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7 Questions with Sophal Ear
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7 Questions with Sophal Ear
Name: Sophal Ear
Current title: Chair
Current organisation: Collective Education, Inc.
Currently the Chair of Collective Education, Inc., and re-elected to the Crescenta Valley Town Council in November 2018 to a second 3-year term, encompassing more than 22,000 residents in unincorporated Los Angeles County, California, Sophal Ear, PhD, National Association of Corporate Directors "Director Certified", is a tenured Associate Professor of Diplomacy & World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles where he lectures on political economy, security, development, and Asia. Previously, he taught how to rebuild countries after wars at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and international development at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He consulted for the World Bank, was Assistant Resident Representative for the United Nations Development Programme in East Timor, Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Advisor to Cambodia's first private equity fund Leopard Capital, Audit Chair of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and Treasurer of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. A TED Fellow, Fulbright Specialist, and Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, he sits on the Boards of Refugees International (Washington, DC), Partners for Development (Silver Spring, MD), International Public Management Network (Washington, DC), the Southeast Asia Development Program (Phnom Penh, Cambodia), and the Center for Khmer Studies (Siem Reap, Cambodia). He is the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2013, co-author of The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Resources Quest is Reshaping the World (Routledge, 2013, and co-editor of the virtual issue of the journal Politics and the Life Sciences on Coronavirus: Politics, Economics, and Pandemics (Cambridge University Press, 2020, He wrote and narrated the award-winning documentary film "The End/Beginning: Cambodia" (47 minutes, 2011, news blurb based on his 2009 TED Talk ( and has appeared in four other documentaries. A graduate of Princeton and Berkeley, he moved to the US from France as a Cambodian refugee at the age of 10.
1. What have you found most challenging as a board member?
When I first started as a Board member; I had no guidance, no prior experience. Even now as I belong to a half-dozen boards, every organization is different culturally. The norms differ. Those first few months or even that first year can feel uncertain. Adding value is not a sure-thing until I can connect the dots and figure things out. Going virtual takes away a lot of the intimacy of being on a board. Nothing compares to being in the same room, shaking hands, feeling the reaction of fellow board members to a comment made.
2. How did you become a board member? Can you please briefly tell the story?
My first board was that of the Diagnostic Microbiology Development Program. The Founder knew me personally and asked me to join. DMDP worked in Cambodia and the Founder and I were friends. It was a start-up at that point; bare bones. It was a hands-on board. It took several years, but the organization found funding and became an integral player in helping to build laboratory capacity in Cambodia. I was glad to be a part of DMDP's early life and to bring my expertise on Cambodia to bear, adding value, at a strategic level when the Board pivoted from hands-on to strategy.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
Wake-up 6:30-7:30am: check all the overnight email traffic and deal with urgent matters. Take kids to in-person school on foot. Go through my appointments calendar and prepare for what I expect will be a full days' worth of meetings over Zoom and teaching online, since my day job is professor at Occidental College. Throughout the day, read four newspapers: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times, spending at least 1-2 hours per day doing this in between things. Pick-up kids on foot (any alone walking time is spent listening to podcasts; The Moth, Risk! Show, typically), have lunch with them (if a Zoom call does not conflict), and work on any deliverables (papers, reports, books). Since I'm intermittently fasting (eating within 8 hours), my own dinner might be early or skipped with a home-made kale-fruit smoothie, of which there are a dozen glasses ready to go in the fridge. Spend time with kids at the park where we'll play basketball and/or I'll do some walking. Without fail, I must always end the day having actively burned at least 750 calories on my Apple Watch, exercised for a minimum 30 minutes, and stood at least 12 hours. Frequently blow past all that as will my spouse, who is of course my life partner in all the child rearing and who also works at Oxy. Kids eat dinner; we'll all relax, and it's time for bed for them, and another several hours of work/relaxation/walking even after kids and spouses have gone to bed. I frequently am not asleep until midnight/1am.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
A friend and colleague gave me a copy of Robert K. Greenleaf's classic Servant Leader piece, which asks "Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?" Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader's main focus is the thriving of their company or organizations. I am also a firm believer of Management By Wandering Around: MBWA.
5. What are some of the keys to doing governance well in a organisation?
Doing governance well does not guarantee growth, obviously. It's a necessary but not sufficient condition. However, poor governance will destroy organizations. Look at the universities that focused only on fundraising in a kind of arms race: they lost their way. They're paying out hundreds of millions in damages. The reputational damage to their brand is massive. When it comes to countries, poor governance is the leading cause of misery and poverty in the world. For organizations, poor governance is the cause of not just legal troubles but poor performance.
6. How do you differentiate between the role of board member and the roles of CEO or executive team member of a organisation?
Noses in, fingers out for board members. Management needs to have its fingers in. As Board Directors (whether on a non-profit or corporate), we are part-time amateurs who oversee the work of full-time professionals, which is the definition of hubris! But our job is essential. We have a. duty of care, a duty of loyalty, and we must follow the business judgment rule.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a board member so far?
After a successful search firm-led interview with board members who were part of the search committee, I was invited to join a board; but first, there were to be some social events the night prior to the board meeting. The vote to officially join the Board was to take place at the official board meeting the next day. Thankfully, someone had the foresight to push to throw a quick meeting of the Board the night prior so that it wouldn't be awkward (like another set of interviews) that evening. Grateful they did this! It's the little things, but they matter.