The Neuroscience of Leadership – Interview with Dr. James Andrade, Senior Vice President of CapitaLand

When it comes to talks of the future, flying cars and holograms quickly stimulate the imagination, but for Dr. James Andrade, Senior Vice President of CapitaLand, taking care of people and building future-ready leaders come first. As technology continues to push the boundaries of what is possible, James shares his thoughts on how their applications can be used to better understand the human mind and prepare it for what’s ahead. Dive into this exciting chat as we touch on Asia’s first Shared Executive Learning Centre and learn how their teaching strategies could be useful for your business:

Hi James! Thank you for joining us in this interview. Tell us a bit more about what you do at Catapult, Asia’s first Shared Executive Learning Centre with a focus on leadership and innovation, based in Singapore.

The idea of a shared executive learning centre actually started about 20 years ago. The Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) had an interest in continuing education—lifelong education. And one of the things that they discussed was building a facility that would be a magnet for training people—in leadership and innovation. It came down to: if Singapore continued to do what it had done in the first 50 years, for the next 50 years, would it see the same level of growth that it had seen? And the answer that they had was, no—Singapore needed to do some things new and different. So, there was this whole idea of how do we be better at innovation and prepare leaders for the future with even more urgency. It was around that time, that one of the ideas that came to the top was to create a centre in Science Park. It would draw on the research areas like Biopolis, Fusionopolis, some of the universities there, like NUS, ESSEC and INSEAD, and sort of be a hub for Learning and Leadership, and all those elements that are important to being a future-ready leader.

Ascendas-Singbridge won the contract, and I was involved in putting together the proposal. Later, CapitaLand acquired Ascendas-Singbridge. So, the project came on into CapitaLand. And that’s sort of the genesis of the background behind Catapult. What makes us a little bit different from other institutes of higher learning like INSEAD, SMU, ESSEC and other schools who do an outstanding job in training young business leaders – getting them their MBAs – is we focus less on the mechanics of business and how business works, and more on what would be called the human dynamic. What are the interactions that take place? What are the elements that make teams more effective? Some call it soft skills, but it’s really human skills.

Could you elaborate a bit more on this and how it can help businesses?

We look at things like how do you manage the ambiguity and paradox. Because as you rise in your career, the answers are less black and white, or right and wrong. They’re usually some area of grey. So, how do you come to the best solution when there is no clear-cut answer? In terms of leadership, that’s one aspect that we focus on, as well as the cross-cultural aspects. Today, businesses don’t just work in their own country, they cut across all the geographies. So, if you’re dealing with someone in Latin America or Europe, you may also have to deal with someone from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. And very often your team might be composed of all of these cultures at the same time.

On the innovation front, we tend to focus less on trying to predict what the future is going to be and more on: once you come up with a future-ready idea, how do you actually commercialise it? Because very often, people will come up with great ideas, but they don’t get commercialised, they don’t get operationalized, and they get stuck in a file drawer at the bottom of the cabinet. What we do is we help businesses understand what can take them from an idea to a business and how to turn that idea into wealth.

The third element that we focus on, which has kind of taken on more importance now, is the whole aspect of your well-being. Businesspeople are a little bit like athletes, they train all their life, and spend a tremendous number of hours getting ready for an event that never ends called the ‘work day’. This whole idea of work-life balance is really a misnomer, right? There is no balance. It’s not like you work for six hours, and you get to play for six hours. Generally, you’re on whenever you’re on. So, when you do have that free time, how do you manage your energy and give back to your friends, your family, even for yourself. With the three pillars being leadership, innovation, and managing your energy for peak performance, you bring the best of yourself to your job and to your life.

Personally, do you think human skills like leadership and innovation can be taught?

Absolutely. I mean, there are people born with certain traits that make them more predisposed to being effective leaders or being more innovative. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a great leader or innovate if you don’t share those traits.

If you think about the definition of leadership, it’s the ability to get people to do something that must be done. When you look at it like that, it doesn’t matter what level you are, it doesn’t matter what position you hold in the company. The ability to mobilise people to get things done—that can be taught—those are skills that you can cultivate.

For innovation, it has multiple components. One is having great schools, which Singapore has. The other is being able to take in knowledge and play at the intersection of those pieces of knowledge. For example, the intersection of biology and information systems is bioinformatics. At the intersection of finance and high tech, you’ve got fintech. Then you need to have the right institutions in place to protect it through intellectual property, but then you have to commercialise it. So, these are all things you can learn. You can be taught how to commercialise ideas and turn them into wealth.

How does your team achieve that?

