wonderful thought process, Kelvin. Focusing first on the emotional wellbeing of your teams and your coworkers, and once they’re in that safe zone, then automatically work will also continue to be delivered. There are certain instances, Kelvin, where it is uncertainty. These are unprecedented times. This is a lot of change for many employees, and some still might feel unmotivated or discouraged. What are some of the things you would, as a leader, do to help them stay focused and productive?

Kelvin:

Right. Well me, as a leader, that doesn’t mean I’m Superman. There are days that I feel unmotivated and discouraged as well. What I try to do is stay positive. Like I said, the first thing you need to do is make sure that your family is taken care, because family is good but they could be a distraction to work, especially when you’re all cramped in the same house. If they’re happy, then you’re happy. If they’re unhappy, you’re not going to be happy. You’re not going to be productive. So, make sure that you take care of your family first.

Then do something that makes you happy, that you enjoy, whether it is cooking, eating healthier. I started taking walks outside as I’m taking phone calls. I’m learning new recipes. I’m doing exercise. I’m in the middle of a 30 day challenge with my daughter, and then a few days ago I started up pushup challenge with my son. So, having to get various members of your family involved during an activity that would make you happy, and hopefully it’s the same for them. For me, that makes me more productive, but it’s a very personal level. You need to spend less time worrying about work.

Bhavna:

Thank you, Kelvin. One of the questions that we wanted to know was how do you see the road ahead, and what will differentiate the companies that successfully come out of this crisis, this social economic health crisis, versus the ones that don’t?

Kelvin:

I would say it’s not about the company. If you focus on the company, you will be wrong. I would say you need to focus on how this would change your customer’s behavior. I work in a bank environment, so for banks, the customers remember which bank was there for them in times of need. In the crisis, you probably see less people going to brunches, they’ll do more mobile banking or phone baking. So, focus on their change, and then focus on the change of your employees. We’ve seen huge increases in employee engagement score during this crisis. So, it tells us that our employees actually like working from home, and they’re being productive.

We need to think about how this would change the way they work, where they work. Professional companies are companies that would adapt to the changing needs of their customers and their employees. If you follow that recipe, you will be successful.

Bhavna:

That’s a pretty pertinent insight, Kelvin. Thank you so much. All the more reason for us to be agile in this remote working environment, for us to all realize that automation and technology, even if you’re not being able to see each other face to face, we can leverage automation and technology to make sure we are still connected.

Let’s shift gears to another topic. We’re seeing COVID-19 exacerbate certain cultural biases. In particular, the Asian community has been targeted with some demonstrations of intolerance. That’s not just limited in the Americas, just to the US, but we’ve seen some closer here in Canada as well. For instance, referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”, or not ordering food from Chinese restaurants. In some ways, this is bias that is spreading. How do we deal with this? And how do we deal with this subtle racism and speak up against not only in the workplace but also within our personal and social circles? Would you have any advice?

Kelvin:

Right, this obviously a very personal question, something that I care deeply about. With racism and biases, I find it’s very much based on what was our individual upbringing. I don’t think that people are necessarily born to be racist, but depending on their upbringing, they may be taught different things, and the wrong way to look at and/or deal with people who are different from them. I think that education is really important. How people dealt with the virus during this crisis, they need your reaction, maybe one of self-preservation. Or, they think its self-preservation, by avoiding ordering from Chinese restaurants. But that is because they lack education. We need to educate them.

You could do that by building allies, because if you are from the Asian community and you speak out on this bias, it seems very self-serving. But if you have a strong connection, and you have allies outside of the Chinese or Asian community, then they could also join you in shining the light on this very important topic. Once you see an injustice or some biases, I think it’s our job to call it out. A lot of people didn’t realize that they were being biased, or they were saying something that could hurt you. So, calling it out is also an opportunity to educate individuals and do that on the spot, because that’s usually the best way to get people to realize that they could have done something different.

