Adrian Sng: First SARS, now Co-Vid 19- Leadership and Tips on Overcoming Adversities

Written by Kai Xin Koh

On May 15, 2020

As we yearn for this pandemic to be over, it’s more important now than ever, to trust the process. Hear from Adrian on his tips to tide your company through times of crises.


What’s your story?

From 2014 -2018, I led the Events Business of SingEx Exhibitions, the events arm of SingEx Holdings. SingEx Exhibitions owns, develops and manages a portfolio of events through collaborations with local and international partners. As its General Manager, my portfolio included growing the Events Business globally through organic development, strategic partnerships and acquisitions as well as establishing in-country show teams. In the last four years, I have set up as well as grown events and subsidiaries in India, Indonesia and also partook in acquisitions of a UK based company and a China-based company to expand SingEx’s geographical reach and portfolio of events. Some of the award-winning events that I have had a strong hand in growing include Singapore FinTech Festival and IoT Asia.

Till end March 2020, I led the Community Business of SingEx Holdings as Chief Community Architect to develop innovative solutions using technology to drive engagements and business value within and across the industry communities SingEx serves with their proprietary events such as Singapore FinTech Festival. SingEx Holdings is wholly-owned by Temasek Holdings, a Singapore-based investment company.

Since April 2020, I’ve been busy starting up an advisory company (MICEvolve) helping Trade event organisers grow, scale and evolve their event portfolios and companies in Asia.

As a believer in continuous learning for my staff, I lead by example; having graduated with an Executive MBA from NUS.

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How did you get into your current line of work/ why did you decide to do it?

I was already interested in the Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions (MICE in short) industry when I was at NTU doing my Bachelors in Business with a focus on Hospitality and Tourism Management. My interest stemmed from my University activities and my role as the Recruitment Fair Chairperson. The Recruitment Fair is the first exhibition that I have ever organised. It is an exhibition in the University that my committee put together for all the Clubs, Societies, Sports Groups to exhibit their activities and recruit new members from Year One undergraduates in University. For the new undergraduates, it was a one-stop location to meet and speak with all the representatives of the various clubs and to know what’s available to them and the criteria to join each club. While still in University, I did my 8-month internship at a Professional Conference Organiser for my final year and joined a German Trade Fair company for my first job upon graduation.

After my internship stint and first job, it made me realise how much I enjoyed and learned from the work I do within the MICE sector. Developing, growing and scaling a trade exhibition or conference teaches me great skills of being an entrepreneur as you dive into many facets of business such as:

  • Brand Building
  • Product Development and Pricing
  • Sales and Marketing
  • Operations
  • Partnerships
  • Financial budgeting and Cashflow
  • Market entry strategies etc

Being in the exhibitions sector also allowed me to know various companies and the products that they are launching into Asia or Global markets and it helped me in my personal investment strategies too.

In your opinion, what makes a great leader?

A great leader to me is one who uplifts his or her people and motivates each and everyone they lead to be performing at the best they can be towards the common goal. A great leader mentors, inspires and leads by example with good moral values.

What would you say was your greatest difficulty/sacrifice faced as a leader so far? How did you overcome it?

I have been a founder of a company and also a leader within a larger corporation and the greatest difficulty I had faced were very different in both scenarios.

When I was an entrepreneur, my greatest difficulty was in managing cash flows during periods of crisis, like the SARS period in 2003. That period mirrors what we are facing with Covid-19, though it pales in geographic and economic impact with what we are going through currently. During SARS, where business and revenues were affected, costs were rising due to the implementation of increased sanitisation measures for our staff members and the headcount costs we had to maintain, it was tough to carry on the business. I managed to overcome it due to 2 main factors:

Trust: Carrying out your work as an authentic business leader, manager and person with the utmost integrity and dedication towards your staff and clients all the time is extremely important. It reaps positive returns in unthinkable ways, especially during times of crisis or your darkest moments as an entrepreneur. Staff members would rally around you and volunteer to take pay cuts or to receive their pay with a delayed time frame for those who had savings to tide them through. Even bankers can be negotiated with to work out a payment plan for outstanding loan amounts when you show sincerity, gumption and a wish to pay them. Some clients would engage more services with you or ensure their payments are not delayed to help you through those periods.

