Career Path

Top executive takes on new starring role

Stephen Chan, general manager - broadcasting, Television Broadcasts Limited
Photo: Johnson Poon

As someone who has risen to the very top in local broadcasting, it is perhaps no surprise that Stephen Chan has always recognised the importance of good communication.

"If I'm uncomfortable about something, I'll let people know," says the general manager — broadcasting of Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB). "A lack of clarity causes misunderstandings which can lead to unhappiness, so it's best to make your meaning clear."

This approach stood Mr Chan in good stead in his 10 years working for the government. During a series of job rotations, he got used to having to learn about the workings of a new department from scratch. He soon found that the best way to do it was by asking questions whenever he was unsure and listening to the people around him — in other words, communicating all the time.

In his view, if you do that, you will learn more and find it easier to adapt to new circumstances, and be ready to seize opportunities that arise. He proved the point when offered the chance in the early 1990s to take up a post in the UK.

"I was able to learn how political parties operate and got to understand what lobbying really means," he recalls. "The experience also gave me true international exposure."

Even so, when Mr Chan left the government in 1992 and joined Hong Kong Commercial Radio, it took him some time to adjust to the new environment. At certain times, he wondered if he had made the right move, but in the end he faced up to the challenge and the publicity that came with the role. "Eventually I stopped worrying what people might say about me," he says. "Anyway, today's newspapers are tomorrow's wastepaper."

Since joining TVB in 1994, Mr Chan has steadily accumulated responsibilities while becoming one of the best known executives in the industry. He currently oversees six divisions and says his basic management style is to put trust in other people.

"I mainly deal with strategic matters and ask colleagues to execute the various initiatives from day to day," he explains. "The key thing is to know which people can help you and where you can turn for advice."

With the pay TV market now well established and digital technology set to change the business, the battle for audiences has never been tougher. "Our productions are also facing regional competition from Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the mainland," Mr Chan says. "We must build on our strengths but also try to cooperate and learn from each other."

In line with this, he believes in encouraging creativity and sharing ideas in the workplace. This allows employees at all levels to show their ability and means there is a feeling of openness and mutual respect within the company. "When you're the boss, you need to appreciate other people's strengths and expertise," he explains. "Then you can align them with your philosophies to make the most of their talents."

Table talk
The first big hit for the newly launched TVB pay channel was Be My Guest in which A-list celebrities are invited to have a meal with Mr Chan himself in a top restaurant around town. The programme is an excellent example of clever packaging, but it also touches on aspects of culture and psychology.

"Chinese people enjoy their food and feel more relaxed around the dining table," he explains. "We can let our guard down and enter each other's world." The concept makes for entertaining viewing and, with the celebrities prepared to reveal their innermost thoughts, each successive episode has become the talk of the town.

Mr Chan further says that the programme is not meant to be a chat show but a discussion between friends. "I don't want to squeeze out all their secrets or just talk nonsense for an hour," he says. "All my guests have rich experience to share about their particular fields. It's all about two-way communication that involves trust and sincerity."

Although he had presented radio programmes and done voiceovers for several TV series, Mr Chan never thought of himself as a potential TV personality. However, when TVB's chief content officer Sandy Yu approached him with the programme proposal, he was prepared to listen.

"Sandy thought it would be interesting if I did the programme and I value her opinion," he says. "The amazing thing is that I enjoy it immensely and the overall response has been very encouraging."

Still, for someone who is used to working behind the scenes, the new role also brings new concerns. "A higher profile can make you the target of all sorts of criticisms, so I now have to think more about my public image."

Sense and sensibility
Most days, Mr Chan likes to take a 15-minute siesta and he hates lengthy meetings. If feeling really drained, he will take a long weekend and read the Bible for inspiration. In general, he believes that if you have a passion for what you do and genuinely enjoy the process, you're halfway to success. "You need passion and enthusiasm," he says. "Even when I make a rational decision, there is some sentiment involved. We all need a balance between sense and sensibility."

In many ways his own career has borne this out. Having joining the civil service immediately after graduation, Mr Chan was appointed acting principal assistant secretary for the Civil Service Branch (now the Civil Service Bureau) when still in his 20s. He admits that the decision to join Hong Kong Commerical Radio was not entirely logical.

"Winnie Yu was the CEO then and persuaded me to give it a go," he says. "My father helped me analyse the pros and cons. Even though I was going to make less money, I decided to jump at the chance."


Taken from Career Times 25 August 2006, p. B20
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