The Mad Hatters?

Is wearing two or more ‘hats’ at work only for hyper-achievers? What are the pros and cons? Siti Maziah Masramli reports.
Mr Alvin Tan from the National Heritage Board
Mr Alvin Tan from the National Heritage Board is a “many-hatter” who describes himself as “hyperactive” and “terrified of boredom”. Outfit by D&G at Mandarin Gallery
Asked to lead the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) Heritage Institutions Division or Industry Development Division, Mr Alvin Tan jumped at the opportunity to head both.

Describing himself as a “hyper-active person… terrified of boredom”, he says double-hatting means there will never be a dull moment at work.

For heritage institutions, he manages the redevelopment and operations of the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, Malay Heritage Centre and the new Indian Heritage Centre. For industry development, he oversees the Heritage Industry Incentive Programme, which facilitates the development of new and innovative heritage products or events. He also chairs the Museum Roundtable, which strives to develop a stronger museum-going culture in Singapore and positions museums as cultural destinations. More accurately, you can call him a “many-hatter”.

What it Means

Mr Alvin Tan from the National Heritage Board
Mr Alvin Tan copes by training staff to work independently, and relying on assistant directors or managers to coach lower divisional officers. Outfit by D&G at Mandarin Gallery
The term “double-hatting” originated in the European Union (EU) to refer to overlapping roles that can enhance “visibility, coherence and political clout”, but is only done based on each EU state’s requirements.

Elsewhere, double-hatting seems less desirable. Doubts surfaced in a 2004 United States Congressional meeting about the 9/11 Commission’s proposal for the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) counter-intelligence unit to report to both the FBI director and a new national director of intelligence.

Last year, DBS Bank reduced double-hatting and put “more people in the crucial functions” of its Hong Kong market to reduce potential for conflict or wasting resources.

In Singapore, more people seem to be taking on multiple roles. As one public officer (who has a double-hatting boss) suggests, one must have a “masochistic streak” to want to work so hard, but certainly, being asked to double-hat means one’s abilities are recognised by others.

One high-ranking multi-tasker is Mr Niam Chiang Meng, Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, who was this year also made Permanent Secretary of the new National Population and Talent Division under the Prime Minister’s Office. He is also Chairman of the Media Development Authority and Singapore Sports School.

However, lingering concerns over “many-hatting” include potential for conflict of interest, top positions being held by the same few people, and the physical challenges of holding many positions.

Shortage of Talent?

There is a shortage of skilled resource, especially in the arts, says Mr Phillip Overmyer, CEO, Singapore International Chamber of Commerce. Short-term double-hatting is acceptable as a learning experience for the future, or until somebody else can fill the position.

But he thinks working two fulltime jobs is “a major error” since “no normal human being can do an outstanding job in both of them”. People will wear out, causing the quality of decisions and ability to support to fade.

A public officer that Challenge spoke to, on condition of anonymity, says that, while it is “amazing” that his boss is able to multi-task, “it’s much more difficult to catch him to discuss things in person since he’s out of the office most of the time”.

Asked to comment on his boss’s multiple portfolios, another officer said, tongue-in-cheek: “I don’t know. He’s hardly around for me to form an opinion.”

Synergies can be Reaped

Mr Benson Puah, CEO of the Esplanade, and the National Arts Council
Mr Benson Puah, CEO of the Esplanade, and the National Arts Council pulls off 20-hour workdays to juggle his double portfolio.
In 2009, reactions were mixed when Mr Benson Puah, CEO of the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay was also appointed CEO of the National Arts Council (NAC) by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) and Public Service Division. The Esplanade arts centre is not funded by the NAC, but by MICA and the Tote Board.

He thought the arts sector would benefit with NAC and the Esplanade better-aligned with a common mission, and finds no conflict of interest. “I can’t see how it benefits Government to intentionally ‘concentrate power’ in anybody unless it is a robot whose thoughts and actions can be controlled fully. I’m certainly not a robot!”

With two “very efficient” personal assistants coordinating his schedule, he pulls off 20-hour workdays, and shuttles between the Esplanade and NAC offices daily. He declines more invitations but holds sacred weekend rituals of “hawker breakfasts” with his wife and running long-distance without fail.

Of double-hatting’s benefits, he adds: “Exposure to different macro-perspectives keeps the mind sharpened and with a broader ‘worldview’ to make better-balanced decisions.”

A Balancing Act

NHB’s Mr Tan agrees, but admits “there’re times when less attention is given to one division” as some projects and urgent deadlines must be prioritised.

Based at NHB headquarters, he cannot spend as much time as he would like at the three heritage institutions he oversees. And he would also like more time to mentor his officers, so as to “get to know them better and help them develop their potential”.
[It is] important to share (staff and supervisor’s) expectations right at the start to build a common understanding, and set clear performance goals and project milestones.
To cope with “competing claims for time and attention”, he trains his staff to work independently and relies on his assistant directors or managers to coach the lower divisional officers. He has a 12-hour workday but reserves weekends strictly for friends and family.

On the upside, having a busy boss might not always be a bad thing, points out a public officer who now enjoys having more space to work and not being micro-managed. Her double-hatting boss trusts staff to do their work, but will offer helpful input when approving submissions. “I think it’s a good mix of delegating responsibility while still maintaining that sense of duty.”

So when offered multiple roles, should officers bite? NAC’s Mr Puah offers a caveat:
Every individual has different capacities for work and appetite for sacrifices.
    Mar 16, 2011
    Siti Maziah Masramli
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