We’re actually very focused on our objective. If you compare us to INSEAD, ASIC, IMD, or Emeritus, these are institutions from which you can learn finance, marketing, sales, strategy, and so on. But we’re very focused on leadership and innovation.

Within leadership, it’s generally how to manage paradoxes and ambiguity, or how to unleash the full capabilities of your teams. That’s our sweet spot. For innovation, it’s more about how to commercialise ideas.

Also, executive training requires more flexibility than many conventional university programs can accommodate.  You’re lucky if you get the executive for a week. Also, executives come in with a wealth of personal and professional experiences.  So, we have to make our training very immersive, very experiential, very hands-on, very Socratic. What we call—dialogic learning. You can’t just sit there and take notes. In our classes, when we ask you questions, you must input. There’s no such thing as sitting in the back of the class.

That’s very interesting. Does dialogic learning make it harder to teach big classes?

It’s interesting now because, initially, our largest classes are about 30 – 35 people, but with COVID, we have hybrid training with a mix of physical and virtual attendants. Everyone’s participating in the class, no matter where they’re at. Now, we have up to 40, 50, even 80 people in classes. And it’s a challenge to make the experience immersive with so many people.  However, the biggest challenge is overcoming the mindset that once you reach a certain age, you can’t learn or that it’s harder to learn things. And that’s just not true. The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” doesn’t apply that way. Regardless of age, learning takes place when certain elements are fulfilled.

And what exactly are those elements?

First off, the person must have some level of motivation. If somebody doesn’t want to learn, you’re not going to be able to make them. But what you can do is make learning have an emotional connection to the person. We found that learning with an emotional connection or motivation tends to stick a lot better. We tend to think of learning as something that is a highly cognitive process that comes with being very logical and systematic—and there’s some of that, yes—but it’s also very emotional. If people feel an emotional connection to something, it becomes consolidated and absorbed much more effectively.

The other part is socialisation. This is why we talk about dialogic learning and Socratic learning and learning through interacting. It can’t just be a passive exercise. When you’re learning as a part of a social activity, the process can become much more effective. We also employ gamification as a component through which learning can be facilitated. These techniques and practices make the learning more embedded in the way people assimilate, recall, and act on information. So, making it immersive, and experiential is key. Having a social component and an emotional connection is also key.

We hear you’re also borrowing from virtual/augmented reality technology as well as neuroscience principles to create more immersive learning experiences. That sounds exciting!

It absolutely is! From a neuroscience perspective, we know that memories that have an emotional connection tend to be much stronger. If you look at the way the brain is structured, the part of our brains that registers emotions is very close to the part that stores memory. So, you can already see from a neurological structural standpoint, that emotion and memory are connected quite well. And we take advantage of that biological structure to feed into the way that we train executives. That’s why we create emotional content for the training. We know that it’s going to consolidate more effectively as a part of memory.

And when it comes to VR/AR, we know the more experiential the training is, the better you’re learning. It’s really been proving quite effective by tricking your brain into experiencing things as they happen in an environment. And through that experience, you learn. You won’t just learn by sitting down with your eyes and your ears—you actually learn with your whole body.

How does that make the learning process more effective?

It helps you retain information better. What we do is—we combine our knowledge of neuroscience principles with VR/AR technology and use it together to help people not just learn information but retain it more effectively. The truth is, what you learn is irrelevant, if you cannot retain and put that information into practice. You can be exposed to quite a few things, as we all have. From your earliest school experience all the way to universities, we are exposed to a tremendous amount of information. But the key question is, what did you retain?

Our goal is not just to give you information, but to really make sure that you retain it. These are the things that we have built into our programming. Even the way we’ve structured the building stimulates your senses and creates a sense of arousal. By doing so, it prepares you to learn, much better than a boring square box classroom with white walls.

Oh yes, I don’t know many working executives that would want to go back into a traditional classroom.

Exactly. We’re training executives and you have to be a little bit more clever because of that. Most executives have other jobs that are probably at the forefront of their mind, as opposed to a full-time student going into a university whose only job is to attend university. The way we approach training must be a little bit different from that. The other thing about executives is that they come in with a lot of experience. So, while we have very effective knowledge providers that provide insights and information in these areas of leadership and innovation, it’s not like these executives don’t have some knowledge too. That’s why it’s important to not just sit back passively and listen to what the professor or the knowledge provider says, but to challenge, question, and give your perspective of what you’ve seen.

One person’s way of innovating in a fast-moving consumer products goods company might be very different than another’s in a medical supply company, which may be very different than a financial institution, and so on. There also may be some fundamental elements that cuts across all of them. And it’s through dialogue, in that exchange of information and ideas, that one plus one could equal three. It’s a very different way of thinking about leadership.

