By Sudibyo M. Wiradji. Published in The Jakarta Post, October 12, 2013.
Carl Steven Gustini knows the value of being stationed in several different countries, as he has gained an enhanced perspective on culture and people that helps him deal with managerial issues.
The 49-year-old business executive held a strategic position when he worked with an insurance firm in the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam prior to starting work in Indonesia two years ago.
“Living in Jakarta is as equally fantastic as living in several other Asian countries where I used to work, but what has attracted me most about Indonesia is the country’s huge life insurance market, but with low penetration,” said the president director of the life insurance firm PT AIA Financial.
“I think prospects in the country are terrific,” he said.
“Life insurance is a long-term relationship [between an insurance firm and customers], not just 10 or 15 years but from one generation to another. The most important part of our success is making more Indonesians happy because their lives are protected,” he said.
The Melbourne-born executive is well aware of the right strategy to target the market, which entails his leadership qualities that include a high level of flexibility, sensitivity toward people, respecting others, creativity and innovation.
“Living in different countries has taught me to have a high level of empathy and I try to understand different views. I have to respect my corporate culture and the national culture of the country where I work. Each country has its own regulatory, legislative frameworks and different markets, which fascinates me,” he said.
According to him, the insurance business is “selling financial security, hope and promise to help policy holders fulfill their aspirations and wishes”, which is different from selling goods that can be directly enjoyed.
“Therefore, a brand, reputation and trust are essential aspects in the insurance business, which requires qualities on the part of sales and marketing staff such as honesty, integrity, friendliness and patience,” he said.
With the youths categorized as the “Y” generation dominating Indonesia’s demographics market, Gustini has set up a team called Espresso Club, comprising 16 people under the age of 30 as part of his trick to target the youth segment. The team is expected to provide suggestions or input on messages and life insurance products that have an appeal to the “Y” generation.
“If we don’t think how to serve the segment, then we may miss the opportunity,” he noted.
For Gustini, a high level of flexibility and required innovation also means that making mistakes is tolerable as the policy encourages people to be bold and creative. “Making a mistake is okay but it has to be tackled quickly, don’t wait until it gets worse,” he said.
Apart from enhanced sensitivity toward others, experiences living overseas have led Gustini to develop a high level of flexibility, especially related to managerial approaches and product innovation.
For Western businesspeople, being direct and to the point can be an efficient way of delivering messages in a business community. But as Gustini has found, this direct and to the point style does not necessarily work in Asia.
“My colleague from Asia told me not every culture was suitable [when it came to doing business in Asia]. To Westerners’ minds, being direct may save a lot of time but in fact, [this approach in Asia] will just waste your time,” he said. “I told my colleague from Australia that if you want to do business in Asia, you should tone it down a little.”
Each CEO has a different style in terms of how they run their businesses, and Gustini is no difference. “I work with the senior management team and have a meeting once a month. I talk with my subordinates one after another at least once or three times a day because the business moves very quickly,” he said.
The golf lover has found that different people have different motivations, drive, values, skill levels and goals, “but they want to improve their standard, their level of family welfare and some of them want to be CEOs.”
Like in many other countries, he said, managing people is always a challenge facing companies, especially when linked to efforts to achieve a shared goal given that people have different skill levels and are not always ready to take responsibility while companies set ambitious targets.
“So it all depends on the personality of staff or employees,” he said.
In order that employees are motivated to work professionally, he said, they should have a clear vision of the company, which they could use as guidelines for conducting their daily activities.
“We have a vision to be a preeminent company. If all employees well understand and implement the vision, then we will feel we are the best life insurance company and we will become number one in terms of market share,” he said.
Therefore, Gustini has created a workplace with a passionate and creative environment.
“I always say to our staff and employees that if we want to continue to grow the business, we have to be constantly innovative. We encourage them to make new suggestions, even if those suggestions are perceived as ‘crazy’ or ‘unusual’,” he said.
Under the management framework, the father of three boys has found the benefits of a work-life balance that he also promotes among his employees, even though as he acknowledged, implementing a work-life balance of his own remained a challenge.
“A work-life balance is really important. If you work all the time, then you will start to lose your perspective, you might lose your ability as a manager. But, as I told you, I’m not a good example,” he said.
Gustini has a reason for this.
He starts work at 8 a.m. after taking the children to school and works until 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m.
“Sometimes I work six or seven days a week. Our work is long hours but we enjoy it because we want to make it different. We want to fulfill the aspirations and wishes of different stakeholders, including shareholders, staff, the government and most importantly customers and policy holders,” he said.
Despite his tight schedule related to his job, he always tries to keep Sundays free, a special time dedicated to his family.
“When I reach home, my kids are already in bed. That’s why I try to catch up with them on Sunday,” he said. “I accompany my boys playing soccer or have lunch or dinner together,” said Gustini, who said he also enjoyed Indonesian food.