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Becoming FIDI president

Jun 16, 2015
Rob Chipman is CEO of Asian Tigers in Hong Kong and, in April, became FIDI president. The day after his inauguration, Rob made time to talk to Steve Jordan about the presidency, its challenges and how he feels about leading the organisation.


“It really is humbling and daunting,” said Rob, as he sipped his first coffee of the day in the breakfast room of the FIDI conference hotel in Cape Town.  “I know it’s a cliché, but that’s the way it makes me feel. I look at many of the members and think they know a lot more than I do, they have been in the industry longer and have been more commercially successful.”  Rob is also greatly honoured to be FIDI president.  “It gives me chills just thinking about it.”

What did he mean by ‘daunting’?  Rob chooses his words carefully.  When I ask a question he doesn’t answer immediately.  He thinks about it.  That’s not because he’s indecisive, it’s because he wants to give you the right answer. 

“Most of us run fairly small businesses, even the big ones have one or two people making the decisions.  There is healthy debate then a decision is made and action is taken.  Most of the time its right and if it’s wrong you change it. There is a bias for action.  But in an organisation like FIDI, there is a bias for politics.  You have to spend a lot of time making sure people are happy, even people on the fringe of any issue, so that you haven’t lost their attention and engagement. So you spend a lot of time doing that.  Decisions risk being dumbed down to make sure everyone is in. That’s the way it is.  It’s a collective effort.” 

Rob explained that it requires a whole different skill set.  As he moved up from local association president through the FIDI vice presidency he got more used to it.  “When you get to president it’s all you think about. It’s often said that when people get on the FIDI Board they change.  I think that’s why.”

“You have to have faith and confidence in your vision and judgement,” he said.  “You have to temper that with your own self doubts.  What you get wrong sticks with you.  It’s easy in the abstract to be a strong leader but sometimes even when you know you are right, you can still be wrong.  If I get something wrong in my business the impact stops with me and I have to deal with it.  If I make a mistake here, and it affects other peoples’ companies; how am I going to live with myself after that? Historically I think that has prevented people from making tough decisions in FIDI.” 

With the FIDI presidency comes a huge workload.  The Board are physically together for at least four weeks of the year, then there are sub-committee meetings and endless conference calls.  But Rob doesn’t mind.  His business in Hong Kong runs well and he describes his team there as ‘all stars’.  He said that when you are in that position it’s easy to lose your business edge; to become complacent.  That’s not his way.  “So if you take on challenges, your perspectives expand,” he explained.  “You learn to look at things from other peoples’ points of view and are much better for the experience.”  Nor is he worried about the bureaucracy.  “I’m not sure it’s all good but it’s there for a reason and there are good aspects that you can draw from.  FIDI is very process oriented. It’s a good reminder of how important process is. It helps you to keep a broader perspective.”

So does Rob see his role as that of a statesman or a business leader?  This one he pauses over a little longer than the other questions.  He recognises the need for a figurehead, but he wants to be a leader too.  “The difference between managers and leaders is that managers do things right, leaders do the right things,” he said, profoundly.  “That’s been a big thought for me over the last few days.  There are many good managers in FIDI but it’s the leaders that can make the biggest impact.”

Rob said that nobody wants FIDI to concentrate on managing itself.  They want it to serve its members.  “You can spend a lot of time on the rules and being internally focussed,” he said, “but the mission is to help everybody get better and win more business.  Both are important.  You can’t ignore one in favour of the other.  However for some reason being inward looking has more gravity to it.  Maybe that’s because it’s more tangible.” 

So what are ‘the right things’ for FIDI?  Rob says he’s still distilling them down.  “You have to be careful.  No matter how good an idea seems there will be people who don’t like it.  You can create turmoil.  You want to be visionary, but that’s difficult because you have to consider other people’s views.  As your ideas become more concrete, they can become less impactful.” 

FAIM is, for Rob, a great asset.  But he says it has become something of a ‘tick box’ process.  “We need to take this great USP and figure out how to make people realise that it’s really something: it makes a difference.  Our ultimate dream is for buyers to ask for FAIM certification.  In the past people have always thought that once they have the certification and put the logo on their stationery, the job is done.  It’s not done.  The harder part is tackling the abstract of believing in it and making your clients believe in it too.  That’s not easy at all.  If FAIM became a base-line requirement for all corporations, that would be our dream of dreams.”

He explained that to achieve this you have to match the requirements of FAIM with the needs of affiliates and their customers.  “It probably needs to be more demanding and toothy.  We are moving in that direction.  We need to get it to the stage when corporates see its significance.  They are operating under the scrutiny of their shareholders, the public and the press.  We are operating under the scrutiny of the FIDI affiliates.  It’s hard to reconcile those perspectives.”

Bridging the gap, Rob said, will require a common message from FIDI and all the affiliates so that corporations can appreciate FAIM’s significance to them.  We need to distil the message to a few talking points so that conversations always remain specific and people don’t wander off topic.  People need to remember to address the question ‘what’s in it for me’ from the customer’s perspective. 

Being FIDI President is a difficult job.  Many have been rattled by it in the past.  But will Rob enjoy it?  “I am going to enjoy it,” he said.  “I love working with the Board. It’s just the right size, it’s really productive and the level of commitment from the people is phenomenal.  It’s the right blend of the right people.  I like the way it works.”

Is he nervous about the next two years?  “Sure I’m nervous,” he admits. “You have to be nervous if you want to do your best.”

Photos: Rob Chipman; Senior Asian Tigers executives, left to right: Raymond Chu: Vice President, Operations; Rob Chipman: CEO; Mabel Liu: Vice President, Finance and Administration and YB Ng: Senior Vice President, Sales and Marketing.

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