Can you share a little bit more on how that works in practice?

So, we have what we call the igloo room, which uses 180º and 360º screens—very immersive. Some describe it as group virtual reality. What we do there is transport participants to the top of a mountain and test your leadership skills in ensuring that a group of climbers make it to the top of Everest. What are the decisions that you make along the way? How do you select your team? We work with a company called Explore Performance, and these knowledge providers, they’re actual adventurers who have climbed to the top of Everest.

WOW, you guys make them climb Everest? Talk about sink or swim!

It’s all part of the immersive experience! So, you’ll be put in a position where this gentleman who’s done it before will say, “Okay, you’re part of a team. And here’s the situation: we have a storm that’s just moved in; there’s five of us; we only have just enough oxygen for all five of us; the climb is going to be more difficult, which means we’re going to use more oxygen.”

Do we ask some of the folks to stay behind? Do we attempt to climb at all? Will we run out of oxygen? Would that decision be dangerous? Do we go ahead with all five of us during the climb? Or do we just cancel the climb completely? And wait until better weather comes in? What if we run the risk of missing our window to make the climb—what would you do and why would you make the decision that you make?

That sounds like a frightening load of responsibility!

We put you with a team of people in this immersive virtual reality to test your decision-making skills. Some of them are life and death decisions. In real life, there are people that have died trying to climb as well as people that weren’t able to finish the climb. And much of it has to do with the types of decisions that you make. It’s all about the decisions. How you make the decisions, sometimes with a lot of information, sometimes less information, sometimes conflicting information. The easy answers are at the entry-level, it’s when you have mid-level and senior-level decisions where the answers aren’t black and white. They’re not binary, they usually lie along a continuum. And it depends on how much risk you’re willing to accept. What trade-offs you’re willing to make, what sacrifices you’re willing to make. And generally, this is where the human skill comes in because there is no technical and right or wrong answer when the situation is complex, versus complicated. One situation may be difficult, because it’s inconvenient, and maybe unexpected, but there are answers. There are other situations that are unexpected with no answers. And so, what do you use to guide your decision process?

At the end of the day, it ends up coming down to your values. If you’re climbing Everest, and you can’t game out what happens if there’s a storm and limited oxygen canisters and so forth, what you do is you say: what are our values? Our values are that no one’s life is at risk; no trip is worth someone’s life being put in danger; that we make decisions as a team; that we help each other as much as we can. So, you lay out your values in this extreme situation, but you should do that in business as well. Because when everything hits the fan, and you don’t know what the straight or simple answer is, what do you fall back on? Your values.

Is your interest in the intersections of business leadership and neuroscience a result of your previous experience in food development in the FMCG industry?

I think so. In my time in FMCG, what I was mainly involved in was how ingredients and processing variables impact the sensory qualities of food products. Basically, we figured out how to make products that delight the consumer. And sometimes, the way we will do that is very straightforward. We manipulate flavour profiles, textural profiles, aromatic profiles, or appearance profiles, and those were all very upfront, you would see it—the chocolate is darker, the cream is smoother, the beverage is sweeter, the fruit flavour is more pronounced. But there are some things we would do that were subliminal. Things like we would look at the interactions between flavour and texture, or appearance and aroma. And we would try to optimise those in a way that you would like in a product. As a result, consumers might not even know why they liked it, but they just liked it because they couldn’t quite put a finger on it. That is, in technical terms, the psychophysics involved in developing a food product—the sensory characteristics of a food product.

This was your time at Kraft?

It was at General Foods, Kraft Foods and Mondelez International. I worked in coffee. It was a lot of time working in coffee. Understanding what are the sensory attributes that are ideal for coffee. And it depends, different countries have different preferences for coffees. Some countries, for example, maybe drink a lot of tea, they don’t like coffees that are quite as strong. Other countries that are less into tea, might like a range of coffees that range from medium strength to very, very strong strength. Some countries always add milk, sometimes they add a lot of milk, sometimes it’s less milk. In almost all countries, the aroma is key.

Mm, we do love a nice hot cup of coffee in the mornings.

Everyone does! From a very interesting neuroscience perspective, one of the major things that makes Starbucks so attractive is that they pump the coffee aroma out of the building. In the US, most kids—their earliest memories are maybe waking up, smelling coffee and breakfast, and then going down and having cereal. You know, those are probably pleasant memories for them. Now, these kids are adults, they’re walking down the street, going to their job, all of a sudden, they smell coffee. And wow, they may not even realise why they want a cup of coffee. But Starbucks was one of the early food and beverage outlets that understood and effectively utilized the power of aroma in attracting customers. Other companies figured it out too. For Subway, they bake their bread. Part of the reason they do that is so you smell the bread aroma. And all of a sudden, you’re hungry. You want a Subway sandwich.

