Manila, 29 December 2016 — Meet Candra Fajri Ananda, a professor of economics and business who cleaned his family’s shoes and became a national advisor in fiscal decentralization. What can we learn from his leadership journey, and what are his 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
Born in 1964 in Lumajang, as the second of six siblings, Candra grew up in a 700-year old town in Indonesia’s province of East Java that is known today for its oranges and its pisang agung, an arm-sized banana that measures up to 0.5 meters.
Candra’s father did the bookkeeping for small informal businesses run by mostly Arab entrepreneurs. He remembers him as a disciplined and deeply religious man who cared above all about education.
“My father inspired me with his commitment to reach out and help vulnerable people in society. When I was young, we did not have our own home, so we had to rent, and we moved many times. I remember sleeping with my four brothers in one room.”
His father was also a respected head of the local ulama organization of Islamic scholars, and the manager of an orphanage with 50 children.
“He was always busy with activities, and he took me along to see their condition. Even though we had so little, these children had even less, and he would adopt some of them to live with us to give them an education.”
Through his work for local businesses and his religious teaching, his father had a large network of contacts in the city.
“While my parents were not strong in economics for our family, I saw from early age how he could raise funds from local families to support the orphanage. Some of my adopted brothers even ended up going to university in Jakarta because he found friends to support them financially.”
Education was his father’s mantra.
“My father continuously told us to focus on education. Even getting a driver license was about education, as we didn’t have a car.”
Candra’s mother managed the home and prepared rawon, a traditional black beef soup, which she sold in a small food stall to earn extra income for the family.
“My mother was an authority we always listened to. She inspired me with her calm and patience. I never saw her angry. She asked me to help sell her food and textiles, and I did. We learned from her to commit to our work, and to share if we had something extra, like our father did.”
In Candra’s home, everyone had jobs.
“My parents raised us to be responsible. Jobs were distributed among all of us. I had to clean everyone’s shoes. Everyone had his task, and my father controlled who did what, using a matrix.”
Evaluation was a skill that Candra learned about early on.
“One of my adopted brothers was our supervisor. He made notes and gave comments, so that we could learn lessons from our experience. I learned from him about the value of taking notes and evaluating tasks.”
Without the privilege of having separate rooms, Candra and his brothers were used to sharing and talking about everything together.
“We did everything together. Honesty was a value we all shared. Since we did not have television, we talked, and our communication was good. It was a valuable lesson for me to appreciate human relations. From then on, I liked spending time with people who shared a warm relationship rather than rich possessions.”
Inspired by his father, Candra’s passion in primary school was for learning.
“My teachers were like additional parents to me. Because of my learning habits, I always ended up as the number one in my class, and could practice leadership from an early age, in everything. My mother would always exhort me to study, saying that if I did not study hard, I would end up living like my father, with little income.”
While doing well in school, Candra felt challenged by his background.
“I always thought that I was coming from a low-income family. My father said that I didn’t have to show that. It doesn’t matter, he said, telling me to behave like my friends. That helped me shift my attitude and move forward.”
In high school, Candra became active in student organizations, and his network grew.
“I gained friends from rich families, and I learned from them about culture and communication. While this gave me many benefits, there were times when I could not join them, like when having dinner. This made me realize that we still had our separate bubbles. I told myself that when I would become rich, I would not want such boundaries.”
For a while, Candra let his hair down and chose an alternative route.
“I won a pop singer competition, and decided to become a singer, like one of my friends. After a while, I discovered that my singer friend also had difficulties to make a good living, so I changed my mind again and decided to pursue college and be a good student, even if I didn’t have the necessary funds.”
When he graduated from high school in 1983, Candra set his eyes on entering Universitas Brawijaya, one of the country’s leading universities.
In 1983, Candra moved to the much larger city of Malang to enter college, with money pulled together by his uncles. He stayed with an uncle, and worked to support his studies.
“I didn’t have the money to enter university, and I had the good fortune that my uncles supported me. Although the house where I stayed had no floor and no ceiling, I felt lucky to get a good schooling.”
As we talked in his office, he pointed to the faculty motto on the wall behind him: Transforming-Harmonizing-Creating Future.
“When I entered college, I started to transform my thinking. Finding new ways of doing things attracted me. At first, it was because of economic need. I had to support myself, so I collected used goods and made them into art objects to sell, and support myself in my studies.”
Gradually, he explained, transformational thinking became a habit.
