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Interview with Ivlynn Yap (Executive Chairman: Citrine One Group)

Can you share your career journey and what led you to your current role as Group Executive Chairman at CITRINE?

My career journey started as an intern journalist at The Star, one of Malaysia’s leading English publications. After earning my Honours Degree in Mass Communication, I became a writer for a female magazine, Women At Work. The pursuit for bigger stories took me to Singapore, where I reported on telecommunications and tech news in Southeast Asia for Asia Business Press Group’s regional publications Asia Pacific Telecommunication (APT) and Asia Computer Weekly (ACW). My role expanded to Hong Kong, where I reported on IT news across HK, Taiwan, China, and globally. Notably, my articles made the front page of ACW for 36 out of 52 weeks.

I interviewed many tech founders, senior management levels, and CEOs in the tech industry including tech giants like Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Larry Ellison (Oracle) which became a highlight in my career. As I was noticed in the industry, it led me to the role to as Regional Marketing Communication Manager at AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) based in Singapore. Here, I managed markets across India, Pakistan, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand with marketing communication responsibilities, accountable for branding, marketing and promotional initiatives, reseller and stakeholder management, event management, and public and media relations in these markets.

The dot-com boom opened up new opportunities, and I was recruited to be the Editor for CNET, one of the top IT web portals in the world – based in my home country, Malaysia. I quickly advanced to Business Development Manager and later Producer. When the dot-com bust led to the closure of CNET’s Malaysia office, I founded my own PR agency, Citrine One, initially serving tech clients. As it grew, I later expanded to other industries by hiring subject matter comm experts in F&B, Retail, Fashion, Government, Property, Construction, Utilities, Agricultural etc. At the same time, I continued to learn from top leaders and management as I worked alongside their CEOs and Executive Directors and in managing crises.

My biggest achievement was being recruited to provide consultancy and advisory to manage stakeholders and media relations for the LRT3 (Light Rail Transit) project from Oct 2017 to June 2018 and a 360-degree comms plan and reputation management strategy for a property and construction Group of companies in from March to October 2016. Another significant achievement was when I was offered to be the Head of Communications for a government statutory body in the financial industry working alongside senior-level management from Bank Negara Malaysia (Central Bank of Malaysia) and Ministry of Finance (MoF) from April 2021 to March 2024.

At the government statutory body, I provided advisory and consultancy to them on crisis communication preparedness and grooming the Communication Department team. It is also during my tenure here that I learned about risk management, compliance, policy-making, and corporate integrity. I was intrigued when this government statutory’s brand (name and logo) were used by scammers for investment scams although it does not provide protection for financial investment products. This curiosity about economic crimes led me to pursue a Master’s in Economic Crime Management at HELP University.

After my 3-year stint with them ended, I returned to Citrine One as Group Executive Chairman (by virtue of being the biggest cumulative shareholder). I now lead 3 entities (Citrine One Malaysia, Citrine One Global, and Citrine One Borneo) focusing on growth, digital transformation, and innovative services.

With over 30 years of experience in various fields, how has your leadership style evolved, and what core principles guide you in managing your teams?

My leadership style has evolved through different stages of the company’s growth and also about adapting to the needs of my team and the situation.

  • Early Stages: Initially, I adopted an authoritative leadership style, focusing on mobilizing my team towards a vision of providing excellent content and marketing communication services to our clients and helping them achieve their desired outcomes be it by increasing sales, heightening their brand and reputation, for promotional activities, stakeholder management, event management etc.
  • Growth Phase: As the company grew, and more senior management leading; I transitioned to a pacesetting style, expecting excellence and empowering team members to make decisions.
  • Expansion: When the company expanded further, the pacesetting style became less effective. I reverted to an authoritative style to align everyone with a common goal and towards one united vision.
  • Current Stage: With three entities, two based in Kuala Lumpur and one in Kuching, Sarawak to serve markets in Borneo; my role as Group Executive Chairman now combines both democratic and affiliative styles. By creating consensus amongst partners, respecting their views and their management style, fostering emotional bonds, and concurrently mentoring senior and middle management for future growth.

