Often overlooked, the subtle art of communication and expression is an absolute essential for more modes of life than we care to admit. Siew Ling Hwang has spent years cultivating a unique understanding of the inherent value that stems from effective communicative skills. Her company ‘Discovering Potential’ operates on the notion that these skills are incessantly important for any number of situations from interviews to standard inter-personnel communications.
We had a chance to sit down with Siew Ling and delve into the common tropes that can impact an interview, her thoughts surrounding the power of individual traits, what motivated her to start ‘Discovering Potential’ and her own history with communicative hurdles.
Hello Siew Ling, thank you so much for taking the time to sit with us today. I guess we can start from the top with a simple one, who is Siew Ling Hwang?
Thank you. Who am I? This is probably the most difficult question of all time for all of us!
I am the founder of Discovering Potential, a company that was set up with the purpose of enabling others to build up their soft skills, primarily their interview and communication skills to achieve their career and life goals. I enjoy helping others achieve their maximum potential by gearing up their ability to communicate and to ace their interviews and I have a strong interest in behaviors and personalities. In my professional life, I put the two together to develop coaching techniques that are individual specific rather than a one size fits all. I like connecting with individuals, and understanding their uniqueness, which is why I very much enjoy providing one-on-one coaching.
On the home front, I am also a mother of two daughters, and in my husband’s words, I take on the role of Minister of Home Affairs!
Your company Discovering Potential seems to cover a lot of the common weaknesses that plague many of us, from interviews to communicative challenges in the workplace. Do you have any thoughts as to why these issues are so common across industries?
These soft skill issues are not just common among industries, but also among our youths. One of the reasons it tends to be an issue is perhaps an inherent lack of emphasis on these skills right from the get go, starting from school. We still have a tendency to focus on technical skills and knowledge, perhaps unknowingly, simply because it is concrete in nature, and it allows us to easily gauge where we are with our proficiency levels. This is not just about educational systems – the system is what it is, wherever you are. However, I feel that it is prevalent in how many of us talk to our children – the concrete score of a math test is more commonly and more easily discussed than let’s say how well you speak or provide an opinion.
The thing is we don’t actually need to communicate very well to move up the educational ladder. It would be beneficial for sure, especially with regards to scholarships and leadership roles, but you would still do well if you have good academic results without being able to communicate well. I should make a point here that there is a difference between good speaking skills and communication skills. Speaking skills is tested as part of language proficiency, communication skills is about building a bridge of trust where it is a two-way exchange of information.
As we climb the career ladder, things can change drastically. To be fair, at the beginning of our career paths, there are many opportunities that do not require soft skills such as communication skills. But as you progress upwards towards the top of the pyramid, and take on more management and leadership roles, communication skills become of utmost importance and can make or break decisions as to whether you are fit for the role.
Many of my mid to senior level career clients come in with this realization. That interviews were not a problem for them when starting out but it suddenly became difficult as they try to take that big step towards a managerial role. The reason for this is that soft skills get into the spotlight more and more. The more senior you are, the more communication becomes important, and the more the job interviews will focus on such aspects.
Was there a singular inspiration behind the creation of ‘Discovering Potential’? Or was it more of a progressive observation of the status quo?
I think this has been largely a progressive observation through my years of experience. I started out as an Investment Banker and spent almost a decade in the Investments area. I was also heavily involved in Human Resources, and then started branching out to companies of my own. During my time as an entrepreneur, I have interviewed a lot of people, and I have always felt frustrated at how many applicants come in with decent to stellar resumes but are unable to get the message across and communicate well during interviews.
My frustration is greatest when the applicant is young, as I feel that with the right training and coaching on interview skills and communication skills, the pathway that they embark on could change drastically.
When starting up Discovering Potential, I wanted to take the opportunity to do something about my frustration and to channel resources into helping people achieve their career and life goals by giving them the tools and skills to do well in life changing moments such as an interview.
There is a heavy focus on the sovereignty of the individual in your programs which is great! Do you think people are losing this belief in their own individual strengths?
