Robert Tran – The CEO of CEOs

On the rare occasion, we chance upon an extraordinarily talented human being. We did just that when we had the privilege to chat with the rock star of the global business community, Robert Tran. As CEO of ROBENNY Corporation’s US, Canada and APAC regions, Global Executive Vice President of Capital Investment Group, Shanghai China, and CEO Coach of the CEO Key to Success Show which has over one million subscribers throughout SE Asia, Tran’s influence among Fortune 500 companies spans most regions of the world.  If there’s one thing you do today, read what Tran has to say. He will challenge the way you think about leadership, building relationships, and why customers should never be easy to please…

By Joanne Leila Smith

Born in Vietnam, raised in Ontario, Canada, it was clear from an early age that Robert Tran was no ordinary chap. An exceptional student, out of 23,000 students, Tran held the top ten slot during his entire undergraduate degree in Pharmacy. Under the directive of his parents, Tran says kids from Asian families are generally encouraged into medicine or engineering and he was no exception. Landing a plum role in the R&D department of a pharmaceutical company, after only six months Tran became depressed about his career.

“I realised that I didn’t want to deal with technology, medicine or research. I approached my boss for a transfer into sales and he was very supportive.  I joined the sales team as a young sales assistant and I fell in love with it. Within six years I was the Sales Director for the Asia / Middle East markets. After that, I wanted something with a greater business focus, so I did a Masters in Risk Management. When you work in sales, there is a lot of risk involved for CEOs and entrepreneurs, so it was important to understand the nature of risk,” says Tran.

After completing his Masters, Tran, now 50, joined ROBENNY Corporation in 2000 – a global leader in business development advisory services that caters from SMEs to tier one conglomerates, offering advisory, outsource CEO and executive training services across the entire value chain from strategy to execution.

For those who don’t know what an outsource CEO is, it’s basically a Mary Poppins type character that works parallel with the in-house CEO until they are no longer needed. Some of the typical scenarios that would require an outsource CEO varies and according to Tran, the appointment is a highly-considered pairing.

Robert Tran, Joanne Leila Smith, Jiyang Chen, INDVSTRVS, ROBENNY Corporation, Capital Investment Group Shanghai

Tran ranks in the Top 25 list of CEOs in LinkedIn, worldwide. All images by Jiyang Chen.

“If you are the client, and have a solid strategy and vision, but your staff is struggling to help you realise it, an outsource CEO will examine capacity, skills, resources’ experience… Sometimes when a new CEO is appointed, it may take time for him or her to understand the Board’s vision, so we help bridge that gap and provide guidance on how to do the job, and then hand back to the CEO to execute themselves… We don’t only just do the job of advisory however. We also can execute and handle operations…make it happen for you. That is our differentiation. We never just put anyone into a role. We match the outsource CEO based on the industry of the client, role requirement, personality of the client. There’s a lot of analysis that goes into it,” says Tran.

According to Tran, there’s plenty of competent CEOs in the talent pool – but success lies in a true match of personalities. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to working with a Board of Directors.

“Winning over the Board of Directors is a major challenge. Working with one chairman or business owner, that’s manageable, but if you’re working with a team of management, the CEO, CFO, CIO, HR, they all have their own ideas so how does one balance it? That’s why the outsource CEO we propose should have industry experience, and must intrinsically understand all disciplines of senior management – so when a peer talks, the CEO will be able to discern if they have understanding or not…” says Tran.

After 17 years at ROBENNY, and two more degrees in Advanced Management CEO Program (Harvard) and a PhD in Business Development Strategy (University of Bolton UK) Tran has racked up a client history that reads like a Forbes Global 2000 list.  HSBC, ACE Life Insurance, AIA Prudential, JP Morgan, Toyota, Nestle, Optimedia, Sanofi, Bayer, Pfizer, Unilever, Nike to name just a few, as well as being an outsource CEO of GE Pharmaceutical and CEO of Samsung Mobile Distribution at PTG, one can see why CEOs queue to join the Tran school of thought.

“When I joined ROBENNY, I loved it. I was trained very well; how to dress, how to meet the client, how to be fresh even if you’re tired – you need to be on your game at work, always. It’s important to always be engaged when supporting your client. It’s never about you, it’s always about them…In the beginning, I was so exhausted, but you work out how to find your balance.  If your client is serious, you have to be serious. If you meet a client that is energetic, you have to be energetic…it’s not about changing yourself, it’s about making adjustments… When I arrive home, I rest, and speak little. That’s how I balance myself,” says Tran.

According to Tran, making these adjustments is often referred to as the mirror technique and can be useful when trying to build trust quickly between strangers.