Can you discuss some of the most impactful PR campaigns you have crafted, and what made them successful?

One standout campaign was for Putrajaya Perdana Berhad (PPB) Group which has subsidiaries in the property and construction sector. We developed a comprehensive communication plan, including brand asset creation such as sales and marketing tool kits, promo materials, outdoor advertising on the building they construct, crisis management roadshows to their branch offices to train their teams on crisis communication policies and procedures as well as media relations activities such as the launch of their new housing developments and their corporate social responsibility initiatives. This campaign resulted in a RM680 million construction deal for one of the subsidiaries and Citrine One won 3rd place for the SEA PR Award for Crisis Management category for this successful campaign.

Another successful campaign was for the University of Southampton, a British University opening its branch campus in Malaysia which is renowned globally for its Mechanical and Engineering Faculty. Our brand awareness and familiarity campaign highlighted real-life applications of mechanical and engineering studies, interviews with the Dean of faculty of new techniques and scientific innovations created by their students and academicians as well as the achievements of alumni such as Andrian Newey, car designer of Formula 1 Red Bull to inspire and excite students in Malaysia and SEA region. The campaign resulted in an over-application of intake for their Mechanical and Engineering Faculty.

Last but not least, the most recent impactful campaign is the one I did with my communication team while I was in PIDM (www.pidm.gov.my) from April 2021 to March 2024. We used financial literacy and resilience as the hook using the animated Borneo Sun Bear as a financial management icon. We built up this character for 3 years and achieved over 80% public awareness for three consecutive years.  In the years prior, the awareness level was hovering below 75%. This integrated communication approach involved social media content management, media interviews, byline articles, collaborations with KOLs and other government agencies who are members of the Financial Education Network (FEN), corporate and resolution messages on LinkedIn, production of videos, as well as hybrid – online and on-ground initiatives. The 3-year campaign also resulted in enhanced brand familiarity, advocacy, and ultimately trust and confidence in PIDM.

As a lead counsel on crisis communications, what are the key strategies you employ to manage and mitigate crises effectively?

Generally, I use the crisis process lifecycle framework – preparedness, assessment, response, recovery, and mitigation/prevention initiatives.  Some of these elements can be found in the British Standard Crisis Management Guidance and Good Practice (BS11200). While there are several other crisis management models that can be mapped to this framework, there is no one-size-fits-all all model. One has to advise according to the crisis at hand as each crisis presents different challenges and limitations.

Nevertheless, when a crisis occurs, I would use a framework I developed through my years of experience managing crises, the IRCT framework which stands for Impact (severity of crisis), Reach ( how far fetch are the community/ies or population affected), Credibility (evidence-based and/or principle-based cause and solution, as well as the source or spokesperson/s disseminating the information/messages) and Timing (when is the best time to act or announce to regain one’s reputation and positive public sentiment).  This simple framework is easy to adopt and helps our clients tailor their responses to the specific situation, ensuring we address the severity, affected community, the credibility of information, and the optimal timing for action.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your career, and how did you overcome it?

The most challenging aspect of my career is convincing the top management of my clients of the strategic importance of communications. Overcoming this involved demonstrating the value of strategic communication through successful outcomes and advocating for communication practitioners to be part of top management decision-making. For example, during a significant crisis, it is crucial in the digital age where companies no longer have the luxury of time due to the pervasiveness of the Internet and the virality of social media, that strategic communication efforts must be aligned with the management’s decision on the crisis resolution, leading to improved public and stakeholder relations.

As an HRDF Certified Trainer, what are the key components of your training programs for CXOs, Senior Managers, and Executives?

Citrine One’s training programs are designed to ensure participants get the value for their money spent. Not only would they get the knowledge of a particular subject, but we also ensure they know how to apply the knowledge through hands-on workshops and thereafter simulations where scenarios are used to test the level of their knowledge, capability, and competency post-training. This hands-on experience-based approach ensures participants not only learn but can effectively apply their skills in real-world situations.

