December 13, 2011

Head to Head CEO Forum on VITV

Recently I returned to the “Diá»…n Đàn CEO,” or “CEO Forum” program on VITV.

Mr. Hà, the host, felt that the viewers would find two CEOs more engaging than one (maybe by creating some drama and getting us to argue?).  I invited an outstanding CEO I met a few months ago, Mr. Trần Trọng Kiên.  He is founder and CEO of Buffalo Tours, one of Vietnam’s largest and most successful tour companies.  Not only a great CEO, but a super cool and interesting guy.

Sadly for some of our viewers there were no fisticuffs.  But there was a lot of great sharing on recruiting and keeping passionate people, building great teams and creating a compelling working culture where people have fun and feel empowered to make decisions.  I’m totally stealing Kiên’s beer club idea.

The video is in English with Vietnamese subtitles.  Enjoy.

Transcript below:

Hà: [Vienamese introduction 00:07 to 00:49] Thank you both of you for
coming to CEO Talk today.

Hà: Mr. Chris, how are you today?

Chris: I’m great, thank you.

Hà: And Mr. Kien, how is it going?

Kien: It’s going well. Thank you.

Hà: At this time, we have to face the financial crisis in the world and
in Vietnam. The inflation challenges affect a lot of activity
for businesses and companies. Do both of you think this is a
good opportunity for us to restructure? Mr. Chris?

Chris: I think any time is a good opportunity to restructure. Any
crisis is always a good time to restructure. But I like to think
about running a business not as waiting for crises to strike to
restructure, but structuring your business in a way that allows
you to weather, to withstand a crisis.

Hà: And do you think recruitment is one of the most important things to
do at this time?

Chris: I’d say recruitment is always the most important thing that any
leader does in a company. After all, you achieve results as a
leader through people, and if you don’t have good people on your
team, it’s hard to achieve good results. So number one,
everything begins with the people you have on your team.

Hà: How many percent of people to design the success of Buffalo Tours?

Kien: All. Every member in the company would contribute to the success of
the company. I don’t believe there is a single person in the
business that doesn’t contribute to the success of the business.

Hà: Your business is different. Do you think that you need different
people to work for you?

Kien: We need people who love travel.

Hà: Love travel.

Kien: Yes. But as the company is growing, obviously, we start having people
who work in the back office – accountants, IT, developers,
finance people. But I think when they get to the business, they
start learning travel and enjoy traveling, and I think the
travel bug will get to everyone in the company.

Hà: And how about other criteria that you need from your candidates who
apply to Buffalo Tours?

Kien: Enjoy and love travel is very important, but obviously, as a
business, aside Buffalo Tours, we need that they have the
competency and skills for the job. They’ve got to be very
motivated to work for the company, and that is very important
for us. I think you can have the right people with the right
skills, but if they’re not motivated to work, it would be very,
very difficult, and it doesn’t make sense.

Hà: How can you realize those criteria from recruitment?

Kien: This is actually a very good question. I think Chris will agree.

Hà: Could you help him?

Kien: Because finding out what’s real about a person is a technique, and it
requires experience and skills in the interview process and also
in the whole hiring process, I would say. In the past, I was
always thinking that if you’re going to have a good interview,
you will see someone, they have the basic four A’s of being
affable, being articulate, being attractive. That’s enough. And
being assertive is enough. But it’s not. In fact, I think it’s
almost the same as doing a 50-50 blind bet. You develop the
skill for hiring by asking the right questions, by listening to
them, by [inaudible 05:50]. Because often, you have the people
who interview very well, they become very bad staff. The other
side, you have people who are doing very badly in the interview,
but then they will become wonderful staff, a star performer in
the company.

Hà: It’s very difficult. Definitely, in some cases, you have mistakes in
recruiting. Do you think so?

Kien: I make a lot of mistakes in hiring, trust me.

Hà: Have you ever asked VietnamWorks to look for the right people for

Chris: They’re one of our customers. Thank you, Anh Kien.

Kien: We work with VietnamWorks for hiring. Yes.

