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A Deep Insight into the Award-Winning Work Culture at ROHEI

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Text by Teo Ren Feng; Photography by Yew Jia Jun

There’s something a little different in the air, once you step into ROHEI’s office. First off, everyone I happen to pass by offers a ready smile or friendly nod my way. Wandering into the reception area and feeling slightly lost, I am immediately offered assistance from employees who are eager to point me in the right direction. This cheery helpfulness and good-naturedness isn’t quite the norm one would expect, but Rachel Ong, founder and chief executive of ROHEI, is on a mission to cultivate the best work environment for companies around the world.

ROHEI is a learning and consulting partner that offers training and development for leaders in the workplace, and its mission is to “inspire hope, joy, courage and purpose in the global workforce”. Although it may seem like a tall order for an 11-year-old Singapore enterprise, the company is primed to lead the charge.

What I had experienced first-hand was a uniquely ROHEI practice that employees call “a perfect greeting”. It’s a hospitality practice meant to make guests feel like a friend they’re delighted to see. Not simply done out of rote requirement, but rather from a greater culture of trust, ownership and competency, it doesn’t come as a surprise that ROHEI has a string of awards under its belt, and constantly ranks highly as one of the best workplaces in Asia.

We speak to the well-regarded leader to learn more about what goes into creating a happy work culture for employees to thrive in and enjoy going to work.

HIGH NET WORTH: Have you always wanted to run your own business?

RACHEL ONG: I’m more of an introvert and I was a very shy child growing up. I wanted to play the piano professionally or to be a librarian. I feel that where I am today is something that I was called to do rather than something that I had planned to do. I am an accidental business owner.

What drives you?

The push factor for me is the mission. How do we as leaders create work environments where our staff can come in and feel like they are part of a larger community, yet at the same time, flourish and be happy? That’s what drives me.

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What is ROHEI’s purpose then?

ROHEI is a Hebrew word which means “shepherd”, and our role in the workforce is to shepherd and to nudge. We do three things: help companies build trust, develop relationally competent leaders, and navigate the people aspect of change. Ultimately, we hope to achieve our mission of inspiring Hope, Joy, Courage and Purpose in the global workforce.

What do you find most rewarding in your current role?

I think it’s the community that we’ve built here at ROHEI. It’s a safe workplace: there are zero office politics and gossip—we don’t tolerate gossip here. If there are issues or conflicts, we give each other feedback and resolve it on the spot.

How do you consciously build such a culture? 

The culture of any group is always determined by the worst behaviour a leader is willing to tolerate. So what are we not willing to tolerate? Everyone has personal weaknesses and it’s part of human frailty. But the kind of behaviour we will not tolerate is gossip. We give feedback when handling disagreements and have peer reviews after every project. For example, if a programme ends at 6pm, the consultants will work till 7pm to examine how they can learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

As the CEO, are you also subject to feedback?

Of course. I recently had an intern come up to me and say, “Rachel, I want to give you a gift.” If it’s not your birthday or Christmas, then you know the gift is some form of feedback—a correction to help us improve. He told me about how I had greeted him the week before and asked how he was doing. While he was answering my question, someone entered the room and my attention shifted to the person. So I didn’t really listen even though I started a conversation first.

In any other company that might seem really bold.

It’s great that we are able to give each other feedback regardless of our age, gender and designation. If he’s able to give me feedback, then I’m sure he can do the same for everybody else. In order to create a safe working environment, it’s important to build a culture of trust. I must be able to trust my colleagues and know they have my back, as well as the organisation’s. It’s more than just a working relationship—it’s about growing together and playing a part in the workforce.

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ROHEI has a very good engagement rate with the millennial generation. What’s the secret?

Many of our staff are hired as interns first, to see if they are a good fit. Once they finish their studies, they come and join us. Millennials today are looking for a cause to believe in—it’s not about financial gain anymore, especially because in Singapore, our society is wealthier as a whole. So we show them our purpose, and how that adds value to society. We engage and promote millennials, and consciously let them know that we place our trust in them. One of our leaders in the largest arm is barely 30 years old. She became deputy head at around 27 or 28, because she is competent, reliable, and has low self-interest. She’s very good at her work and has a 57-year-old staff who reports to her. There is mutual respect between both of them.

How do you engage employees across different stages of their careers?

At ROHEI, we always tell each other that “your age qualifies you”. It’s because you are young, that’s why you are promoted. It’s because you’re young, that’s why you are here. And it’s also because you are older, that’s why you are here—we value your experience and wisdom. Eng Eng was 50 when she joined us, and now she’s 57. Another of our employees, Reena, was 53 and she’s 60 now. We see value at every age.

Is that why ROHEI has a low attrition rate?

We are all full-time staff in an industry where most other companies are made up of part-time, commission-based associates. We cannot build a company with part-timers who have loyalty to ten companies. We also hope to afford employees some peace of mind by paying a full-time rate, and not a commission-based rate. Over time, that approach has worked well for us because we are able to build loyalty and also deepen our sense of culture and relationships. Some of our long-time clients have worked with the same consultants for the entire time. We’ve grown together with them and our consultants know them well enough to even attend their weddings, funerals and children’s birthday parties. 

