I was supposed to have a podcast episode with Mr. Aleks Tan, the present Chief Executive Officer of OMF Literature, one of the top Christian publishing houses in the Philippines. But as it turned out, our schedules totally didn’t agree with each other, that’s why I ended up doing an email interview with him instead.
I enjoyed reading Aleks’ responses and it encouraged me in the pursuit of excellence in my field. I hope it encourages you to do the same.
Please describe your present career: what work are you doing now. Are you enjoying it so far?
Hi, Mighty. First I’d like to say thanks for the chance to share a bit of my journey with you and your growing audience. I’ve looked at some of the material on your site and am quite impressed and excited. Surely, many Pinoy yuppies will find invaluable help and encouragement here! I’ve actually toyed with the idea of putting up something similar, but you beat me to it! You’re doing a great job, brother.
Now onto your question.
I work at OMF Literature, the country’s largest Christian publishing house, where I have served in various capacities for 12 years now. (Hey, now that I think about it, I celebrate my anniversary with the company this month!) Last July 2013, I took over the role of CEO following the retirement of my boss. Before that, I served as COO for a year, which was preceded by various roles in Marketing and Sales, including a stint heading the in-house creative team.
Am I enjoying? Oh, yes. But not in the giddy, road-trip kind of way. I am getting acquainted with a new kind of enjoyment that entails a measure of seriousness and challenge, mixed with a lot of laughter and satisfaction, and held together by my faith in God’s call to serve at OMF Lit. Since I took on the role of CEO, I’ve been telling people that they shouldn’t mind me when they see me limping around. That’s because I’m still getting used to wearing these new and really big shoes! The two former CEOs before me, under whose leadership I had had the privilege of serving, have left a legacy of faithfulness and excellent leadership—really big shoes!—that I now find myself having to wear to work every day. It is both honoring and humbling.
Being CEO is fun—the three-word equivalent of rewarding, I guess—once you realize and embrace that you have been given a rare opportunity to impact the trajectory of an organization and the people it serves, both internal and external. More and more, I am convinced that being CEO of OMF Lit is a calling, not just to be an executive but also to be a pastor (in the shepherding sense), given that our organization is a Christian ministry run by men and women who have a very strong sense of calling to Christian service.
Did you always imagine yourself working in this field? What was your college background? Is your present job in line with your bachelor’s degree?
I never imagined being in publishing! In fact, my university training was in the natural sciences. Would you believe, I once entertained the idea of a career that has me wearing a white robe, hand washing religiously, and badgering people to good health! But it appears God had other plans for me. Interestingly, I never felt quite at home in the very orderly world of science. Middle-brained me could appreciate the sterile box in which science thrived, but I was just not cut out for it. I guess I harbored a bit of artistic chaos in me that yearned for expression. Case in point: For bonus points in one microbiology exam, the professor asked us to write a fictitious story that would weave together all the lab experiments we’ve had for the term. I welcomed this bonus item because I wasn’t doing well answering the main questions! And so I wrote about bacteria and petri dish with as much flourish as I could muster. While he was returning to us our graded blue books, the professor read my story to the class! He said he found it engaging and that I should consider a career in creative writing. I laughed and brushed it off. If he knew where I am working now, he would probably be laughing too. And I’d let him.
[Mighty’s notes: In discovering your passion and calling, pay attention to the little nuggets of encouragement that other people around you notice.]
How did you arrive at your present position/situation? Was it a difficult road?
Although I did not plan on a career in book publishing, looking back now, I believe I am where I’m supposed to be. I’ve always loved books, and I dabble with writing myself. In the late 90s I was part of a small group of university students who wrote for an abstinence campaign called True Love Waits. I also did illustrations for that project. Our work was published and used nationwide to train youth workers on the TLW principles. That experience made me realize how good a fit I was to publishing. Not long after, while I was working as a research assistant for government-funded projects, I got an invitation from OMF Lit’s then-CEO, Ramon Rocha, to join the publisher’s marketing department. I was easily attracted to the multi-disciplinary nature of marketing work which allowed me to use my creative design gifts, facility with numbers, and public speaking skills. I was part of an infusion of new blood at a then-forty-year-old company. And I thrived.
In hindsight, I am overwhelmed to see fingerprints of God’s grace scattered across my professional journey. When I started out at OMF Lit in my early 20s, I easily became the unofficial “PowerPoint guy” who created presentations and operated the multi-media set-up for the CEO. Financial reports and strategic documents would find themselves on my desk as I worked with the CEO to design his slides. At my job level that time, I wasn’t supposed to be privy to such information. I understood this and was careful to consider myself privileged that I could learn more about the organization’s operational big picture. As “PowerPoint guy” I sat through many board meetings to set up the LCD (which entailed dismantling one of the PC stations so we could use the CPU at the board meeting; laptops were a luxury back then, and only the CEO had one.) I was a fly on the wall, a shepherd-boy David who suddenly found himself in the royal courts. Little did I know, that my training to become CEO years later had begun.
[Mighty’s notes: Don’t consider any job “too small” for you. Sometimes, small things really lead to great opportunities.]
How did you invest on your career growth?
I did not. Well, at least not consciously. When I started work, I was not aware of the concept of a career path. I was drawn to publishing work mainly because I believed in the power of words, especially words anchored in Scripture. I’ve seen how words have transformed my own life. And getting a front-seat row to see how words can also change other people’s lives was too good to pass up.