I don’t think it is so much about losing this belief but perhaps more about not being aware of themselves as individuals. This is a point that usually causes an interesting debate as most people would say that they definitely know who they are. But the truth is, not many of us spend time thinking about who we are or reflecting upon deeper aspects like; what motivates us, what are our values, what really makes us tick. In fact, most people tend to have spent more thoughts on what other people around them are like. This really comes up clearly when I get people to talk about themselves during coaching. There is usually a lot of hesitation – partially because it feels like we are bragging but also because we spend very little time reflecting on ourselves. Once the question changes to telling me about their best friend, you can literally see the relief coming up on their faces and the question becomes really easy.
Understanding an individual well puts us in a great position to empower the person into achieving real improvements – improvements that last and can be built on, simply because you know how to propel that person into a stronger position, or you know how to manage their limitations. And I believe in respecting this individuality as change can only become effective if it is built on the true inner self of someone and not when you impose a change that feels unnatural and uncomfortable. When unnatural change is imposed, you will eventually reject this change and any improvements achieved would have been superficial in nature.
My experience as a behavioral consultant has allowed me to interpose the importance of respecting the individual and building upon it to enhance their strengths into our coaching techniques.
In your wide array of experience, have you noticed any interview mistakes that present themselves across the industries?
The key mistake I see is the assumption that the interview has to be “perfect”. I have come across many clients, both youths and adults, who believe that a perfect interview is defined by a few things including one, that there are no filler words such as “umms” and “ahhs” at all. Second, that the correct answer is the one they read about on Google.
You have to realize that the interview is about how you communicate, which means how you deliver your own stories in such a way that the interviewer is interested to know more about you, how do you put across ideas and thoughts in a way that the interviewer trusts you and would want to work more with you. It is not an oral exam but an opportunity for you to build trust and instant rapport with someone else you have never met.
When one goes in with the objective of being perfect, and regurgitates a highly practiced line, they tend to ignore the social cues and focuses strictly on sticking to the script. They measure their success by the fact that there were no filler words and it was said without any hesitation. If you put yourself in the interviewer’s shoes, and you are looking for someone you want to work with, would you prefer to work with someone who you feel connects well with you and who is genuine and sincere, or would you choose the person who demonstrates an ability to regurgitate a perfect answer?
This to me is the key issue that many people face when practicing for their interviews and may be practicing it with the wrong objective in mind.
What would be the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I grew up with this line “If you think you can, you can”. My dad said it a lot when I was growing up and it is still something I hear in my mind constantly. I think this is applicable for anything we want to achieve, as mindset is very important. In my experience of coaching people for their interviews for example, there is a clear difference between those who come in ready to embrace change, who have already made a decision in their minds that they need to seek improvement no matter what it takes – versus those who think that their interview skills cannot be improved on because of some impossible reason such as being shy or naturally quiet.
There is no such thing as being limited by shyness or from being an introvert, it is only limited by mindset.
What was your own first interview experience like?
I was 15 years old when I had my first interview experience. This was the ASEAN Scholarship interview by the Ministry of Education in Singapore. I can still remember it very clearly as it was nerve wracking and it was my first encounter with a panel interview. There were about 5 interviewers across the table, and just me on the other side. I think it didn’t help that there were candidates who were coming out of the room in tears!
It was and still is a significant part of my experience even though it happened so many years ago. One of the questions that I still remember clearly till today was “Why should we give you the scholarship when we have already given it to your brothers?” As an interview coach, I now recognize the reason for the question – to present an issue of personal conflict and to see how I would respond. I sometimes use this question myself when I coach others.
I believe that interview lasted 30 minutes. A very long 30 minutes for a 15-year-old, but I thankfully made it through and got the scholarship. It has been life changing for me, as my entire educational pathway and the rest of my life changed upon being awarded the scholarship. This experience and the memory of it is what keeps me motivated to help others ace their interview and communication skills.
Finally, what’s next for Discovering Potential?
It has been a very interesting journey for ‘Discovering Potential’, and I want to continue serving our purpose of helping others achieve real change. Starting from their inner self and to really maximize their potential by having a holistic development, which will include having a good grasp of soft skills. We continue to specialize in providing interview skills and communication skills training.
This year, we set out with the aim of extending our reach and to give back to society, so we have commenced some give back initiatives and collaborated with others to provide free workshops to various groups including youths.
I see ourselves continuing to not only help new clients, but to continue supporting those who have been on board with us as they seek new heights in their life and career goals. Each step of our life and career development journey will present new challenges, new interviews, and new people that will require us to communicate with and we want to be part of that journey together.
Thank you Siew Ling for your time!