“Every day after returning to my room, I would spend some time thinking to get new ideas, and I still do that now. It has become a mindset that I still nurture every day. Over time, my search for creative solutions to challenges has become central in my life. ”
I asked him how he chose to study economics?
“I was already accepted for mathematics study in the teachers college, and I realized that I wanted more than becoming a high-school teacher. As a teacher, I would not have enough money to support my parents and relatives. Then I thought how economics and development studies in Universitas Brawijaya would offer me better opportunities to develop my potential. Although I only had a 50% chance to get in, I went for it. I took the chance!”
What were his experiences during college?
“I had friends with a different social status. Most of them were from middle-income families, and many of my closest friends came from rich families. They bought books and didn’t want to read them. So I read them and then taught them. I learned first-hand how teaching helped to retain what I learned, and it made my memory stronger.”
In his second year, Candra had to choose between management, economics, and accountancy. He met the requirements for all three.
“I consulted my friends for this, and they told me that economics would suit me, as I was focused on development work. They laughingly commented that I could become a minister some day. So I chose economics, even though it was a less popular department at that time with only 18 students in my batch when I joined. I developed a close bond with them.”
In 1988, he was the first in his class to graduate.
After graduating, Candra landed his a job in his faculty as a lecturer.
After three years, he won a scholarship to take his masters in local economic development at the University of Göttingen in Germany. He moved to Jakarta to for six months of language study at the Goethe Institute, and then set out for Germany in 1992.
“Because of my interest in development, I chose to focus my research on reducing disparities in my home province of East Java through alternative funding mechanisms using INPRES accounts (presidential instruction). I wrote my thesis in German, and I built up many friendships with German students in the process.”
After gaining his masters in 1994, he continued with PhD research on promoting small and medium enterprises, this time in South Kalimantan province.
“My PhD research brought me to learn more about my country, which is so large. I lived in Banjarmasin city in South Kalimantan for a year. My focus was on how to link small and medium enterprises engaged in on-farm and off-farm activities.”
During his time in Germany, Candra also became a social organizer and enlarged his network of friends.
“Although I became active in the Indonesian students association in Germany, I did not engage with Indonesia friends in the first years, because I focused on building my German language skills. So I made new friends from Viet Nam, France, US, Palestine, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.”
Over time, his social activities expanded in a spiritual and religious context.
“I started learning how to understand the differences between people and their ideas. As a member of the Islamic Students Association in Europe, I organized many activities in Göttingen. We also built the first mosque there, and managed a business for food coming from Indonesia and other countries. With our income, we organized activities to help the people suffering in Bosnia. I also supported my own family back in Lumajang so that they could own their own house.”
Through all his studies and social engagement, Candra learned valuable leadership lessons.
“First, I learned to develop a leadership style based on understanding others. We cannot communicate effectively and build collaboration if we don’t understand each other first. Then we can convince to work and benefit together. These lessons were so valuable for my career.”
With many responsibilities on his plate, time management became a challenge.
“To support my study and travel, I delivered newspapers on my bike. I woke up at 3 AM and finished my round by 6 AM. I ended up doing so much outside my studies that my professor became upset, so I had to learn how to manage my time better and reorganize my days to optimize my time. Another valuable lesson for life in my career.”
After obtaining his PhD in 1998, Candra returned to Malang and continued to expand his experience. Through working in some USAID projects, he gained an opportunity to study fiscal decentralization and public policy at Georgia University in Atlanta in the US, with two stints of two months so stay there.
“This was a valuable time for me as I was pushed to speak English and expand my language skills. I learned valuable lessons about smart taxation policies, and I applied those in my consulting work with local governments in East Java province.”
In 2001 he started a research center for economic policy in the Faculty of Economics and Business. This brought more opportunities to expand his network and collaborate with other economists in Indonesia, often in reform projects supported by international funders such as USAID, AusAID and the World Bank.
In 2005, Candra was asked to create a masters program in economics in the faculty. Soon after, he became head of the program, and in 2007 also the head of a new doctoral economics program.
In 2008, he was invited to become an advisor to the Ministry of Finance in fiscal decentralization, and he started working with top economic leaders in the country, including Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati.
In 2013, building on his network and experience with projects in the country, Candra was elected Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Business, after running a campaign to improve the quality of teaching and attract international accreditation for the programs.
“As dean, I was able to expand our international network and attract more budget, so that we could invest more in our lecturers and researchers. We became the largest faculty in the university, with the highest investment in research, and with more and more publications in indexed international journals.”
He told me that he had delivered on his promises to improve capacity.
