Characteristics of an effective implementer, lessons learnt from H.E. Ek Sonn Chan

Posted: March 26, 2011 in H.E. Ek Sonn Chan as an effective implementer

H.E. Ek Sonn Chan

General Director of Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA)

“Pity the loser; love the poor.”

“We have changed from a non-punishment culture to a punishment culture.”

Introduction to Mr. Ek as an Effective Implementer

On November 03, 2010 I had a great chance to interview Mr. Ek and he decided on choosing his current job in respect to his desire to challenge and his virtue to “pity the loser, love the poor”. So, he took some time to study more about PPWSA’s situation, and he found out that PPWSA was in extreme misery1 and therefore was the right place for him who believed that there is nothing much to be dignified or proud of when achieving a tiny simple task. In other words, I can describe him as someone who loves the “swamp”, a metaphor used by Ellen Scholl to refer to a complicated and messy situation.

PPWSA was completely out of its operation during Pol Pot genocidal regime2 in which all the city people were forced to move to the countryside. A year after the massacre regime, the utility company came to its operation again amid a massive urbanization. Remarkably, the company’s total production capacity fell to 75,000 m3 per day, accounted for 45% deduction compared to its previous capacity in 1974. The first crystal clear example to prove Mr. Ek an effective implementer can be seen in his performance in the first year of his office. He was able to increase the utility company’s total production capacity up to 110,000 m3 per day, accounted for 66% increase compared to its previous capacity in 1974.

Another great example is when he led a group of 100 people to do a customer survey in the entire city. The first move he made in his new role was to know his existing customer. Mr. Ek said, “We need to know who our customers are.” While Ek proposed to the governor of Phnom Penh for 100 people to carry out the survey, he was opposed by French experts who proposed only 10 personnel to do the survey since these experts were concerned about not being able to effectively control and manage such a large of people. Because Ek reckoned that it would take one year for those 10 people proposed by the experts to finish one district, he said they would spend 76 years for the 76 districts in the entire Phnom Penh City. He then decided to carry out his own team of the 100 people and completed the whole city with around 90% of accuracy by one year.

The last example of his effective implementation associates with his initiatives in dealing with water loss which is resulted from great lack of maintenance during the Pol Pot regime and the bad quality of material used for house connections. Mr. Ek initiated a few long-term measures to tackle these unaccounted water issues: (1) replace the old distribution network and use connection materials of international standard technical specifications. As a result, 240 km of distribution pipes were replaced and 30,948 service connections were reconnected from 1993 to 1998; (2) establish a five year water loss control program for the whole network (1997-2002) on selected leak-detection zones; and (3) set up leak repair teams on call and 24 hours a day and encourage the customers to inform PPWSA on any leakage within the system. Later in 1998, 1,754 leaks were repaired. The three measures have been working effectively to detect any leak and illegal house connections, as a consequence; the water loss percentage has been becoming less and less from 72% in 1993 to 5.94% in 2009. Because of the effectiveness in reducing the water loss rate, Mr. Ek has remarkably been able to keep the water tariff on a reasonable and affordable basis.

Ek Sonn Chan’s Operating Characteristics

Mr. Ek has three fundamental operating characteristics. First, Mr. Ek employs a person with a strong drive for reform and working capacity. To illustrate, upon receiving his appointment, Mr. Ek made a similar move as David Hoffman in an attempt to understand the organization’s existing structure and what could be done to improve it. Mr. Ek then chose not to work in his office and power for the first one month by allowing the deputy director in the previous administration to carry on what had been practiced so far. Mr. Ek did this for he had two intentions: (1) to identify the leadership style and (2) to understand the real status quo of PPWSA by meeting and discussing with all staff from bottom to top management. By talking to those staff, Mr. Ek could categorize them in three groups; (1) people who have no comments and come to work for their own interest without caring about the others, (2) people who benefit greatly from this institution by putting their profits first and (3) not many in number and mostly fresh graduates who have will and believe in reform. From this finding, he knew that the first job to do is to reshuffle the management. Mr. Ek said, “I was not scared; I was absolute.” “Actually, there are a greater number of officials in the previous administration; they are more powerful and wealthier than new, young officials, but I had to take them (old officials) down so that the new, young officials could take up their jobs (to make differences).” He continued that he could see harsh reaction in great amount from local newspapers and people coming to his office every day to condemn him for his actions. Yet, he told me, “I now see the reaction, so I know I have used the right medicine.”