Hà: And have you ever had the experience from the [inaudible 06:41] in

Chris: That’s [speaking Vietnamese 06:44].

Hà: Yes, exactly.

Chris: I know that. Sure. We, Anh Kien and I have both made many
mistakes, and that’s how you learn. Here’s one mistake I want to
share and what I learned from it. A few years ago, we hired a
leader, a director for one of our teams. When I interview, I
always like to ask one question. One question I like to ask:
“Tell me about the biggest mistake you’ve made and what you’ve
learned from it.” She looked at me and she said, “I can’t think
of any mistakes.” And I said, “Come on. I know you’ve made a
mistake. I’ve made six mistakes today already.” I made her
promise to send me a mistake by email later that night. So she
did. She sent me a mistake. It was a good mistake and what she
learned from it.

She joined the company, and what we found was she was great in
many respects, but she would not ask for help when she was in
trouble. She would not admit she didn’t know something. If she
made a mistake or there was a problem on her team, she didn’t
ask her boss for help. Her boss could have supported her, but
what happened was problems got worse and worse and worse, and by
the time her boss figured out what was happening, it was too
late. The lesson I learned is if I ever interview someone again
and I ask them, “Tell me about a mistake you made and what you
learned from it,” and she or he says, “I can’t think of any,” I
will not hire that person.

Hà: Have you ever fired the right person and hired the wrong person?

Chris: That’s the case I just told you about, hiring the wrong person.
We hired the wrong person there. I’ve been lucky in that I
haven’t really fired anybody. What I mean by that is, there’s
what I like to call managing people out. So, I’ve found if
you’re very clear with expectations . . . so if we work together
Hà, I’d say, “Okay, here’s your job. Here’s what I expect you to
do. Here are the results I expect,” and you understand very,
very well what your job is. Then I’m going to give you constant
feedback, every day, every week, and let you know how you’re

[Vietnamese 09:17 to 11:18]

Hà: Do you think about the importance, the belief in leadership?

Chris: Yeah. How much time do you have? Leadership to me is about
connecting with people, understanding what they want, helping to
give them what they want. At the same time, you’ll lead the
organization to a higher place. It’s motivating people.
Everything great that’s been achieved in the world has been
achieved through leadership of others. So leadership is
something I feel very passionate about.

Hà: In multi-culture, in traveling tours, do you think it’s more

Kien: It’s certainly been more difficult, because not everyone speaks
English, or not everyone speaks Vietnamese. So we would need to
use relatively simple, and sometimes we have to do it in multi-
languages as well. My message I sent through the Victoria Group,
and actually we took over the group in February, I had to write
four languages – French, English, Vietnamese, Khmer – and make
sure it is simple enough for people from gardener to security
will understand it and have the patience to read it. That is one
of the challenges as well, managing multi-culture, because in
one culture, it could be a different meaning in a different
culture as well.

Hà: How can you make your staff passionate in working?

Kien: It’s not me, I think, who makes people passionate about working. I
think it is the people who come and work and are proud. I think
the biggest part as a CEO you could do for all the people is to
create an environment where the people are working for you and
for the company, which feel very motivated and welcome to come
to work in the morning. When you wake up in the morning, you
feel that you want to go to work, because it’s somewhere you can
actually be challenged, you meet nice people, you have good

Chris: Anh Kien said something interesting. He said every day people
need to wake up and want to go to work. I think of it the same
way. Every day, people wake up and they make a decision. Do I
want to continue working at Vietnam Works? Do I want to continue
buying Chris’ product or not? Because when they find another
product that has more value than my product, they’re going to
switch. My job is to make sure that they don’t find more value.
So I am always trying to make our environment fun, give people
training opportunities and learning opportunities, give them
challenges, match people to the right jobs. And that’s how I
find that we retain people and motivate people.

Hà: Anh Kien said that at Buffalo Tours, everybody wakes up in the
morning and is happy to go to work because they have . . .

Kien: This is my goal.

Hà: . . . because they will travel to beautiful places and stay in lots
of five star hotels with high salaries, so everybody will be
happy with that, including me myself. Do you think so? It’s easy
for him to manage his staff.