How important is mentorship in your role, and how do you support and develop young talent within your organization?

Mentorship is very important. Hence, the application of training the trainer and creating a buddy support system for new hires to ensure familiarity with the company’s culture and ensure continuity of tasks in the absence of any team member. In terms of enhancing knowledge, skills, capability, and competency, employees are encouraged to participate in industry seminars, and conferences and share their learnings. We would also schedule one-on-one or in-house training for team members on a need basis to enhance their skills.

Mentorship involves guiding senior team members to view strategies from a macro perspective and operationalize them effectively by using risk-based assessment techniques. We also conduct regular check-ins with employees to ensure projects stay on track, fostering open communication and continuous improvement.

Mentoring my senior team members includes guiding them to view strategies from a macro perspective (topline strategy) and how to operationalize these strategies by weighing the business risks, financial budget, assets, and synergy of roles and responsibilities of the employees. As they implement the strategies, periodic check-ins ensure projects stay on track. Effective communication at all levels of management is equally important. To foster open communication, everyone is encouraged to speak up, listen more, and not be too quick to judge one’s capability despite their lack of skills; this is to ensure continuous improvements.

How do you balance your various roles and responsibilities, and what strategies do you use to maintain productivity and focus?

Balancing multiple roles requires clear communication and effective delegation. We hold weekly in-progress meetings to identify and address issues early on and rectify them as soon as possible. Work delegation is important as no one can work alone to ensure quality delivery of services. Clarity and defining job scopes clearly ensures everyone knows their responsibilities. This instills accountability within each team member and plays their role effectively. We also have contingency plans for team absences to maintain the continuity of tasks that need to be performed/completed.

How do the concepts of organized crime, transnational crime, and anti-corruption from your studies at HELP University apply to your work?

Yes, there are many theories, frameworks, and models which I have learned from my Master’s program studies. First and foremost, my studies provided a deep understanding of the causes and effects of fraud and crime and the psychology behind why people from various walks of life commit crime. More importantly, by understanding the motivation/pressure, opportunity, and rationalization of committing a crime, we can take proactive measures to prevent unlawful conduct within the company. For example, following the global economic slowdown and rise in the cost of living due to inflation, Citrine One Group developed CHARM, an initiative to help employees in financial difficulties by providing them interest-free loans of their one-month salary to assist them in times of financial emergencies. Additionally, we have our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) to help employees going through mental stress to speak to Citrine One Group’s outsourced counselors or clinical psychiatrists.

Secondly, this Master’s program has made me more attuned to business risks and made me more cautious of dealings that my business is exposed to, especially the modus operandi of organized and transnational crimes. Using such knowledge, I crafted policies and procedures that would prevent and deter any unlawful acts from occurring within the company and promote corporate integrity when we deal with suppliers, service providers, clients, or government agencies. We also encourage employees to uphold integrity when using the company’s assets and in dealings with external parties as each of them is an ambassador of the company.

Additionally, in my role as a Strategic Marketing Communication Consultant and Lead Counsel for Crisis, the knowledge gained from this Master’s program will definitely place me in good stead in terms of credibility, trust, and confidence from my clients to assist them in finding the best way forward to regain their damaged reputation caused by data leaks or cybersecurity breach or scams.

I would share insights on concepts such as corporate criminal liability, defense mechanisms using adequate procedures, deferred prosecution agreements, etc in the event an associated person to the company/business committed bribery or corrupt act.

Hence, once I complete my Master Programme in Economic Crime Management (ECM) by October 2024, my goal is to advocate ethical leadership in crisis and advise top management on proactive measures to prevent financial fraud, bribery, or corruption within organizations and externally.

I strongly believe that

“When the giving stops, the taking stops and vice-versa.”

Ivlynn Yap Cheng Theng

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