Bhavna:

I’m glad you brought that up, Kelvin, because that brings to home the recent events that we’re seeing right now currently in the US, and the ripple on effects across the globe, and even here in Canada with the racial inequalities that have come to the forefront, and the social injustices that African Americans are going through in America right now. It is more important now, more than ever before, to increase that level of awareness and education, and to celebrate differences of background and ethnicities. What are your thoughts on how leaders like this, in such a socioeconomic and health crisis, can help build trust? This is not just with an organization. This is pervasive. It goes beyond. And also, demonstrate empathy across this ecosystem so that we can create more opportunities for equality?

Kelvin:

Right, bad things grow in the dark. When you see injustice, then you need to shine a light on it. You need to call it out. One of my colleagues, we do have internal blogs on this topic. One of my colleagues said, “Well, look back to your days in high school. You would have seen somebody being bullied. If you did nothing, didn’t you wish you would have done something? You, looking back?” I think that’s a really good call out for all of us to… This is our time to redeem ourselves for not fighting back against the bullies when we were young. It’s about awareness. It’s about education. Not everybody’s comfortable expressing their views or opinions in this situation, because they don’t know, they are afraid that if they say the wrong things people would perceive them incorrectly.

I would say it’s a journey. Dealing with school bullies is the same thing. It doesn’t mean that the only way is to go and confront the bully directly, but each of us could help in our own way by calling the teacher, by getting other people to recognize the issue, by supporting your friend who’s being bullied and lending them an ear to listen to their problems. There are various ways, and we as a community, there’s lots of opportunity to help. Also, by educating ourselves and our family. What I’ve done in the last few weeks I’ve spent time talking to my kids about these issues, and how they should deal with that, and there is injustice in the world.

Then you need to take action. It’s not just talking about it. If you recall back in Canada, I was very, very excited about the opportunity of helping this new organization called The Black Female Accountants Network, and to provide them with career advice, connect them with meaningful networks. This is how you’re going to help people grow in their career. When I was young, my parents worked in factories in Canada because they didn’t have the Canadian experience, even though they were very competent in their jobs back in my home country.

I didn’t have the uncles or aunties who would help me prepare for an interview in corporate America, let alone how to dress up for interviews. I want to make sure that I’m there for people who would need me, provide the advice on how to perform better at work, and think about the world differently. Like I said earlier, one of the most important things is to connect them with the right network, which is really, really important.

Bhavna:

I remember, Kelvin, I remember clearly. I am so proud that Ascend, even though our vision is to be leading Pan-Asian growth, we try our best to help and work with all other communities, and in particular the Black Female Professional Women Accountants Network. It’s a great initiative that we have at Ascend. These are some really amazing insights, Kelvin. Thank you so much. We really appreciate the candidness with which you have shared these perspectives specifically on what leaders can do to effectively lead their companies during this unprecedented time of uncertainty.

You have also gone a little above and beyond that, by giving us not just guidance, but also tools and tips on how can we get out there and get engaged and more involved, whether it’s from a personal perspective, whether it’s from a family perspective, from a coworker lens, or from a customer point of view. Thank you. Are there any final thoughts that you would like to share with our listeners today?

Kelvin:

First, thanks for the opportunity. I know that I’ve moved down to the US. I’m glad that you still remember me. This is a great opportunity for me to share my thoughts. I will say the last thing is that I’ve always said this before, in life, it’s never about you. It’s about the people around you. If you spend the time and dedicate your energy making other people successful, then you will be successful. Just remember that.

Bhavna:

I can actually vouch and say that you’ve actually demonstrated that. You do walk the talk, and you have demonstrated that, Kelvin. Of course, Ascend Canada is not going to forget you. You’re our papa bear.

Kelvin:

Thank you so much.

Bhavna:

We will always, always, always be with you, as you will be connected to Ascend Canada. On behalf of myself, I also wanted to give a big thank you to Ascend Canada for giving me the opportunity to host this wonderful session with you, Kelvin. On behalf of our listeners, I’d like to thank you for joining us today, and for sharing these wonderful insights on this so relevant topic today. Thank you so very much, Kelvin.

Kelvin:

Well, thank you. Well, thank you all. I hope you leave a comment and share this post.

Bhavna:

Perfect. Thank you.

Kelvin:

Thanks, have a good one. Bye.