We also try not to rush into hiring, so that helps us actively shape and maintain the environment and culture in ROHEI. Most of our staff leave us due to atypical reasons such as getting married overseas.

By hiring and paying your staff a full-time rate, it shows that you’re more invested in them than most of your peers who hire on a part-time basis.

I don’t believe in being a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ as a career. If you want to make a living and be responsible professionally, working to find your niche is beneficial and profitable to all parties in the workplace, and that’s what we try and help our people with too.

We have many employees who have developed and found their strengths within the company. For example, there is Belle, who previously worked in IT at a bank, and was hired with us under Guest Experiences. We found that she has the ability to make everyone feel motivated, and could plan and project-manage. So we gave her an opportunity to transition, and now she’s our director of operations.

There’s also Karen who was in project management, but felt that she could be contributing more. So we gave her about a year to try out a new role in business development. Now, she is flourishing as the team head and brings in a lot of meaningful deals. We have many stories like that where we help people to realise their full potential, and everyone at ROHEI—myself included—has a coach and mentor whom they can always look to for help along the way.

Why is Trust so important in your organisation?

We’ve defined Trust at ROHEI using an equation: Credibility + Reliability + Safety, over Self-Interest.

Credibility stands for how competent you are in your work. The higher your competency, the more trust you receive. Reliability means whether you will show up meaningfully for me, when you say you will. This means deadlines for example, and in class when consultants are doing work. You need to do your part, as do I—will you show up meaningfully and give your hundred per cent together with me?

Lastly, Safety refers to whether people feel safe around you. Do you have such a bad or erratic temperament that it’s hard for others to be around you? A person that is safe to be with is one that doesn’t judge or jump to conclusions too quickly, and doesn’t give in or give up easily.

So Trust equals Credibility, Reliability and Safety, over Self-Interest. The equation means that the higher your self-interest is, the lower the trust that people will have in you. There are various permutations of this formula, and it’s our own way of ensuring that some elements are non-negotiable. It’s not enough if people feel safe around, you have to be competent as well.

Safety is an often overlooked aspect when it comes to rating a leader’s performance.

A senior management personnel attended our programme with his team, and when we talked about the Trust equation, he bravely came up to the front of the class and asked his team if they trusted him, based on the equation. Everyone was stunned. On the areas of self-interest, credibility and reliability, he got great feedback, however, when it came down to safety, the whole room went silent. As it turned out, he had an explosive temper that was hard for his employees to read—they didn’t know if telling him something might set him off. At the end, he was really humble about the information and asked to be coached on how to become a safer leader. He has worked with us for a year and is now a very ‘safe’ leader who recently got promoted to a global-level position.

Does ROHEI’s Trust equation always apply across different work situations?

All our content has to be robust. I use this equation and throw different situations at it, just to make sure that it is sound. In fact, the Trust equation doesn’t just apply to senior management, but also middle managers and even parents. In my youth work, I ask parents if they are ‘safe’ to be with, and their level of self-interest in the act of parenting: Do they want their kids to do well so that they look good, or is it truly for their children’s benefit? 

What have been the guiding principles in building ROHEI’s culture?

We need Skillfulness of Hands, Integrity of Heart or Honesty, and Authenticity. Authenticity is very important. I will admit that I often write emails to everyone at ROHEI telling them that what I did may not be as good as it should be, and how I’ve learnt from my mistakes. But the wonderful thing about ROHEI is that while we have corrections, we also have a lot of public affirmations to acknowledge what each person has done specifically. There are WhatsApp chat groups where we give special shoutouts to each other and to those working on especially challenging projects. We make known that we recognise their efforts and contributions.

It’s a rough ratio of 5 affirmations to 1 course-correcting direction, which is usually not about the character, but maybe about how someone approaches participants or speaks to them. And corrections are always done one-on-one, so two people might be quarrelling but no one else knows except them. We’ve learnt and taught every staff how to reconcile with each other or with each team, so that everyone works in a happy environment.

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What is the role of leaders in building a good company culture?

I think the number one responsibility of a leader is to recognise reality. And their second responsibility is to be able to restore trust or continue to build trust. Leaders who can understand reality and build trust are the most powerful. Powerful in the sense that they are able to make change, and draw the right conclusion. When you interpret a situation accurately, you are able to respond appropriately. 

Finally, what are key characteristics of a good leader?

Out in the workforce, our relationships are always tested, even when you are great friends. Every time you pass a test, there will be another or a bigger test ahead. As a company, we are not exempt from these trials too—which is why building a culture of trust is so integral to what we do, because in the absence of trust, every action and decision become suspicious. But in the presence of trust, you know that the other party has your best intentions at heart.

We are here to help companies resolve internally, so that they become more relationally competent. While we tell other leaders that this or that can be done, true growth only happens when we get rid of ego and pride, and slay all the personal giants that we have in ourselves. That’s the only way a leader can flourish at work and in relationships. 

This interview is part of Influential Brands® series. InfluentialBrands® recognises Brand Excellence & Leadership in Asia. The article was developed in collaboration with High Net Worth.