“We increased the salaries of staff and gave them more opportunities for international exposure. That is very important for our growth and transformation, because the world is changing fast. In a few years from now, we may not even need classes and a library anymore, as all learning resources will become accessible for students and staff through information technology.”
Candra chose to pursue the transformation of the faculty in an international context.
“I learned much from Abest21, the international accreditation organization in Tokyo. Our transformation is now guided by that accreditation. We found that international comparison and learning is essential for our performance and to nurture a new culture of learning and manage the business school. I want to expand that culture from the university to the small and medium enterprises in East Java province and beyond.”
So what does leadership mean for Candra?
“Leadership for me is about bringing people together in one direction. It starts with an idea, a vision. Then it is important for leaders to convince others about a direction that leads to better quality and conditions.”
What is his leadership style?
“I would say that my leadership style is honest, open and flexible. My colleagues give me frank feedback because they believe that they can express anything. We are in contact anytime through social media and we get every question answered. Because we invest in getting a better understanding first, our communication can be good. I learned that from my time in Germany.”
As a leader, what does Candra consider most important for his faculty?
“When I ran for dean, I used three keywords: transforming, harmonizing and creating future. Transforming is not only for the leader. It is about the whole organization. The consequences of transformation can lead to some conflicts too, that’s why harmony is important. Through good communications we can build harmony, and harmonize our work and relations. Then we can move on to create our better future, and deliver on it.”
Three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia
So what are Candra’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
First, commit to your job.
“Think about your job all the time. When you focus on your job with commitment and responsibility, you can achieve your goal. If you get scattered, you cannot. As you commit, you also become aware of the consequences, and you will be able to manage them. For example, when I became the dean of the faculty, I had to manage the consequences for my family. We could not travel together much these past three years. In managing that consequence, I decided that one term as dean is enough for me and that I do not want to be re-elected.”
Second, be flexible and cooperative.
“Flexibility and cooperation are keys for leadership. Since we as people come from different backgrounds, worldviews, and cultures, we can find that we are rowing in different boats. When we show flexibility, we buy time to get to know others and understand their thinking. Patience is always needed to clarify our points of view. Then, as we lead change, we need to convince others that what we want to do is good for them also. We will go out of our way to understand others and build a common understanding.
Third, be consistent in implementation.
“Being flexible does not mean what we change things all the time. Once you choose your direction, be consistent to implement what you believe in, and in the fundamentals of your policy. It’s important to maintain your standard and the quality it implies. For example, in our faculty, if our policy is that all teaching positions require a PhD degree, then we have to be consistent in implementing that policy. And by meeting regularly with staff, we can recommit to the good idea and spirit of our policy.”
As we wrapped up our conversation in Candra’s office, I asked what he wants to complete before when he finishes his term as dean in the middle of 2017. I saw his eyes twinkle in response with his keen interest in the faculty’s growth.
“I want to see more professors here, to boost our accreditation. More exchange programs with universities in other countries. More multidisciplinary approaches applied in our research center, especially for young researchers. And more foreign students. We offer a good opportunity for them, and at a lower cost than many other places.”
The ASEAN community is a priority area for expansion, Candra explained.
“We are already accredited by the ASEAN University Network Quality Assurance (AUN-QA), and we are looking to expand our cooperation with universities in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and beyond ASEAN in other countries, including Korea.”
He leaned back in his chair as he continued.
“We need to involve young lecturers more in creating our future as a leading faculty in Indonesia and the region. The key to success is being proactive for change and create more international cooperation.”
What should this change involve, I asked.
“We need to rethink the programs we offer to better serve the small and medium enterprises in our economy, including the many start-ups that are now being created by young entrepreneurs.”
And what lies ahead for Candra after the end of his deanship?
“I am always inquisitive about the next steps we can take. I have my father to thank for stimulating my curiosity in education, or what the Germans call being neugierig, having a keen sense to discover new ways and solutions. So next year after I hand over to the next dean of the faculty, I see myself moving forward as a good researcher, working with young people and lecturers to create an institute for public policy, and use our data for East Java province to offer better policy solutions based on research. My passion is to let this work benefit the people at the grassroots, including those who are still poor and vulnerable in our society. That way, my work will come full circle from where I started, to deliver on the reason why I joined the economics department in this university.”
He smiled as he said this, and I asked why.
“When I see a person smile, I know that he or she can be my good friend. I have that intuition.”
Ever curious, Candra showed me by his example how reaching out to gain a better understanding of others is the first step to making transformational changes happen.