So, that’s what I did. I understood what were the triggers that got people to buy and love the products that we make—the colour of the packages, what were the opening features, what was the texture of the material, even the sound it makes. One of the things that we learned for instant coffee for example, when you open up the coffee, you always would hear a little ‘woosh’ sound. If consumers didn’t hear that ‘woosh’ sound, they didn’t think it was fresh. Those are some of the things that we would curate—sensory cues.

Now that you mentioned it, it does feel nicer to open a fresh jar of instant coffee powder and hear that ‘woosh’ sound as you peel the seal open.

And it’s same thing with cans. As soon as you open the can there’ll just be a little ‘qwoosh’ sound. Those are all cues, sensory cues that people hear that tell them that this is a good product. For most people, it takes about point four milliseconds for them to make a decision on what to pick up off the shelf. So, you have like point four milliseconds to get their attention. Sometimes it’s colour, sometimes it’s size, sometimes it’s the placement on the shelf, and sometimes it’s an interaction of all of those things. Those are the things that we were researching and doing.

We watched your talk on “The Future of the Office” and amongst our team, one of the findings you raised about neuroscience on employees needing the office in the long term has been proven true. People are wired to connect and we find ourselves missing being back at the office as well. Has your opinion on the future of work changed since then?

Well, I think that the future of work is evolving. And I remember when we’re having that discussion, one of the things that I said was that, no one knows yet what a post-COVID, post-pandemic work world is going to look like. But what is certain is that it’s not going to go back to what it was.

So, what can we expect from a post-pandemic work world?

The question is, what do we do? Real estate companies, companies that are employing teams of people, what are some of the things that they need to consider? And one of the things that the pandemic has made very clear, is that there’s a lot of work that can be done that doesn’t require people in the office. People have shown that they can do quite a bit of what traditionally had been done in an office at home. But does that mean that people are going to just want to work from home?

I think the short answer to that is, no. I think the office has a place, but it’s going to have to evolve from just a warehouse of people sitting at a desk, typing in front of a computer screen, because you can do that at home—you don’t need to commute 25 minutes, rush up to a desk and sit in a socially-distanced facility and type out a memo—you can do that at home. I think what the office needs to do is to evolve into a place where it becomes a destination and a community for people.

What does that mean?

One of the things that people do effectively in groups is innovate because they tend to bounce and build and connect ideas. And that’s something that can happen rather spontaneously, you don’t have to set up a meeting for it. The old Water Cooler discussions—a lot of work or traditional work actually occurred there. And having an environment where you can put ideas up and play with ideas and do it with a group of people is something that homes generally can’t provide. It’s not an easy thing to do over zoom, most people get kind of tired of being on zoom all day. So having that live interaction is an important component.

The other thing is that the pandemic has shown that people want the opportunity to learn and improve themselves. You’ve heard anecdotal stories of people that started taking courses through Coursera and LinkedIn learning, just to do something different and fill the time and not just sit and do work, and then go and watch TV. And they actually had the energy to do that. So, the office can also play that role. The task then becomes to turn the office into a place where it becomes a learning environment, as well as an environment that completes work and work assignments.

And then finally, this whole notion of community. Community is important to people. And as I said, we’re wired to connect. We are not wired to be isolated. And the office can provide that environment for connection. But it’s going to have to change. It can’t be that the connection is work starts at nine and ends at five—it’s got to be a destination, a choice of destination.

A year ago, you penned a post on LinkedIn titled “A Time for Leadership”, sharing about the struggle you faced as a parent in allowing your son, Vincent, to join protests in Chicago for fear of the dangers it involved. And in the end, you told him that it was not your place to stop him and that it was his time to change what your generation could not.

It was a really moving story with a sentiment that I’m sure many parents can identify with. Your recount has also made us wonder, how important is it for business leaders to be change advocates and have a diverse and inclusive working culture?

The truth is LinkedIn is mainly a business-oriented forum. So, my comments were probably more focused on business, but I think the issue of inclusion and understanding isn’t confined to just business. It extends to academia. It extends to the military. I mean, I’ve worked in the military for a good number of years. I’ve worked in academia; I’ve worked in corporate entities. So, I don’t think there’s any one industry that’s cracked the code, I think that it’s one of those things where we all have a part to play. But I would answer this question from two perspectives: what we do as a business and what we can do as business leaders.

