The Chief Listener

For the award-winning founder of Vistage Malaysia, the ear is king.

Vistage Chair Richard Wong has found that the inability to listen is a universal problem. “Working in finance, and in my first three years of Chairing, I discovered that many CEOs were terrible listeners,” he says. “They hire experts and don’t listen to them.”

“Some of my fellow Chairs have asked me, ‘Richard, what are the best questions to ask a struggling member?’ I tell them that is a bad question.” If you start a meeting armed with questions, Wong explains, you won’t listen and will miss the context of the issue. “Listen fully, and you’ll know what to ask.”

He uses a typical example to illustrate his point.  “A Chair plans a one-to-one with a member about his strategic plan for the coming session. But right away, he notices the member is tense.”  Wong posits that this member has just lost two major contracts. “As his Chair, you don’t want to engage him on his strategic plan as you intended. You want to ask questions relating to his current state of being—how he feels about the lost contracts and what serious impact, if any, it will have on the business.”

Wong believes that effective listening begins with self-awareness. To listen, he explains, you must be present, which can’t happen if you aren’t physically and
energetically grounded.

Omitted from his impressive résumé, which includes reinventing Malaysia’s struggling Nylex Group into a publicly traded and highly profitable company, is his eighth-degree black belt in combat pukulan, a system of self-defense that has its roots in the Malay archipelago. He is also a longtime qigong practitioner. Before each group meeting, he draws on this expertise to conduct energy-alignment exercises with his members. “CEOs often have too much yang—aggressive energy. This interferes with listening.”

Wong also believes physical fitness is a condition of effective leadership, and that health is too often neglected by business leaders. He asks all of his members to maintain a fitness regime. “Every year they must do a checkup. They share the results on the screen.” He laughs. “They love to make fun of each other for missing health goals. But this is how they hold each other accountable for their most valuable personal asset.”

As of late, Wong’s members are in the best shape of their lives. This is important—the group has agreed to climb 17,000 feet to Mount Everest base camp in March 2018. “All of my 16 members are committed to doing this. If they are overweight or have high blood pressure, they have all gone to their doctors to ask what they need to do to get in shape. Already some of their doctors can’t believe how they’ve turned their health around.”

When asked about a time he most helped a member, he turns serious. “Probably my most significant accomplishment as a mentor was saving a member’s marriage.”  Wong explains that he did not tell the member why he should stay married. Instead, he asked him to rate his spouse and himself on the various criteria of a good marriage. “The member gave himself a lower score in every category! On his own, he was able to discover why he valued his partner and acknowledge that perhaps his behavior was the problem.”

Though Chairs are often figured as coaches, it would be more apt to call Wong a guide: He guides his members on a journey of self-discovery and improvement. In this way, he can observe and help the whole person. He doesn’t have to guess at what they’re going through; he tries to really listen.

Wong points out that his philosophy of listening is rooted in the Chinese written language. “The character for ‘listen’ can be broken down into three parts: the ear is king, with all eyes and one heart.” He adds, “Notice that in Chinese, listening has nothing to do with the mind.”

Richard Wong receives the 2017 Cope Award from Vistage CEO Sam Reese. The award symbolizes service, selflessness, and commitment.