Robert Tran, Joanne Leila Smith, Jiyang Chen, INDVSTRVS, ROBENNY Corporation, Capital Investment Group Shanghai

“Outside behaviour usually reflects an inner core belief.  If you want to get along with people, sometimes mirroring superficial behaviours helps to build a bridge quickly.  If your client is talking very excitedly, it’s important to reflect that, because it means our brain signals are similar and it suggests we will get along. If I am sullen around an excitable person, how can we get along?” says Tran.

For Tran, being a business advisor is very different to a business consultant and understanding the distinction is important for organisations when finding the right fit for purpose.

“A business consultant is someone who has the tools to do the task, you pay them to do the job and after the job is done, they go on their way, and you do it yourself. However, while a business consultant may solve your problem for now, but there will always be a future problem.  In this way, a business advisor is different – we walk with the client for life… When a client needs our services what they really need is someone to confirm what they think. That is a very important distinction. If you bring me in, and say I feel stuck with my business, my job is to unpack and find what’s making you stuck. We are the ones that share, listen, and present all the information on the table, in a very structured way, so the CEO can arrive at a solution themselves. A business advisor is a true partner,” says Tran.

According to Tran, CEOs are genuinely very charming, very competent people, who may be congenial on the outside, but inside, Tran says most leaders are very perceptive, with often strong personalities. To this end, a business advisor rarely goes into a scenario leading with technical knowledge – understanding the leader’s personality and preferred approach often takes several meetings first, and Tran is adamant that understanding how someone works, is the only way to unpack the broader business problem.

“When you’re dealing with a Chairman or President of a company, when we walk in, their view is generally only, ‘what can you do for me?’ I never approach the client in a technical way. Our value offering is that we are a partner, so we have to know our client and get along with them.  In the first few meetings, I never talk about the business, I talk about what they like, talk in general first. This is very important to lay the ground work.  A CEO may be charming on the outside, but inside they are very capable people. So it’s really about understanding who they are first before we can effectively help them.  It’s a bit like a closed box, and we start to unpack it slowly. This approach is important because if the relationship is not there, then people won’t necessarily feel comfortable enough to share information with you. Some of the CEOs I’ve dealt with, I know 100 percent what the problem is already, but if I lead with the problem first, most of the time the CEO will say, ‘I don’t have a problem’. Business owners have strong egos, and they know what’s going on in their business already. Some are happy to share the issues straight away, others are reserved, and others test you to make sure you have earnt the right to sit at the table.  So it’s a challenge! I always try to understand the personality of my client before we move further. Building trust comes first,” says Tran.

In the first few meetings, Tran will take time to identify the personality type of the client and says generally, leaders sit in either one of four categories; energetic, considered, systematic or a driver. Based on these traits, Tran will adjust his approach to match the personality of the client. According to Tran, this is the first impression you make with the client and they will appreciate it if you have paid attention to them; so listening and sharing is critical.

Robert Tran, Joanne Leila Smith, Jiyang Chen, INDVSTRVS, ROBENNY Corporation, Capital Investment Group Shanghai

“I never give advice in the beginning. It’s all about listening, building trust. Sometimes a CEO is too closed. This is a systematic personality, which takes a lot of time. No matter what you say, they rarely trust you. They will ask lots of questions, but never really answer your questions directly. In this situation, how can I serve them? Well, you work till you win their trust. If you do, they are fiercely loyal and will work with you for a long time, and introduce you to a lot of clients. I always say, the difficult client is a loyal client. When you win him or her, you win a lot of other business,” says Tran. “The fact is, business advisory is a person to person relationship. If you are a wealthy client, why chose me over plenty of intelligent, high profile advisors in the market? Why me? because I am his or her partner. So you have to always go with your client as a partner. At midnight, if they need you to discuss something, you sit up and discuss. If you have to sleep at the office to solve a crisis, you do it. It’s similar to having a life partner. That’s the way I provide my service and it’s why I’ve won the hearts of so many global clients,” says Tran.

When it comes to building client relations, understanding the culture of the person’s country, as well as the sub-culture of the client are all helpful tools – even noticing consistent choices in colour of clothing all points to understanding a person.

“If you study risk management, colour is something that comes into consideration. If the client wears hot colours like red, orange, bright yellow, it reflects an excitable personality. If they wear blues, black, whites or green, they tend to be calmer.  If the client wears red, they will tend to be an aggressive negotiator, a bigger risk taker… so if I propose an excitable idea, it will be easier to get buy in, but if I propose something conservative, that personality will be bored.  Same for a calm person. If I propose something totally out there, they will be like whoa! This guy is crazy…” laughs Tran.

We asked Tran what the perfect CEO looked like to him, and his response was touchingly sweet, vulnerable even.

“Honestly, I’m a simple guy. When you see a very complex issue, try to step back and find a simple solution. Try to be your perfect self. If you pay attention, put your heart on the line, and care about what you are doing, people will always love and follow you. It’s simply human. If you take care of your family, your children your wife or husband, when you spend time and are kind, they love you. It’s the same for business…Whatever you do, do it well,” says Tran.