Second, Mr. Ek is a great model and does what he says in response to his work principle on a carrot and stick basis. To be precise, the second job he needed to do in PPWSA is to be a role model for those new, young officials since he believed that they were in a small number, they lacked experience and resource, yet they had will and determination. “Being a role model here is a method to mobilize our resources,” said Mr. Ek. To prove his commitment in being a role model for those new, young officials, Mr. Ek decided to fire some officials who had (dubious) relationship outside their professional boundary and other serious cheating behaviors.  In the first year of his office, he fired 16 officials without warning them first since they illegally asked for money from consumers. “This has to be stopped, or else the person in charge has to be punished (fired).”said Mr. Ek. He continued that “This is a good model to punish the bad so that the good (people) hope to be distinctly identified and differentiated.” After having fired some of his officials who were found with serious cheating behaviors, Mr. Ek stressed that “We have changed from a non-punishment culture to a punishment culture.”

Third, Mr. Ek despises corruption and other social injustice-relate issues. This last point is a complementary elaboration on the first two operating characteristics. Mr. Ek has been trying to raise his staff’s monthly salary to make sure they can have a proper living standard, so he has zero tolerance on any corruption-related case within his office. He employs people based on their ability and will − not on their volume of corruption. A minute he finds out someone in his office committing bribery, embezzlement or siphoning off money from the company; that someone has to be taken out. Furthermore, he applies a Cambodian proverb “Yol Nheat Kleat Chhab (to satisfy your relatives is to stray from law)” in his working place. As he makes himself a role model to this staff, he has to stay away from injustice practices. He does not allow his relationship with his relatives and friends to influence his work effectiveness, ethics and principles. He makes sure that everyone in his office is convinced with the fact that one can work for PPWSA because of their workable qualification – not their relation with Mr. Ek. In short, he sees corruption and relatives’ influence as a great pollutant to destroy his office’s working environment.

Analysis on Ek’s operating style

The three operating characteristics above mark a greatly different working environment for those who remain in the office and encourage those young officials to keep bringing out their best to help improve the PPWSA’s poor condition.

First, the removal of some incompetent officials who are incapable of handling their daily tasks from the previous administration convinces every single official that they have to pay greater attention to their working performance. In the fifth step of John Kotter’s theory on leadership change, there is nothing more frustrating than to have people who believe in change/reform but then they do not receive adequate support to put it into effect. Furthermore, there are some obstacles blocking the change, so it is crucially important to remove any one of them to ensure the change process (Coutts, 2000). Therefore, individual’s work ethics and standards become crucial in determining whether one has to stay or to go. Performance of each official is evaluated four times a year to make sure that the entire organization’s workforce has been on the right track. This change positively affects all officials’ mentality of how work should be handled professionally. However, the change has also put some officials’ life under stress and pressure, especially those old officials from the previous administration since they have to figure out how to adapt themselves to catch up with the expected performance standard suggested by this new leader.

Second, it is made clear to every official that this new leader is a man of his words. One has to be held accountable for what he does. On this note, one can be awarded for his efforts in achieving designated results and can be punished for his cheating behaviors during his work performance. Mr. Ek convinces his subordinates that he makes this carrot and stick system fair to every individual – with no exception. However, Ian Perry believes that bonuses and the carrot and stick do not work in most leadership environment (Perry, 2011). Perry argues that there are at least seven flaws3 in a system to motivate people with “If you do X, then you will get Y.” As mentioned above, Mr. Ek fired sixteen officials for their misbehaviors in the first year of his office, and this system has been promoting greater sense of work discipline and professionalism in PPWSA. Yet, firing people could be seen as a way to create personal and organizational enemies. For some reasons, those officials being fired could physically do harm to the implementer. In case these officials who hold secretive information which can potentially jeopardize the organization’s survival, they can leak this information to the PPWSA’s rivals.

