Monte Singman had his first job at age fifteen, heaving heavy loads of flyers and stuffing neighborhood mailboxes in Taiwan’s stifling summer heat. He was trying to earn enough money to buy an Apple II knockoff for $300. Even though it was backbreaking work, Monte realized that he was still just a commodity to the flyer company.
Monte kept this lesson in the back of his mind as he grew up and dove into developing gaming software. He eventually wrote a fortune-telling software program that became a hit in Taiwan, and then took his skills to Silicon Valley, where he realized that instead of being a commodity, he was a highly valued talent. But with this recognition came a new challenge: in order to grow professionally, Monte had to learn to manage people. He didn’t want to make the mistake of treating his team like commodities.
Monte Singman started Radiance in 2005, and today the company employs thirty-five people in Shanghai. Monte has worked on hit titles at small and large game studios and has learned many valuable lessons on how to build a successful company. He shared the following experiences and lessons.
Monte has long maintained an open-door policy; however, at first, employees rarely came to talk to him. He realized that waltzing into your boss’s office to discuss company matters was just too foreign a concept to Chinese employees. Monte kept emphasizing and reinforcing the policy to his team, and over the years more and more employees walked through his door. But even today, they still don’t do it enough, and people don’t speak up in team meetings. So Monte holds weekly 1-on-1s with his direct reports. When he looks back at what he perceives to be his best period as a manager, he spent a huge part of his week on these meetings.
If You’re Thinking about Firing Someone, You Will
Thirteen years ago, Monte Singman’s mentor shared with him that, if Monte was thinking about firing someone, then he undoubtedly would end up letting go of that person. Monte thought that that philosophy was flawed because he believed that people can change and be mentored. In fact, he took it as somewhat of an insult, because Monte himself had undergone tremendous personal growth over the years as a result of coaching by his bosses.
It’s hard to believe that Monte was once a shy, introverted programmer. He has such an engaging and commanding presence now. Nevertheless, after many years and many employees, Monte relayed that his mentor’s saying has withstood the test of time and proven to be right. Investing in improving your star players is one thing, but putting in too much time to change someone who was never a good fit is a waste of time.
Don’t Get Too Close to Direct Reports
Monte strives to create a collegial, friendly, and laid-back work environment. Yet in years past, he made the mistake of getting too close to some of his direct reports. Consequently, because of those friendships, he found it much more difficult to coach these team members’ weaknesses. Today, Monte aims to achieve a balance of approachability without being too chummy.
When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Weird
He said that he heard this phrase about two decades ago, but never knew what it meant until recently. Now, he gets it. Monte explains that if you’re trying to solve a challenging problem and all the logical solutions are exhausted, then the answer requires out-of-the-box creative thinking. So, if you keep bumping against a wall when dealing with a dilemma, maybe there’s a way to go over, around, or under the wall instead of repeatedly running into it.
Never Ridicule Ideas, but Do Laugh at Yourself
Related to “The Tough Get Weird,” Monte’s philosophy is to never dismiss others’ ideas or laugh at them. He encourages and entertains all ideas because he never knows when he may need a weird solution. He believes that a work culture that ridicules or punishes people for their ideas stifles creativity. When he does hear what he initially considers a bad idea, he tempers his language so as not to discourage someone for speaking up.
To make a point about embracing differences, Monte even dressed up as Santa Claus during Christmas to hand out presents, which floored all of his Chinese team members! In China, a typical boss would fear losing face by doing such a thing. He had to catch the employees smiling because they were too scared to laugh at him and risk getting fired. This lighthearted, approachable attitude has become his signature. If you’ve met Monte, you know that he must have played a great Santa Claus, with his facial hair and his gentle smile.
Truth Withheld = [Pain * Interest] Compounded by Time
You don’t want people to be surprised during their performance reviews. If they are not doing well, they should know before then.
This resonated with me immediately when Monte told me that he espouses a no-surprises review policy. From his experience, any time the truth is withheld or sugarcoated, it incurs “interest pain,” which is pain compounded over the length of time that the truth had not been revealed.
I think that Monte would agree that this axiom could also be applied when you are thinking about firing someone but delay doing it. There’s short-term, immediate pain from postponing the deed. The pain gets compounded by the toxicity that occurs when that person interacts not just with others on the team, but with suppliers, vendors, and customers, too. Be honest and fair with feedback, and eliminate surprises. This minimizes pain for all the parties involved.
— David Niu
Shelve Ego and Ask for Help
Monte’s presence fills up a room when you meet him, so it was refreshing to hear that he frequently asks others for help. In his experience, business owners are often too ego-bound to ask for support. With his approach, Monte gets to learn and grow continuously as an entrepreneur and leader, even though he’s already had his share of success.
It’s gratifying to see someone as accomplished as Monte Singman end an interview with this tip: it always makes sense to put the ego aside and ask for help when it’s needed. I think that it’s this humble philosophy that makes his open-door policy feel genuine to his team, and that enables him to keep growing and improving as a leader. By the same token, since he’s not embarrassed to ask for help, he’s also generous about giving help, exemplified by his sharing of lessons and tips that he learned the hard way.