team pic.001

A positive mindset and pivoting to new opportunities: In any economic, financial or pandemic crisis, new opportunities and scenarios arise which can pivot your business towards where your organisation and staff have related competencies. During the SARS period, I operated a home cleaning business and pivoted our business to take on sanitisation activities for childcare centres and playschools- both to serve the community’s need at that time and obtain some revenues to keep our cash flow going when the home cleaning activities dropped. Even in this current Covid-19 situation, in my current industry (Events) many companies are in the same boat with zero revenue for many months. Maintain positivity and seek a way out with peers and staff who share that same “can do” spirit. There are new streams of income to develop and new ways of conducting our business.

It will be important not to lapse into a negative spiral psychologically as you will, in turn, attract negativity and it would limit your ability to pivot or take certain steps to “evolve” the business.

When working in a corporation, my greatest difficulty is in rolling out new innovative ideas and change management. Many times, internal stakeholders (Senior Management, Board, Staff) may be the ones in a state of great inertia and prove to be the greatest resistance to new ways of operating and new products. They have been conditioned for many years in the existing models and are uncomfortable or simply do not have the understanding about the new models, new technology and are fearful for their own jobs or are risk-averse to these investments in new models as it may fail.

adrian 5.001

If you are a leader, you need to: Create an environment- give strong management support and direction toward the whole organisation to future proof the business. Help the team working on these new innovations to build quick tests, wins and share the mini successes with the Board and staff. Encourage innovation from throughout the organisation. Ring fence your innovation units and provide them with a Sandbox to create and try different solutions. The Sandbox environment created can encompass various areas in procurement methodology, vendors, financial frameworks, success metrics etc.

If you are a staff member or a lead within that innovation unit, it is important to focus on the outcomes you are driving towards and be simple in your presentation to ensure your target audience understands what the new innovation is supposed to do or help with their business. Don’t lift your own ego by throwing in technology jargons. This will make their resistance levels go higher as they will reject the new innovation for fear that it will make them look stupid for not understanding it. Storytell in a coherent and simple manner to get the audience engaged and understand the points you are trying to convey.

How important are storytelling skills to you as a leader? How have you applied it in your work?

I was not aware of the need and importance to have storytelling skills as a leader until situations appeared where I had to address a large number of staff members in a presentation on our business directions and other separate investment projects where I needed to get the buy-in from sceptical stakeholders.

adrian sng.002

I have since worked with professionals on various aspects of storytelling and communicating effectively and succinctly with clear visuals and simple articulation to ensure higher audience receptivity and understanding. It is an art worth mastering that includes pre-empting naysayers and their comments and using images that helps etch the impression that you wish to underscore. I have now applied this to conference presentations I have to give, presentations to potential clients, work teams and to Board members.

How are you marketing your business/getting clients? Is there a unique way you use to differentiate yourself/your firm?

For the advisory business that is just starting, it will be marketed through the following:

  • Networks (Personal networks, Collaboration Partners)
  • Multipliers (External Trade Associations in Asia for trade show organisers, Community Groups)
  • Trade events
  • Focused direct outreach (Linkedin outreach or a direct letter/email or call to the Founder, senior management of a targeted company
  • Online search
  • Content Leadership pieces via my Linkedin

What would you say has been the greatest lesson so far as a leader in your work?

I would say the greatest lesson for me as a leader in my work is to grow the company in a calibrated manner. Sometimes, many projects and new opportunities will come our way and there is a tendency to take on too much growth that the organisation and its talents may be insufficient to take on the load or insufficiently skilled that will lead to a failed outcome.

It will be a constant struggle for leaders to reject business at times but it is necessary for sustainable growth of the company than growing too fast on unstable foundations and inappropriate systems for the larger scale.

Some of the factors that I use to consider include:

  1. Is this new opportunity strategic or core to our business now? Or will it be a distraction?
  2. What are the tradeoffs? Vs Wins? (staff, supplier’s time committed and financial resources vs benefits (cash and in-kind)

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Through the years, I am grateful for the many pieces of advice I have received from mentors, peers and family members in various aspects of my life whether it is for the business and work front or in my personal life.