In business, we tend to think of dollars and cents. And we tend to bring everything down to that common denominator. And that’s okay, but I think the research has been pretty clear that companies that value inclusive and diverse environments, respect for your market and treat all of their workforce equitably have superior business results and a much higher return on their investment.  That’s a good dollars and cents incentive—and is a fundamental motivator to be a change advocate.

But what if we take it a step further? And ask, what’s the legacy you want to leave behind as a business leader? What do you want your business to stand for? What’s important? What are the values of your company? Most major companies I have known include as part of their value proposition to make the world a better place. If this is true then I would challenge that as a business leader if you are not actively fostering understanding, equity and promoting a more inclusive society and treatment of people as equals—then you are not living your company values. In many respects this comes down to your personal integrity and role in being an advocate for making the world a better place. This is the challenge I presented to my business colleagues in the article you reference.

A little bird told us you’re a world-class martial artist. Do you specialise in a specific martial art and has practicing the sport influenced your leadership style in any way?

World class would be an overstatement, but I have studied for many years. I used to compete in the US and here in Asia. The first time I came to Asia was to compete.  I also used to do a short course on “The Sil Lim Tao (小念頭) of Leadership” which translates into the small or simple idea.

Thank you for all your professional and personal insights. Our next few questions will be on DOOR XXV. To start off, how did you get to know about DOOR XXV?

I got invited to a Mixology class and met Mark! That was my first exposure to DOOR XXV.

Carene also recounted this story about how you joined through a mixology class. However, not everyone joins DOOR XXV as a member after just one masterclass. What made you decide to become a DOOR XXV member?

You could tell as soon as you walked in here, through the hidden door, that the whole vibe of this place was just so cool. It’s not too big and not too small. And then there’s Mark. Being in the food industry, you’re used to dealing and meeting with chefs and people in the industry. I’ve attended and been a member of a couple of different clubs, but I’ve never met anyone like him (Mark).

He’s obviously an expert mixologist, but in talking to him, I felt like I was talking to a fellow scientist because he knows the science behind what he does. I mean, the way he extracts flavours, this is stuff that our flavour chemists would do. And when he distils the essence of different ingredients, it was like talking to another chemist. Then there’s the history behind every drink and every liquor and his storytelling around it.

So, I figured, if the members were as hip and cool as Mark, it would be a fun place to come. The only disappointment is that I joined over COVID-19, so it’s been open, close, open, close.

Yep, that’s really sad. We previously interviewed Amanda and Kelly from Clear Channel and they’re in a similar circumstance so they’re also eager to experience the pre-COVID buzz back at SPECTRUM and DOOR XXV.

I know, it must be frustrating for the folks here as well to keep having to open and close repeatedly.

It’s hard, that’s for sure. That’s why we’re doing this interview series! It’s our way of conserving a sense of community by sharing personal stories and industry insights with other DOOR XXV members. Which brings us to our next question, what do you enjoy most about DOOR XXV?

I like the atmosphere, the ambience, the vibe, and I like that Mark is experimental in his drinks. You could say that you want something smoky, something more savoury, sweeter, lighter or something different. And he always manages to come up with something new or he adds a twist to something that you might be familiar with.

During the lockdown, I’d never ordered alcoholic beverages from the places I’d seen or called for wine delivery but for DOOR XXV, I did. I had Mark bring over the wine, the whiskies and after this interview, I’ll talk to Mark about delivering a couple of Cocktail Kits to my friends because I think that they’ll get a kick out of it.

Have you tried our Cocktail Kits?

I’ve yet to try one but there were a couple of friends that I’ve brought here, and they enjoyed the drinks that they had but they always enjoyed the one that I’d get, which is a Smoky Boulevard. So, I saw that it was on the list of Cocktail Kits and I’m going to have it delivered to them.

So, is your favourite drink at DOOR XXV the Smoky Boulevard?

Yep, that’s my drink. That’s my jam.

We asked Carene about this beforehand and she said it’s hard to answer for you because when you come in your order depends on your mood, and you always order something different based on that.

Well, I’m kind of a Martini-, usually a Vodka Martini guy. And I do like my whisky neat but if I’m having a mixed cocktail, it’s generally the Smoky Boulevard.

My final question is, how is your experience with SPECTRUM so far?

Probably the last experience that I had, was the Sake Tasting, that was a lot of fun. I had no delusions that I would win the sake bottle, but I had fun tasting. I probably learnt more about sake in those two sessions than I have ever learnt or known about it, so that was fun.

That must have been pretty interesting because you were previously working on food aromas and pairing that with different textures.

Thank you for joining us in this interview!

You can connect with James via jamesrandrade@gmail.com/LinkedIn to know more about CapitaLand and the work he does. As always, you can keep up to date with what is going on around DOOR XXV here.