Chris: I think he’s asking for a job. I’m not sure.

Kien: I’m not sure that it’s all the glamorous things are true, because I
think being a tour guide, there is a lot behind the scenes than
just traveling to nice places and staying in five star hotels.
Yes, this is one of the aspects of this job. To me, I think if
you’re creating an opportunity for people, for good excellent
people to come in and join the company, you need to create
opportunity for them to grow. Nobody wants to work in one
company that stays in the same place and doesn’t grow at all.

Hà: What do you think about how to build a winning team?

Chris: Wow. That’s a big question.

Hà: How can you achieve that?

Chris: I’ll try a couple of points, and I’d like to hear Anh Kien’s
thoughts. I think it all starts with recruiting. What people are
you bringing into your company? Are they people that have
passion for what they do? Are they motivated? Are they friendly?
Are they the kind of people that you’d want to spend a whole
week traveling with, for example? Number one, bring the right
people into your company with the right skills.

Number two, communicate very clearly what your expectations are
of them, and after you communicate your expectations,
communicate very clearly feedback, regularly. A lot of managers
make a mistake. They don’t tell people what they expect, and
then when people do something wrong, they say, “That’s wrong,”
and it’s super de-motivating. So, you want to be very clear.
Then when people do something right, you want to reward them.
“Hey, that’s a great job.”

Hà: And applied in Buffalo Tours?

Kien: Again, number one for building high performing and winning teams is
you’ve got to make sure that every person working in the team
knows that they are very important and valuable for things.
That’s why it comes all the way from the communications from the
moment they come for the interview or look for the job ads to
the moment they come for the interviews and they actually go
interact with the company, get the first training on the skills
required for the job through the continuous training that we’ve
provided, and the system where we reward and we acknowledge
their performance and give them the opportunity to grow. So I
think make sure that it is always clearly communicated that they
are a very valuable part of this company, and they are part of
success. It’s not because of the CEO. It’s not because of the
manager. It’s because of them that makes Buffalo Tours what it
is as a company. I think that’s very, very important. So make
sure that you value every single member of the team.

Second thing, I think I repeated last time, we’re very clear in
communicating the goal and objective and making people work
toward the goal and objective. At Buffalo Tours, we do have
indicators for every single level. So I, as the CEO, I openly
communicate my goals to the team working with me, and connect
their goals, how they contribute to my goals. If they achieve
their goals, I will be able to achieve the goal. The same thing
for their staff as well, if they are able to communicate that to
their staff. So, every single person would have a very clear
objective and indicator of their performance.

The last thing is make sure that you constantly motivate and
encourage people, because it’s something that you want to enjoy
and be passionate about what you do and to do it well. Again,
one thing we do say all the time, happy staff is probably a more
productive staff. They perform better.

Chris: Yes.

[Vietnamese 19:25 to 21:05]

Hà: I heard one sentence someone said. The business of business is
people. Is it the key how to treat people in leadership, Mr.

Chris: Yes. I know that quote. That’s Herb Kelleher.

Hà: Yeah, I don’t know exactly what from.

Chris: He was the founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, an amazing
company. The business of business is people. After all, who does
your accounting? Is it a computer? Who conducts the tour at
Buffalo Tours? Who builds the website for VietnamWorks? These
things don’t happen by themselves. It’s all about people.

Hà: Engaging culture is one of the most important parts in leadership,
and do you think it’s necessary to build an engaging culture in
a company?

Chris: How do you mean by engaging culture?

Hà: What do you think about engaging culture?

Chris: Okay. To me, an engaging culture is a culture where people feel
part of the team. They feel like they belong. They feel like
they are achieving a goal together with others. I think a leader
can do a lot . . . by the way, everything rises and falls on
leadership. The leader of a company, the leader of a team really
has an amazing amount of influence over the performance of that
team. I think a leader can help making an engaging culture by
communicating excitement and energy all the time. So for
example, when you walk through the office and you ask somebody
about a project or you say, “Hey, you did a great job in sales.
I heard you did a great job.” You don’t say, “Oh, I heard you
did a great job. Congratulations. This is a really exciting
project we’re doing. This is great.” There’s no energy.

