MSLOC at 15: Stanley Fong: Drawn to Mysteries of Human Behavior

MSLOC at 15: Stanley Fong: Drawn to Mysteries of Human Behavior

Stanley FongStanley Fong jokes that his brain is part robot, part muscle. With a background in engineering, Fong appreciates structured systems and outcomes. But he also loves to strengthen his understanding about the unpredictable nature of humans, especially in the workplace. For Fong, Northwestern's Master of Learning and Organizational Change (MSLOC) program at the School of Education and Social Policy was the ideal combination of psychology and organizational structures.

Born and raised in Singapore, a small and prosperous island nation in Southeast Asia near the equator, Fong attended college in London, earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, and worked in public sector policy and operations. After completing the MSLOC program, Fong returned home to create his own business called Learn, Grow, and Lead.

As part of the MSLOC 15-year celebration series, we talked to Fong about how attending MSLOC shifted his career, enhanced his personal growth, and taught him about the gift of seasons.

What does MSLOC and the movie “The Sixth Sense” have in common?

So you know when the boy in the movie says, ‘I see dead people’? Well, some of us in the program joke that after finishing MSLOC, you will see MSLOC — and what you’ve learned —everywhere!

How so?

I pull so much from the program every day, consciously or subconsciously, and not just frameworks but small little lessons. I went through the coaching program and found it to be enormously helpful for understanding oneself, first of all, and also for what gets other people ticking.

Just recently, I couldn’t sleep because I was pretty excited and anxious about a new client. I woke up at 1 a.m. and reached for a book by [MSLOC Assistant Professor] Ryan Smerek. I still pick up books that I had read in the program and discover new concepts.

You came from an engineering background; what sparked your interest in human behavior?

I have always been interested in psychology and before coming to the MSLOC, I managed 80 people. Having that responsibility kind of sensitizes you to human behavior. We think we understand our employees but actually we don’t, and we get surprised when they don’t behave the way we think they should. We are not the same people from day to day, and I was drawn toward understanding the psychology of why, as individuals and teams, we behave in mysterious ways.

How did your fellow MSLOC students help shift your career focus?

I was actually still working in public service when I went into the program, with the full intention of going back. But going through the program, and learning from others, gave me clarity in the work that I wanted to do once I returned. In the program, there was a common appreciation for the diversity of knowledge and of people and behaviors. We were all so different and it’s almost as if I developed a new sense of myself that includes a tapestry of all of them.

Are the skills you learned in MSLOC applicable on an international level?

Very much so. Singapore is very cosmopolitan and used to global ways of working. I think it is important to understand that every body of knowledge sits on a different set of assumptions. Language also plays a huge role in shaping the way we see the world. Through the program, I gained a lot more awareness about all of these factors.

Your purpose in life is to make the world a better place, and you like to refer to a Chinese saying that translates: “As one person spreads to ten, the ten can spread to a hundred.” How can one person change the world?

Change is never about one person or one particular leader, as much as we like to think it is. One person has impact when he or she has the opportunity to influence other people. If you try to think of yourself trying to changing the world by trying to change one very tiny slice, it can feel extremely difficult. But then, if you see maybe the mechanism isn’t to move the entire mountain but to engage a few people who can then engage others, that’s the movement that leads to change.

What advice would you give to others living internationally about choosing MSLOC?

I love the program, and I would tell them that it’s ideal for someone who is really clear about what they want in a graduate program. It tends to draw a mixed group of people, which was wonderful for me because I was interested in numerous perspectives.

While living in the United States, you experienced race differently. How did that impact your perspective?

It was both challenging and yet very eye opening and liberating. When people knew I was from a different country, they would say, ‘Oh my gosh, your English is very good.’ And I would need to explain that English is spoken in Singapore. Over time, I came to realize that maybe people don’t understand where I come from, and that this is an opportunity to open up the space for discussion.

After experiencing that, I have a better appreciation for the challenges women go through, and a better understanding about the minority groups in Singapore. I notice my own biases and am learning to be in that uncomfortable place.

It was nice to be nestled in the Northwestern community that was very supportive and pro-learning. The professors and staff work hard to create that kind of space. In organizations, you must work to create such a welcoming environment, and that was a huge take away for me.

The temperatures in Chicago are frigid right now. Do you miss it at all?

There’s something about the seasons that help people to recognize time. I find that in Singapore, people can spend their whole lives rushing around, without those seasonal cues that say, ‘Hey, the surroundings are changing and so are you.’ That’s why I loved the seasons, even winter!

Read more MSLOC 15th Anniversary stories.


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