At a ripe young age of 15, PSA International, a global port operator headquartered in Singapore is on the path to becoming an industry champion.

Born out of the former government-owned Port of Singapore Authority, PSA now operates in about 17 countries with a flagship operation in Singapore and another in Europe. Annually the firm handles about 10 percent share of all container port traffic in the world.

Tan Chong Meng is the Group CEO of PSA International. After 23 years at Shell, he took the helm at PSA in 2011 – just as the global shipping industry came to a screeching halt following the Global Financial Crisis.

I’ve known Chong Meng for many years and what I really appreciate about him is that he never says what I’m expecting him to say. He always causes me to reflect and challenge some of my own views. Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing him for our series on Driving Growth and he did not disappoint!  He spoke with me about his experience driving growth in PSA and shared his advice for growth leaders (Watch the interview here: Part One | Part Two).

In this blog, I’ll share some of my own takeaways and insights gained from this interview.

We all want that list of “8 secrets to growing your business.” But a better starting point is a deep understanding of the context within which we compete and insights into the factors separating the winners from the rest. Chong Meng spoke about growth paradigms that shape the ways in which these winners arise.

This is a great way of saying that there is no silver bullet when it comes to driving growth. Spend less time studying companies that are en vogue – and instead, study what will truly differentiate the industry champions from the also-rans.

port280Culture – like personality – is like a rubber band. It can stretch and change, but there are limitations to how far it can go beyond its original shape. Leaders often believe they can fundamentally change a company’s culture rather quickly. Few actually succeed.

Often we chalk this up to poor change processes and capabilities, but perhaps it’s because we don’t start with deep insights into who we really are and who we want to be. Once this is clear, a path for culture adaptation is possible – which is necessary to support global expansion over time.

As companies expand into new markets and increase their portfolio of assets, goods and services, they become increasingly complex. Eventually this complexity can impede growth. When companies are in expansion mode, they often place higher value on planting a flag in a market and getting a new customer. Later, they place higher value on synergies and standardisation.

This can lead to “boom splat” approaches to change – which exhaust and demotivate all involved. Growth leaders replace this with an obsession with finding ways to scale – and of constantly driving for synergies and standardisation from the bottom up – not top down.

port2280Many new CEOs come in and define a new strategic direction for their company. Few take the opportunity to leverage this experience to build commitment and to develop the next level of leaders. When Chong Meng took over as Group CEO, he chose not to drive his own agenda but to build a shared agenda for growth. He did this in a way that helped his less senior leaders think and act strategically.

This highlights an important quality of a growth leader – the capacity to deliver a growth strategy in the short-term, whilst building longer term strategic capabilities in his leadership team.

Over time, global companies codify a great deal of expertise in the form of standards and processes. This can be a great enabler of growth. At the same time, it can reduce the organisation’s capacity to change. These days we hear a lot about organisational agility in the context of responding to competitive pressures or marketplace change.

Growth requires ongoing adaptation and the resilience to cope with the stress and challenge this brings. Like Chong Meng, growth leaders can nurture organisational agility by balancing the entry of external hires with new perspectives and skill sets with the development of internal talent with deep expertise in the industry and company. Most importantly, they need to find ways to get them all to collaborate to solve real problems of growth.

In our interview, I expected Chong Meng to talk about how Asian companies compare to their Western counterparts. Instead, he shared special insights into the rich context within which companies can grow and some important lessons for growth leaders keen to grow themselves for the future of their company.