A leader engages people by being enthusiastic, by being
energetic, by saying, “Hà, I am really excited to appear on your
program today, because I love talking about leadership, and I
love talking about building companies, and it’s a lot of fun.”
When a leader is communicating energy and excitement because a
leader is energized and excited, then that’s when you can really
help create an engaging culture. Because remember, leaders are
like models. Everybody watches the leader all the time. If the
leader is low energy, the people will be low energy. If the
leader is excited, the people will be excited.

So, that’s my best tip on how to get people engaged, and it’s
very powerful. Last thought. Have you ever seen an old movie,
there are these movies that take place in China 1,000 years ago,
and there’s a battle between two armies. The leader of each army
gets in front of his men, and he’s on his horse and he goes back
and forth, and he says, “Men, today, we’re going to have
victory.” I think of that sometimes. That’s what a leader needs
to do in a company also. Be visible, be present, and get people

Hà: You have a deep understanding about engaging culture. Why did you ask
me about what is engaging culture? You frightened me.

Chris: I’m just trying to cause trouble, Hà.

Hà: And Mr. Kien, do you think rumors and gossip is one of the parts of
engaging culture?

Kien: You will never be able to kill all the rumors. In an organization,
there have always been things that come off the main official
channels, and now all the staff have Facebook and Twitter as
well. They probably know things much quicker in the private
channels. I don’t go against this. I believe that if we are very
open and transparent and give an open debate as well, we’re
actually encouraging people to share their information. An
engaging culture, and Chris mentioned these, you get people
engaged in the thinking and the process and serve for the best
interests of the company. I think at Buffalo Tours, we engage
people from various activities. It could be official. So all the
[inaudible 26:02] use that to update quarterly from CEO,
briefing from CEO at the end of the month. Briefing every
Monday. But we do have other activities to engage with outside
of work. We do have a beer drinking club every Friday. We have
this on the 7th floor.

Chris: I’m stealing that idea.

Kien: Free flow of beer coming. That is a lot of communication coming
there. The energy coming through that, the friendships, the
relationships we build. The trust we build. At least me, I don’t
believe that things would be any different being CEO outside of
work. At the workplace, I’m at the top. I make decisions for the
best interest of the company. But outside of work, I should be
the same as anyone else. I should be able to sit at the same
table and having lunch and dinner and having a beer with my
driver, with our close members. That’s how we engage. I think
that’s happened to all of our general managers as well. We do
encourage and make it a real family at Buffalo Tours. Slightly
different from a big corporate culture, as they say. We want to
retain that even as we grow a little bit bigger than we were

Hà: And is engaging culture the thing that we don’t need written down,
but it’s very important and productive in business?

Chris: Yeah. This is a great point. I think a lot of people believe
that they have values if they put them on a poster and put it on
the wall. We have values now. Look, it’s there. It’s on the
wall. You only have values if you show them through your
behavior every day. You have to show your values every day
through your behavior. If you believe a value is getting to know
your people and creating a friendly environment, then you should
be speaking to staff every day. Every day, I make a point to
walk through the office and walk past on every floor, and I’ll
try to say hello to people, maybe chat for a minute or two, and
create that environment. So no, the answer is having values does
not mean having a poster on the wall. It means something that
you live and do every day.

[Vietnamese 28:45 to 30.26]

Hà: I have an interesting part to both of you. It’s called question and
answer. I will give you some cases of a culture of the company,
and maybe you can share your feelings, and maybe you feel about
that job culture. One. The Chinese [??] culture is a culture
that you have to work eight hours a day and have no
relationships and communication outside.

Chris: This is the work must be very serious, we must be serious at
work culture. We do not have that culture. We have a culture
where people can relax, have some fun, but also work hard.

Kien: That culture, I think definitely is not something that I would like
to build, and it is not a company that I want to run.

Hà: It’s not your culture.

