Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For bringing an always-on problem-solving mindset to everything she does

The physical, emotional and social changes that mark adolescence have always made it a vulnerable time. But the pandemic and its long-tail fallout tipped many young people into crisis territory, with 1 in 7 kids between the ages of 10 and 19 reporting a mental health disorder, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Yet even before the COVID-19 crisis, Ernie Szeto saw the problem—and started looking for solutions.

While pursuing a master’s degree, she had a casual conversation with a group of therapists that sparked some fresh thinking: What if there was a way to offer affordable, alternative psychotherapy services—rooted in art and music—to Hong Kong’s young people? Within months, Szeto had staked her claim as project lead of Inspirem, a social enterprise that does just that.

To maximize the group’s impact on a minimal budget, Szeto leaned hard on the project management skills honed at her day job. To sidestep the cost of renting therapy space, she navigated the complex process of partnering with nonprofits and local schools.

“It was a tough journey, as it took a long time to get publicity and there were countless rejections and doubts,” says Szeto. But since its founding, Inspirem has secured government funding, partnered with dozens of nonprofits and provided mental health services to thousands of local kids.

This isn’t the only way this born problem-solver is making a difference. While dining at a small eatery in 2018, Szeto and a classmate were lamenting the toll that surging e-commerce and gentrification were taking on local businesses. Noting that the restaurant’s bare walls, tables and cashier station could be prime real estate for promotions, the duo—then graduate students at the University of Hong Kong—hatched an idea that eventually turned into a business.

First, they designed a minimum viable product for a platform that would connect small online businesses with eateries interested in displaying ads. They then rolled out A/B testing in segmented markets and, with each project sprint that followed, focused not just on the shop owner or restaurant owner, but also made it a point to solicit feedback from community members as well as diners.

Successive sprints led to the rollout of additional services, such as customer mapping and targeting. In mid-2018, the startup introduced a feature that allows customers to earn points by scanning QR codes and then redeem those points for discounts. The feature spiked membership 120% in two months, while revenue climbed for local business owners.

“Continuous improvement, driven by a disciplined agile approach, generated a new level of value realization,” she says.

Szeto’s nonstop improvement mentality has likewise benefited Merit Medical Systems—stretching beyond the bounds of the individual projects she oversees. In 2020, she secured support from the company’s leadership to launch a program in which employees from across the enterprise brainstorm ways to tackle persistent pain points within the organization.

And to avoid employees viewing it as just another task added to their existing workloads, Szeto introduced gamification—with teams earning points to make their way to the finals. To generate buy-in, she crafted a communication plan, rolled out a pitch kit for employees and invited external experts to serve as coaches. Three teams advance to the finals, during which they’re paired with mentors for six months of additional training, before presenting their project proposals to a cross-matrix panel.

One example of a winning idea that’s emerged from the three-year-old initiative: a proposal that optimized warehouse usage while complying with a new traceability regulation—generating time savings of nearly 50%.

Impressive results, certainly. But for Szeto, the program’s ripple effects are just as worthy of celebration, with an internal analysis revealing that participation yields an 8% productivity boost for employees.

“Making new connections and learning from each other increases the sense of belonging across the organization,” she says.

Q&A: Ernie Szeto on building trust, generational differences and tapping the wisdom of an ancient leader

What’s your project management superpower?

Fostering trust, because trust promotes collaboration, accountability and innovation. It also doesn’t hurt that I speak multiple languages.

What book are you obsessed with recommending right now?

I’ve read Bad Blood by John Carreyrou more than once, and each time I do, I’m struck by how tenacious and detective-like the reporters and whistleblowers were in uncovering the fraud behind Theranos. The growth and collapse of the blood-testing startup highlights the importance of ethics and the need to put patient and customer safety above all else.

What famous person would you recruit for your team?

Zhuge Liang, a military strategist, statesman and scholar in ancient China’s Three Kingdoms period. His famous military adventures, extraordinary intellect and strategic thinking made him well known. His leadership inspires others to improve.

What’s the biggest challenge facing young project leaders right now?

Generational differences among stakeholders. They can make managing projects more complicated and hamper the confidence of young project leaders.

PMI Hours for Impact Pledge

See how Ernie is continuing to make a difference in her community by pledging hours from the time spent on her project towards the PMI Hours for Impact program in support of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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