‘My Father, the Chief Purpose Officer’

DDB Group Philippines’ Culture Chief Anna Chua-Norbert writes a birthday piece for her dad, advertising icon and DDB Chairman & CEO Gil Chua, from whom she learned her first leadership lessons

Companies spend so much money each year to develop their future leaders, making leadership training a multi-billion-dollar global industry.

While this investment is crucial, in many cases, however, the most important lessons in leadership are learned much earlier from our first role models – our parents. I often meet fellow business executives who, like me, would mention their parents as inspiration for how they lead.

My father, Gil G. Chua, is a son of a Chinese migrant from a middle-class family raised in Catanduanes, Bicol. He was the first in the family to run a multinational company as its brave and visionary Chairman and CEO.

A working student and a young father at the age of 19, Papa started his first job as an assistant in the media department of Advertising & Marketing Associates (AMA) in 1977. Throughout his decades-long career, he rose through the ranks and eventually took over what is now DDB Group Philippines.

He catapulted the company to become the country’s first and largest integrated marketing communications and business solutions provider, comprising three agency networks, three specialist agencies, two media companies, and five strategic business units operating in five cities and seven other locations across the country.

He worked very long hours and also had to be away on out-of-town trips very often, yet he was present in my and my siblings’ growing up years. He taught us how to swim, how to drive, how to save, how to argue, and how to thrive. He also encouraged us to consistently desire to learn, which today, is the kind of value that we also inculcate in our employees.

He worked hard, both as a career and family man. He’s always positive and cheerful. Even on days when he didn’t feel his best, I never heard him complain about it.

I remember him saying: “In any job, you have to love what you do, and this passion will drive you through late nights and bad days. If you can’t love your work, then quit! If you can’t quit, then learn to love your work. Commit to something and do it with passion.”

My father simply has the innate talent to lift one’s spirit or rally a team to get things done and well.  He is the person to call when a crisis hits, or for just about anything.

As he would often say: “In crisis, there are opportunities to learn, to lead, to do a good job, and to help others. You’ll never know your own strength and test your knowledge until you face these challenges head on. Show up all the time, even when you feel like you’d rather be anywhere else. You never know when someone might need you.”

When I joined the company eight years ago, Papa turned out to be my biggest critic and most trusted ally. Each year, he would raise the bar of excellence for all of us. He loves disrupting our routine, constantly challenging us to find innovative and better ways to accomplish growth.

At work, you can hear him say: “Change is the only thing constant! It is the only sign of life! If we don’t disrupt the norms, someone else will! Don’t be complacent! Don’t be trapped in job titles and labels, instead strive to be a person of value. As human beings, we have the same desire to make human connections, to love, to find purpose, to make the world a better place. Always learn and reinvent yourself to find out how you can further add value.”

While I don’t recall talking to him about leadership, I always hear his nuggets of wisdom loud and clear. To me and to all the lives he touched, he is more than just the big boss, he is our Chief Purpose Officer.  

As I write this, knowing what I know now, I have to say, leadership isn’t simply a set of skills and abilities to be honed and polished. In fact, as artificial intelligence and powerful analytics tools take on the task of chewing through data and information, in the not-so-distant future, the traditional tasks of leaders may even be automated.

Where does that leave us? Elevated! Fulfilling our role goes beyond expertise, business acumen, strategic focus, decision-making and management prowess. Leadership is after all both mission and purpose. It’s deeply personal. It’s about inspiring and motivating others to achieve your shared objectives as well as their own goals.

Papa is one shining example of this brand of leadership with his unwavering commitment to the company and his people. He’d say: “The one thing I love the most about this organization is that we are able to help talented Filipinos live meaningful lives by having a place to go to each day where they get to contribute, have a sense of purpose, and provide value to the community around them and to the nation. So my wish is for all of you to embrace the gift of work, grow the business to provide more job opportunities for Filipinos.”

Papa has just turned 62. Time goes by so fast. As we approach the peak of our journey together, I shall continue to learn from him and follow his example as I fulfill my role as a business leader and as a parent raising my own children.

Most of all, I shall take to heart the most important lesson he has taught me, that is, it is not about how much you know, but what you do with your knowledge to help others thrive as well. He is, after all, my Chief Purpose Officer.