Kien: No way.

Hà: Two. Hard work culture. People should not have a good time at work.
They are paid to do things they dislike.


Chris: That sounds terrible. This is about the idea, again, that I
hear a lot. Work is something that shouldn’t be fun. That’s why
it’s called work. I disagree. I think work can be fun, and I
think if you enjoy what you do, it is fun.

Hà: In Buffalo too, I think everybody must have passion in working, so I

Kien: People work hard. We work very hard. I think we work harder than
anyone else in the market, but opposite to what you say. We like
where we’re working, and because we like where we’re working, we
create great experiences, prosperity for our partners and
ourselves, and we work hard.

Hà: But it’s not the kind of hard work culture like this.

Kien: No, it’s not, but working very hard.

Hà: Absolutely. Three, be seen culture, also known as the present and be
seen culture. This is a culture that encourages people to work
long hours just to be seen.

Chris: We call it face time.

Kien: In Tokyo, when I was there in 1990, I think it’s a culture in
Japanese companies. If the boss is staying in the office,
everyone else is staying in the office as well. You only leave
when the boss left. In an industrial culture, in [inaudible
33:20], a company where I visited, I thought it was strange. I
agree 100% with Chris.

Hà: Four, don’t question culture. People leave their grace [??] at the
door and don’t question anything for fear of rocking the boat.
They wait for management to tell them what to do.

Chris: That culture is a company that is not going to survive very
long. A culture where people are afraid to talk, where people
are afraid to give their boss ideas, where they’re afraid to
open their mouths is a culture where you’re not going to have
the best ideas. The group is always smarter than one person, and
if you’re not communicating and sharing ideas, you’re not going
to be successful.

Hà: You remind me of the television show of Mr. Donald Trump, a US
millionaire. In that show, “The Apprentice”, everybody has to
suck up in the office, and if someone gives the boss an idea, he
screams, “You’re fired!” So, it improves the power of the boss.

Chris: Sure. Maybe it improves the power of the boss, but does it
improve the results of the company?

Hà: Six, old school culture. Typically of conservative organizations and
those that have dominated their niche market for a long time. It
is like a family, and management, the parents.

Chris: I’d say old school culture is like a culture that doesn’t
change. So, old school culture means culture from a long time,
and it hasn’t changed very much. This doesn’t happen so much in
our business or I think in Buffalo Tours business, but it would
happen in a company that’s become very successful and has been
successful for a long time, where there isn’t a lot of change in
the industry.

Hà: And number seven, the new cultures. The new revolution in the
workplace is all about developing a positive culture that
encourages people to contribute and to get engaged.

Chris: I’d say our culture is a little bit more like that.

Kien: It’s a culture where you’re constantly having change. It’s not a
single month of not introducing three or four new things. A
culture where we always constantly welcome new people to the

Hà: I have three kinds of culture left. I’m sure, we again agree with
all. Number nine, feel at home. The office doesn’t look like an
office anymore. People are wearing comfortable clothes, having
meetings over coffee in the company’s cafe and working
surrounded by comfortable time [??].

Chris: Yeah, I love it.


Chris: I think my style is I never wear a tie. Usually I don’t wear a
jacket at the office. I want people to be comfortable. I want
people to feel relaxed. I’m not really formal, and that’s fine.
When I worked at Yahoo! we had some of our engineers, who are
famously informal, wear shorts to work. We don’t do that at our
company. I draw the line there. But I want people to feel
comfortable, and that’s important to me, because I believe if
people are comfortable, they’ll be more productive.

Kien: We at Buffalo [inaudible 36:53] can actually see, being a travel
company, what’s the point in coming to work in a suit and a tie?
Executive meetings are often over coffee, because any meeting
with staff, the managers and I often do a formal meeting in the
meeting room, but our executives catch up always over coffee,
sometimes over breakfast, sometimes outside in the cang-tin. So,
it’s very much this kind of culture we want to put there.


Hà: And number ten, work anywhere anytime. Technology has allowed us to
take work out of the office and on the road, into the air, and
in the home. The idea of working anywhere at any time has flaw
on the face [??].