Third, Mr. Ek’s hatred against corruption and social injustice gain him trust from his subordinates. Everyone in the office is convinced that they are being treated equally and fairly and that everyone else is capable and undoubtedly qualified to handle their tasks. The perception that everyone in the office is clean off corruption and that justice must be well taken care of clear out any hidden agendas, suspicion or dishonesty in Mr. Ek’s workplace. Instead, this perception promotes respect, harmony and jealousy-free environment in the workplace. The PPWSA has succeeded in fighting corruption and proved that corruption can be tackled in a developing nation on a large scale basis (Bank, 2010). The existing method to prevent corruption at PPWSA is to raise the officials’ monthly salary. Yet how much higher of the salary can the implementer raise for his officials to balance out those officials’ living standard in a changing economic environment and the PPWSA’s financial sustainability? Alfredo Canavese has come to three main conclusions about corruption at a workplace: (1) to increase punishment is equivalent to increase a marginal cost for each corrupt agent, so punishment makes resource allocation worse than no punishment does; (2) while the number of corrupt officials increases, the use of valuable resources decrease, organized corruption-related crimes allocate resources better than disorganized one does; and (3) competitions among potentially corrupt officials should be encouraged in order to avoid the effects of corruption on the resource allocation (Canavese, 2007). As for PPWSA and because of his own team spirit “All of one; one for all”, Mr. Ek has made PPWSA a place of every official working as one in a transparent, fair and honest environment to achieve one common goal.   Upon being nominated to receive Ramon Magsaysay award for government service, Mr. Ek was described as a great leader who has professionalized his workplace’s workforce and equipped his staff with a work ethic of discipline, competence and teamwork (Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, 2006).  Because of all his achievements, Mr. Ek has been awarded 6 Golden Medals from Royal Government of Cambodia and 3 awards from international community for his government service by displaying his exemplary rehabilitation of a ruined public utility and providing safe drinking water to millions of people in the entire Phnom Penh City.

Lesson learnt

Because I strongly believe that Cambodian poor people are in a great need of help and I am willing to offer them my help to get them out of extreme poverty, how to be an effective implementer plays a very crucial role in my future career. If I am ever offered a job in a public leadership position like Mr. Ek, I will definitely apply his three main operating characteristics at my workplace.

The first characteristic helps enhance work performance and quality since it takes only capable people with real knowledge and expertise to handle tasks. Particularly in Cambodia, most public officials who are in their old age are inefficient and incapable in performing their tasks since they are put into their current position by their bribery, relative or political party – not by their education. Once these people with intellectual disability are removed or retired, my workplace will give a golden opportunity to young, energetic and dynamic officials to accelerate the organization’s development. I can apply this characteristic to my workplace by having to convince my subordinates of my highly expected level of satisfaction of their work performance and quality and then by having to gain enough political support to punish those officials whose performance is so much lower than expected standard. For instance, Mr. Ek was able to fire his sixteen officials successfully and immediately because he had enough support from his political leader.

The second characteristic keeps my subordinates accountable for what they do. Therefore, I believe it is a good culture for my subordinates to really think first or twice before acting in a certain way, especially in ways that jeopardize the entire organization’s core values and development. Moreover, those officials whose performance is highly satisfied and rated should be inspired, respected and awarded. To keep this carrot and stick mechanism effective, I must respect my own promises, words or regulations. In other words, I must do what I say.

Last but least, the third characteristic does create a justice, transparent and honest working environment. Therefore, having to fight corruption and social injustice is a must in my workplace to ensure that my subordinates are being physically and psychologically treated equally and fairly. This feature is so much important that my workplace must have to clear out doubts, suspicions or jealousy among all of the officials including me. I believe once every single of my subordinates receives equal and fair treatment, they will display their best performance for incentives and promotions. As a consequence, my workplace will grow further and beyond.


1In 1993, PPWSA did not have a list of its customers while the coverage in the entire city was only 20%; only 40% of 26,880 registered, existing customers paid for the water bills. The water loss was 72%; the billing collection was very and dubiously low. While there were thousands of public underground tanks, many PPWSA’s officials were not willing to pay for their water consumption; a few of these opportunist officials could earn profits from illegal connections for their neighbors.

2The darkest period which killed more than two millions Cambodian lives from 1975 to 1979

3Ian Perry’s seven flaws of bonuses and the carrot and stick: switch off intrinsic motivation, weaken individual performance, defeat individual creativity, crowd out good behaviors, promote shortcuts, create cheating and unethical behaviors, become addictive and encourage only short term thinking


Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation. (2006). Retrieved February 19, 2011, from

Bank, W. (2010, June). Retrieved February 19, 2011, from

Canavese, A. (2007, September). Retrieved February 20, 2011, from

Coutts, P. (2000, June 27). Retrieved February 20, 2011, from

Perry, I. (2011, January 28). Emerge Couching. Retrieved February 20, 2011, from

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