Patrice Choong: Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

Written by Kai Xin Koh

lead with stories

When change is the only given constant, the best skill you can equip yourself with for the workforce is adaptability. It makes you an invaluable asset to any company but many struggle with this for fear of going beyond their comfort zone. Read on as Patrice shares how stories can be used to inspire you to step out of your comfort zone.

Key actionable take-aways:

In this interview, Patrice illustrates how a great leader:

  • uses stories to inspire action
  • see opportunities for growth/improvement even during hardship
  • regularly push themselves to go beyond their comfort zone
  • is a visionary who guides their team to achieve their goals through a shared vision

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

When you give your team a sense of “being on a journey”, you give meaning and purpose to day-to-day activities.

In your opinion, what makes a great leader or storyteller?

In my years of leading teams of varying sizes, I came to understand that there are three elements that are necessary to move the hearts and minds of people.  A good leader cares, inspires commitment and possesses conviction. This is not learnt in schools but is developed through the leader’s own personal life / work experiences.  This is why, more often than not, behind every good leader, there is an even greater story.

“An unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates.

This quote taught me the value of self-reflection to grow as a person.  To this day, it continues to remind me the importance of setting aside time to reflect and draw lessons. Schools and various training programmes can teach the hard skills of a good leader but values, character and genuine growth, I believe, comes from self-reflection.

Blog Image Template.001

Each individual story has a struggle and opportunity. Learn to find the opportunity.

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

Opportunities lie in conflict. Opencerts was born because administrative officers spend countless hours working on manual certified true copies of certificates.  When you talk to people and find out the stories, you uncover opportunities that would otherwise be ignored.   A fresh graduate who struggled with the choice of working in an MNC or a startup, inspired the Startup Talent Factory initiative.   A polytechnic graduate rejected by several commercial incubators ended up building a great company that inspired us to build Pollinate. Each individual’s story has a struggle and opportunity.  Learn to find the opportunity.

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

It is hard to pick one but I would say that one quality I have realised is critical for growth is to learn to step out of your comfort zone. One of my greatest challenge was when I was asked to form the innovation and entrepreneurship office of NP, called The Sandbox.  I am an educator and technologist at heart and definitely not an entrepreneur.  It was a daunting task and I felt inadequate. Five years later, that office received numerous awards for the many national-level initiatives it kick-started, including the Public Service Transformation award for Exemplary Innovation.

Public Service Transformation Awards (Exemplary Innovation)

Public Service Transformation Awards (Exemplary Innovation)

This is what I learnt from that experience:
  1. Learn from others. I had a talented team that taught me what I needed to know about innovation and entrepreneurship. I’ve met with several entrepreneurs who talked me through their entrepreneurship journey.
  2. Dare to try something new and fail. We’ve launched over 50 initiatives during my 5 years at The Sandbox but most people would only listen to about 5 – 8 of the initiatives. Most failed. That’s part of the journey.
  3. Collaborate. We won’t have the resources and know-how to do things alone but together, you can create something meaningful.
  4. Move fast. Time is critical in this rapidly growing space. We are no longer in the “big fish eats small fish” world but the “fastest fish” wins.

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

Almost every great initiative starts with a story:

The Untold Story of Pollinate

This is the story of Maxim. After Maxim graduated from Singapore Poly, he had an idea and a strong conviction that the market needs this idea and wanted to launch his startup. Armed with courage, he applied to several commercial and university-based incubators but was rejected by all. He persevered and rented a small office in an industrial estate and launched his business all on his own. Pollinate was created to provide Polytechnic graduates with a safe and familiar place to start and grow their business. It had three basic operating principles:

  • Purely developmental and no equity
  • Focused on poly grads and accept graduates from any polytechnics.
  • 20% of the offices to be opened to startup founders outside of polytechnics.

To date, over 30 startups have cycled through Pollinate, and we’ve seen many grow in terms of revenue and team size. Three years later, he sold it for a profit. With the proceeds from the sale, he used it to fund a short course education at Stanford University. While at Stanford, he participated in a two-man hack-a-thon team where he met his future business partner. Together, they continued working on the hack-a-thon idea and launched Gtriip in San Francisco which later expanded to Singapore. If Maxim had gave up on his first idea after being rejected by several incubators, Pollinate or Gtriip may not be here today.


1st batch of Startups moving in

The Story That Inspired Startup Talent Factory

Meet Gladys. After graduating from SMU with a Bachelor in Business Administration, she applied to several positions, mostly in MNCs and a few startups. She received several offers which she was able to short list to two. A pharmacy company that offered a salary of about $4K+ and a startup company that offered a salary of $3k+ with 3% equity. She had a hard time choosing which offer to accept. Her parents and uncle were persuading her to accept the offer from the pharmacy company since it pays more and the company is more stable. She was leaning towards the startup but she doesn’t quite understand the 3% equity and the fact that she will receive a lower pay than her peers. Eventually, she chose to work for the startup. There are many graduates out there, like Gladys, who may decide to work for the MNCs instead. We can’t blame them for their choices. It can be hard to compete especially salary-wise. This is where the dilemma lies. Startups constantly look for good talent but are often unable to afford the salary to compete with MNCs and they lose out on a potential hire. STF was conceived to help startups and the polytechnic graduates alike. To date, STF has successfully placed over 100 graduates to work in startups as a gap year programme post-graduation.

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

1) Team bonding activities do not build teams. Vision builds teams. People need a vision to anchor their efforts, give meaning to their work and provide a sense of direction towards their destination. 2)  Be wary of lots of Motion without Movement. Some call it: Hentak kaki or marching in place. Lots of motion without movement. We need to ensure that every effort is directed towards the vision, and is moving the team closer to its destination.

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

The importance of human connection. We can teach via Zoom, meet over Skype and chat on Messenger but human connection brings elements of serendipity that often is the spark that creates value.

Staff Excellence Award (Innovation Award)

Staff Excellence Award (Innovation Award)

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

Design a Powerpoint deck (design skills) Tell a good story (communication skills) Write a Project Proposal (writing skills) Ace your spreadsheet (data skills)

Now more about Patrice’s backstory:

Patrice Choong

A picture of Patrice with his mentees during graduation

What’s your story?

I am an educator and technologist who is passionate about creating value through innovation. I’ve always had a thirst for learning even when I was young. During my ‘O’ levels, I wanted to take 9 subjects but the maximum that I was allowed to take in school was 8 subjects, so I took an extra subject as a private candidate. I learned the BASIC programming language at 13 years old just so I can hack into the SNAKE.BAS game that came with MS-DOS. I subsequently picked up other languages and wrote my first database-driven application in DBASE III at 16 years old. I completed my M.Comp in 2007/8 and M.Ed in 2012/13. Today, I teach tech to diploma students, adult learners and working professionals, and help companies innovate using technology.

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

I’m fortunate. I’ve never gone in for a formal work interview. In 2001, I completed my Honours thesis for Ericsson, a telecommunication giant at that time. Right after my thesis presentation, my supervisor called me to his office and offered me a job to work for Siemens R&D Labs in 3G research. I worked for Siemens for about three years till the R&D labs moved to China.  I took the severance package to pay off my student loans and travel the world.  I was 25 years old then. A friend of mine asked me to teach Java as a part-time lecturer in NP as the faculty needed some help.  I accepted.  One semester later, I was offered a full-time position.   16 years later, I’m still doing what I enjoy:  teaching about technology and innovation.

How can people connect with you?

Linkedin or email me.

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.

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