Failing Forward

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We all fear failure. But failure — even the most costly ones — can teach us the most valuable lessons in life. Here’s how Albert Teo learned from the MBA School of Hard Knocks:

1. Greedy Weeds

Shortly after opening the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, Albert offered free board to UK university students to clear salvinia molesta weeds that were choking up an oxbow lake near his resort. The students cleared all of the weeds by hand — or, well, almost all. Within a few short years, the remaining weeds grew back with a vengeance, effectively killing the lake.

Although the project failed, it led to serendipitous success. Upon hearing of Albert’s efforts to save the lake, the British Airways bestowed the lodge with the Tourism for Tomorrow award — the first award of many more to come.

 

2. Rusty Tanks

Most local villagers at Sukau owned iron water tanks that rusted easily. Wanting to contribute to the local community around his lodge, Albert brought in high-density fibreglass water tanks for the villagers who didn’t already own them. “The people who got the tanks were very happy, but those who didn’t get it created a backlash. We made more enemies than friends,” Albert said.

The ill-will he generated from attempting to do good created an aha moment for Albert. He realized he was culpable in creating a culture of dependency among the villages. People, in general, did not value what they got for free. They were not happier. He had done nothing to increase their capacity to earn and stand up for themselves.

Learning from past mistakes, he launched micro-finance projects that required partnerships to be built. He also provided free medical services to the villages. “Everyone sick deserves to be treated. The healthy cannot say ‘you cannot treat him. Although medical work is expensive, over the next ten years, we saw people getting better,” Albert said.

Learning from past mistakes does not mean discarding old ideas. In early 2012, Albert’s community NGO partnered with ConocoPhillips, Edith Cowan University, Skycommunity and the Rotary Club to distribute water tanks to villagers in Kudat, one of the poorest areas in Sabah. “The villagers were spending too much time collecting water for family chores. They were not using this time for productive economic activities that generate income,” Albert said. But this time, instead of doing all the work from beginning to the end, the entire community was engaged to bring in the water tanks and install the platforms for the water tanks. “This time round, we learned how to work alongside each other and do the work with them – and not for them,” Albert said.

 

3. Book Reading

Albert Teo believes in his heart of hearts that the key to leadership and personal growth lies in reading. I’ve never seen him go anywhere without a book.

Due to his unbridled enthusiasm for books, he developed a book-reading program at Borneo Eco Tours that was yoked to their annual performance reviews. Junior staff had to read two books a year; managers were required to read eight books. Everyone had to write book summaries. That program accelerated his staff’s ability to speak, read and write in English – an essential skill for engaging with international tourists.

“Every book written is a life of experience you can draw from without making the same mistakes. I can live many lives in my lifetime simply by reading books,” Teo said.

Despite the plus points, it soon became apparent that this program was overwhelming some competent staff who could not, or did not like to read. Albert’s managers asked him to stop the program. “It’s chasing away some of your people,” they said. So Albert scrapped the program for a year. But his fanatical passion for books never waned.

A few months ago, Albert resurrected his book-reading initiative — into an incentive program. He set aside a sum of RM7000 to be shared by anyone who has completed their quota of book reading and summaries. “The staff are no longer forced to read. If only ten of them achieved the quota, each will receive RM700 each. We’re rewarding those who invest in their personal growth.”

 

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