However, there is one piece of advice that I received from our family doctor once that stuck with me throughout the years that has taught me to remain focused.

“Your life at work or in your business can sometimes be viewed as a driver in a Formula One race. You blink. You die.”

It may sound harsh but it was to train me to be focused on what matters and the direction ahead towards my purpose or mission. Disregard and do not get involved with the noise and distractions. In this day and age, there are countless meetings, messages and notifications that will distract us from our main goal or which will lead us to be inefficient. “Busyness” is not necessarily a good thing. It has to be a constant reminder in our own minds to stay focused.

If you had to offer a piece of advice to someone just starting out or who aspires to lead a team/organisation. What advice would you give?

Lead by example in all facets. Do what you say and say what you do. You will not win the trust of the team or people in the organisation if you do not live by and reflect the values and processes that you are espousing. You will be surprised how the culture of the company will be built just by you leading by example.

If one of your company values is that of pursuing Growth and Learning, then as a Leader, you have to be creating learning and growth opportunities for all your team members whether through informal situations, small projects, formal career progression or courses for all your team members. Do not hold back or be protective over sharing your experience or competencies to guide your next in line. You will be surprised by how much more growth you and your staff will experience. For the company, you are “unlocking” your talents for them to grow and flourish.

What have you started trying this year that has been working well for you as a leader?

I used to be very busy with my whole workday packed with meetings with clients, various team meetings or discussions with the subsidiaries. There wasn’t time set aside to think, strategise, ideate or just learn.

In running a business and growing it, many a times, there are many many issues to resolve and which keeps you up at night. This year, I have made it a point to block a timeslot early morning to have this time set aside for me to think, ideate, strategise or just learn from reading. I have found this beneficial for myself and in the way I lead as I am clear of each day’s purpose, prioritisation of activities and also to learn new ideas and spend time reflecting on its applications on the business.

Share with us something you learned recently that changed how you intend to run your team/business.

I have been reading this book Platform Revolution recently and it has changed my perspective of our trade events industry to now view them as knowledge and network platforms. Platforms now thrive greatly on a different set of business drivers and metrics, business architecture and systems and are asset-light compared to traditional pipeline businesses.

It has changed me this past year on how we should evolve our traditional face-to-face trade exhibitions and conferences to include strong digital platforms to enable sharing, learning and networking amongst the community online and also open up opportunities and monetisation to those who could not come to our events. Use data and appropriate recommendation engines to facilitate interactions for greater business amongst the community. I think it will help many new leaders to understand the concept of platforms and how it will impact or help evolve their business.

What is one book you would recommend that every new leader or storyteller be reading?

I would recommend this book, The Leader, The Teacher & You by Lim Siong Guan and Joanne H. Lim.

This book is the 2014 winner of the Singapore Literature Prize and depicts the everyday applied leadership based on the principles and experiences of Lim Siong Guan, former Head of the Singapore Civil Service and former Group President of GIC Private Limited. I recommend this book for every new and existing leader as it gives a fresh take on the notion of leadership as being other-centred so that we can all be the best that we can be.

What are 3-4 tools (digital or offline) that you feel everyone should know about?

Microsoft Sharepoint and Google Docs that enables everyone to work collaboratively on a single document across teams/offices

Trello – It is a good tool to manage projects across different teams and different workstreams.

How can people connect with you?

They can connect with me on:

my Linkedin.

My email at:

Article Written By: Kai Xin Koh

Co-founder and Head of training at HighSpark, Kai Xin's super power is to empower high-performing individuals win more hearts and minds through persuasive communications. She was recently one of the only 20 Singaporeans to be honoured on the Forbes30Under30 Asia list. Beyond business, Kai Xin makes time for meditation, is determined to lead her life mindfully, and aspire to unveil the magic of the mind.

Written by:
Kai Xin Koh

Co-founder and Head of training at HighSpark, Kai Xin's super power is to empower high-performing individuals win more hearts and minds through persuasive communications. She was recently one of the only 20 Singaporeans to be honoured on the Forbes30Under30 Asia list. Beyond business, Kai Xin makes time for meditation, is determined to lead her life mindfully, and aspire to unveil the magic of the mind.

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