Chris: Technology does allow people to work from home, to work from
anywhere, and that’s great. It gives a little bit of flexibility
to take a day or two off. They might be able to check some
email. But I’m a little old fashioned in this way. I believe for
people to be an effective team, they have to be in the same
room. You have to be face to face. There’s a whole different
feeling and a whole different dynamic when you meet people face
to face instead of over the phone or by email. In fact, I
encourage people even inside the company not to send email. If
they can get up and walk 10 meters and just have a two minute
conversation, it encourages more face to face. So, even though
technology enables flexibility, which is great and I support
that, I do want people to come into the office, because I feel
like you can’t have that team feeling without a lot of face to
face time.

Kien: I personally agree with Chris, but within Buffalo Tours, because of
the nature of the work and the nature that we actually operate
out of 10 offices around the world and different hours, we have
critical technology allowing us to work anywhere. From home,
from office, from airport, to hotel rooms and be able to be the
same. And also, it actually enables a lot of the women working
for the company, because 80% of our people working in the office
are women. Naturally, they all at some stage get married and
then have children. Having children, they’re able to sit at home
and look at the children and still do work and have a decent
income. It’s quite a powerful thing, an attractive thing to get
people to work for us.

So, we have a lot of [??] technology, and we actually start introducing
work anywhere to people who work for us, and that could be a
very attractive thing for the company. But I absolutely agree
with you. I think face time is important. So even if you work at
home, I believe in encouraging them to come to work, meet the
people, and don’t over-rely on digital communications.

Hà: Eleven. A happy person is a productive person. In this culture, work
is allowed to be fun. Giving people a chance to let off steam,
get creative, and be happy.

Chris: Yeah, I really want to create an environment inside the
company, and I think we’ve been successful at this, where people
wake up in the morning, and they’re like, “I want to go to work
today. My friends are there. I have a good time there. I feel
recognized. I’m excited about the work I’m doing.” I think
that’s a very important thing.

Kien: It’s not the main goal, obviously, to make everyone happy, but it’s
certainly important to be able to make a workplace where people
feel very, very happy being there. I’ve got this message [??].

Chris: I want to build on that point, Kien. It’s not the objective to
make everyone happy. This is a mistake I made earlier in my
career, where I was focusing more on the fun environment, and I
learned a lesson, which is yes, you want to create a fun
environment. Yes, you want people to come to work. And you
insist on very high professional standards. If you don’t do
that, it can turn into a place where people feel like, “Well,
I’m having fun. What, I’m supposed to work? What?” And you have
to be careful about that. So you have to have standards. You
want to have a fun environment, but you say, “Listen guys. This
is fun, and we have to produce results,” and you measure people
that way. Otherwise, I did have an experience where it went like
that, and it wasn’t fun to fix. So great point.

Hà: And we have some situations of companies’ cultures, and some kinds of
culture we disagree, and some kinds of culture we find we are in
[??]. Mr. Chris, can you say your experience and summarize your
opinion about leadership?

Chris: I’ll summarize my opinion about leadership this way. Leaders
serve their people. Think about your people like your customers.
Think about working for your company like a product. How can you
make your product more attractive than the other products out
there? If you can do that, you’re going to have your choice of
the best people. Remember, the most talented people out there,
they have a lot of choices. It’s the people who don’t have
talent who don’t have the choices. So, for you to compete and
get the best people, you have to have the most attractive
product. Think about your people as customers, and evaluate your
product and how attractive it is, and work every day to make
your product more attractive and valuable. Because if you can do
that, you can get the best people, and you can win in your

Hà: And I’m sure after this show, so many Vietnamese and international
entrepreneurs should get a lesson in our message, and maybe they
should have a strategy to build a winning team during [??] the
financial crisis and develop the company. Thank you both of you
to come to our talk show today. I wish to have another chance to
work with you more and see your success in your career.

Chris: Thank you, Ha.

Kien: Thank you, Ha. It’s great to have the chance to talk.

Hà: Thank you again. [speaking foreign language]