And do it well he does. During Tran’s time as Samsung’s Outsource CEO between 2007 to 2012, Tran  was the first mover to apply the FMCG Business Model into a mobile business which resulted in double revenue from USD250 million to 500 million annually.  When asked about this, Tran was keen to protect his client’s privacy but was comfortable to divulge a high-level insight into another success story, his time as Group CEO for Vietcore, an IT-based company that nearly went bankrupt during the GFC in 2008.

At the time, Vietcore was a programming supplier for one of the biggest IT companies in Canada. When the GFC hit hard in 2008, it had to move back to Vietnam and close its business globally, which left Vietcore with no clients and hundreds of staff. Tran was approached by Vietcore’s CEO to identify a way to turn the business around.

Robert Tran, Joanne Leila Smith, Jiyang Chen, INDVSTRVS, ROBENNY Corporation, Capital Investment Group Shanghai

“When I walked in, I saw no opportunity. Everything was dark. Almost 200 staff were technical. So what should I do with this kind of talent, with no client? I talked to the CEO about his plan for the staff, and he had no solution. At that point, I saw one small technical capability, that could help the business. In 2008, no one knew about smartphones and interactive marketing, so I shared an idea with the CEO. We only kept a few key technical staff, changed the company from a programming to an interactive marketing company, and re-branded it Clickcious.  Globally most of the big media buyers were not spending or had very little marketing budgets, and the marketing agencies were struggling as a result. Clickcious would solve this problem for so many agencies and in-house Marketing Directors that had little marketing spend, in a GFC situation. At that time the CEO was very conflicted. In meetings, I was the only one that was not technical and they were all tech masters. I was all alone with this idea and everything I suggested, I was told, ‘It’s not possible’.  So how did I handle it? I don’t have the tech capability to respond on their level.  I said, very simply, ‘Okay. I agree that I don’t have a background in tech. I agree that I know little about inside of this business. There is only one thing I believe – that if I put myself in the customers’ shoes, I will not accept your product’. And I walked out. They discussed it at length, and eventually agreed that if they had no customer with their current product, why should they keep going with it?  They agreed to fix their product and brought me back in,” says Tran.

“When we present a product to a client, they must say ‘wow’. If they do not, we go back to the office and start again. The tech guys didn’t have a business mindset and were like, why are you so difficult Robert? And my answer is, ‘I’m your internal customer. If you can pass me, then you will win the customer outside. If you cannot pass me, there is no way you can win the customer’. The fact is, the customer does not care about what we believe. They only care if the product is good or not. They thought that I was hard to deal with, so I brought customers in to show them how they really are. After several meetings, the tech guys said, ‘Robert, you are right. The customer is not so nice!’” says Tran.

Within six months, Saatchi, Lowe, and many other media agencies were using Clickcious. They had a solution to solve for their clients so Clickcious became the partner of choice for media agencies world-wide. Within nine months, it became a top 100 company in Asia and was rated a Global Finalist in 2011 by Red Herring.

When we asked Tran if this was his biggest success story as a business advisor, his answer was straight-faced.

“No. Of course not.”

Interestingly, Tran considers his biggest success story as one outside the boardroom, where he had to overcome himself, his family, his culture, in order to find his own path, and in doing so, it became a personal mandate for him to help others find their own way.

“I have many success stories, and we could spend a whole day talking about it, but if you ask me what is the story that I feel most good about? It was leaving pharmacy to go into business. Growing up in an Asian family, my parents were very upset about my decision to change career. It was like I did something wrong. Their view was, ‘I supported you your whole life and you now quit to become a sales assistant!’  In my culture, I felt very guilty about upsetting my parents, but I had to overcome myself, my culture, to do what was in my heart… For the first ten years in my new career, my parents loved me, but never asked about my work. One day, by co-incidence, my mum read an article about me and said, ‘I never knew you were so famous in your industry…She just cried and cried and I just held her. I didn’t cry, but I did inside. I said, ‘Mum, I am happy, and I believe you will be happy that I’m happy’. After that, she convinced all my family about my decision, and it was really the biggest triumph for me. To find acceptance again,” says Tran.

For Tran, his personal journey in following his heart, has, in many ways, informed his leadership style, as well as his approach with mentoring and training younger colleagues. While his personal motivation is to lead with the heart, in the sense that one must be completely immersed in serving the client, Tran says every project must start with same maxim – understand the project objective.

“At the beginning of a new job, I always put my ego aside, and ask, what is our project objective? Ultimately, it’s not just about the business, or how much money I can bring to my client, or save for them as my client, being a business advisor is about helping others find their own path,” says Tran.

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