When I was starting out in publishing, I just did what I was asked to do as excellently as I could—and a little bit more. I worked hard and stayed away from fence sitters and complainers. (I called them “nega-stars”.) I did not count the hours or keep account of the extra things I did on top of my official duties. I was young, single, and hungry (literally and figuratively!) and so I devoured all the new things I encountered. During my job interview, I remember telling HR I would work for books. Thankfully, they paid me in cash.
I enjoyed what I was doing, and I learned to enjoy what I didn’t know how to do. When I was asked to do something I felt I didn’t know how to do, I… Googled. Seriously. And at the risk of dating myself, I should say that not everyone back then knew the magic of Google! I researched and learned and did the job. You can say that I invested in my career growth by giving my heart to it. I looked at what I was doing as a life vocation and not just a livelihood. Cliché as it might sound, passion does yield very good returns.
The organization also invested in my growth, for which I am exceedingly thankful. At 26, I was sent to the US for training in the sales and marketing aspects of publishing. I now see this as a turning point—by this time, I had fallen in love with Christian publishing and OMF Lit, and there was no turning back. That trip—my first overseas (and yes, I saw snow)—was to be first of many in this ongoing journey. We’re a practical company, and so everyone travels economy. But, just as I’m learning how to navigate this new life as a CEO, I’ve learned how to get a good seat on a long-haul flight, one that has more legroom and away from the noisy flight crew reheating food. I’ve also devised a strategy for dealing with jetlag. I will share that with you if you promise to buy me coffee.
On the matter of investing in career growth, I would like to point out that this is mainly the responsibility of the professional and not his or her organization. Sure, you should convince your company to send you to training events, but you should not let the lack of those opportunities hamper your growth. There are books (lots at OMF Lit!). There are online resources like TedTalks, YouTube, and websites such as this one, that offer an impressive wealth of insight and information to help yuppies better themselves. In this age of accessible information, crowd-sourcing, and free content, there is really no excuse to stay ignorant or professionally stunted.
Can you tell us a career mistake or setback you’ve encountered? How did you deal with it?
I have had my share of mistakes, and I still keep adding to that bag! Most of them are too embarrassing to immortalize on the Internet! But one thing I would share though is this that I’ve made the mistake of expecting people to be like me—in the way I think, work, and act. Of course, modeling is key to leadership. But cloning and forcing people into a mold is another thing. I realized that this expectation was stifling progress. It isolated me from the power of diversity and synergy. My people felt they were always trying to measure up to my standards. The Lord revealed to me that this expectation stemmed from pride, self-reliance, and insecurity. I am now learning to appreciate the differences among my managers with an eye for helping them grow professionally and creating a space for them to use their God-given talents, and, yes, make mistakes and learn from them. All this while working hard to stay focused on organizational objectives and goals. These words of Martin Luther King, Jr have helped me gain perspective as a leader: “Whom you must change, you must first love.” Love, I am learning, is the key.
How do you increase your level of influence in the organization?
When I was starting out, I was conscious that the burden of building relationships with my workmates was mine. I was the new kid, and so I knew I had to learn to get along with everyone and not expect everyone else to go out of their way to accommodate me. Turned out, the people were very warm and welcoming, so it was easier than I had expected. My role in marketing entailed cross-functional interactions and so I readily built friendships in different departments. It helped that I was a frustrated stand-up comedian and so I had people in stitches. (Naturally, HR spotted this talent and I was emceeing everything in no time.) For me, the intention to build connections on all levels of the organization was not driven by a desire to “increase my level of influence”. Instead, it was driven by a desire to belong, to bless others and be blessed by them as we all work towards a common goal. Oh, and it made asking for food easier!
How do you develop relationships and your networks in and out of the organization?
I am terrible at networking. I realize I need to work harder at this, especially in my role as CEO. When I was just starting out as a COO and then later as CEO, I did not really place much importance on attending industry events (unless I had a part in the program) and cocktail parties where people traded business cards (which you have to receive with both hands with a slight bow, mind you). I am more excited about one-on-one meetings to explore ideas, synergies, intersections of purpose. Now I try to be more open and accessible, with an understanding that networking has its value—yes, even for a very introverted industry like book publishing.
Social media networks are a great platform for creating and keeping up with professional contacts. But I try to limit work interactions on Facebook because I use it more for personal interactions and for posting half-formed thoughts that do not live long enough to become full-blown blog posts. I’m more comfortable about using Twitter for work-related networking and general public engagement, like for talking to MMDA or commenting on current events. In my Twitter profile, I wrote, “Learning to talk to strangers here.”
As for relationships within the organization, I’m fortunate in that I have been with the company a long time and enjoy a solid foundation of relationships. But relationships, like plants, need to be nurtured. I intend to do MBWA, that is, “management by walking around,” more often to check the pulse of the organization. We have stores and offices in various cities in the country, and so visiting them quarterly to have in-person interactions with our people there is also important to me.
Any piece of advice you can recommend to those who have just entered the work force?
To those who are new in the work place, I say, “Work is fun! But it’s a lot of work!” And that means inconveniences, challenges, problems, which, when you surmount them, can give you a sense of satisfaction and delight. I am alarmed that more and more new entrants into the work force are showing aversion to the drudgery and inconvenience of actual work. They feel entitled to perks right away, just because they did really well in school or just because they esteem their skills quite highly (and most of the time, erroneously).
God intended for work to be meaningful and to bring Him glory. And so I would advise the young ones to discern the kind of work that they would give their years to. This doesn’t happen automatically. For many, it is a journey of hits and misses, applications and resignations, learning and unlearning. But wherever you find yourself working, be grateful, be a blessing, and be mindful of something much bigger than your paycheck—the Kingdom of God. Wherever you are, work for the Big Boss.