Shining lights: Singapore's C-Level champions of HR in conversation

Every year, the HRM Awards recognises a C-Suite Leader for their work to champion the value of HR across their businesses and the wider economy. In this special feature, HRM Asia catches up with five of the most recent winners who share how and why HR continues to be the lifeblood of their organisations.

One led the initiation of a Patient Employment Programme to enable kidney patients to secure employment.

Another dedicates a significant proportion of his time to coaching young talents as an executive sponsor of his organisation’s Management Associate programme.

Meanwhile, another played an instrumental role in accelerating the career pathway of high-potential and talented employees.

While these achievements could all be part of a senior HR practitioner’s résumé, these powerful people managers did not execute them from that department.

Rather, the leaders featured in our cover story this issue are the head honchos of their respective organisations, CEOs and directors leading multi-billion dollar global corporations, government entities, and also a non-profit organisation.

Their efforts saw them bestowed with one the highest honours presented at the annual HRM Awards: the annual Champion of HR prize as well as the more recently-rebranded Best C-Suite Leader award.

They are:

  • National Kidney Foundation CEO Edmund Kwok;
  • Public Service Division Permanent Secretary Yong Ying-I;
  • Singtel Consumer Singapore CEO Yuen Kuan Moon;
  • InterContinental Hotels Group CEO for Asia, Middle East, and Africa; and
  • Former SingHealth Group CEO Professor Tan Ser Kiat

In this special Q&A feature, HRM Asia pays tribute to the dedication and passion personified by these five individuals in leading from the front and honing their organisations’ HR craft.

The interviews don’t only celebrate the fact that they are keen proponents of HR within their respective organisations, they also take them back to the journey that first inspired their HRM Awards win.

There are differences across each of their stories; but there are also some similarities. A belief in the strength that people and culture can bring to an organisation, and the responsibility that organisations have to continually develop their staff are two common traits across the five HR champions.

Of course, they are not alone. There are many such C-Suite leaders actively championing for HR excellence in Singapore and across Asia-Pacific. Indeed, the finalists for the 2017 HRM Awards – including several of these hard-working leaders in the Best C-Suite Leader category – will be announced in November.

 

Edmund Kwok

CEO

National Kidney Foundation (NKF)

Best C-Suite Leader, 2016

What do you think contributed to your win?

I believe that good leadership can be encapsulated through the three “As”- Being Accessible, Approachable and Available, and the three “Es” of creating Empowerment, Engagement and Excitement.

I personally meet new hires to share our vision, mission and core values at the employee orientation programme. This is followed by a chit-chat session after three months to ensure that they have settled in well.  All employees have my personal handphone number so they can reach me easily.

You’re very much a hands-on CEO. Why is that important you?

A key factor to our success is commitment and support from management, by “walking the talk”. I schedule myself for meetings with employees on a regular basis. With the increased number of dialysis centres, I have increased my rotational visits so that all locations are adequately covered.

Communication programmes such as “Brunch with Me”, a bi-monthly session for staff with Department Heads and I, allow updates of the organisational plans to be shared. Employees can also highlight challenges at work and discuss solutions.

The most recent initiative that we have started is to have dialogue and sharing sessions at the individual dialysis centres. These sessions allow staff to clarify any queries they have regarding organisational goals and objectives.

As leader of NKF, how do you engage with patients?

When I took office in 2013, my priority was to make management visible and accessible to staff and patients alike. Hence, visits to the dialysis centres became a regular and important feature. I would sometimes be at a centre at 6.00am as the first shift of patients started arriving for their treatment and stay until around midnight when the last shift ends to encourage and reassure them in their journey towards rehabilitation.

I believe that one must genuinely care for the patients, not just for their illness but as a person. Being on the ground gives me the opportunity to interact with them. These patients struggle with dialysis and poverty.  They worry about their next meal and what tomorrow might bring. Yet, they are positive and optimistic, and this has humbled me.

I also attend the regular patient gatherings which we organise as a platform for them to bond, share their experiences with one another, and enjoy various performances. The get-togethers are an important part of our efforts to provide psychological, emotional, and social support in their journey towards rehabilitation. 

We also initiated the Patient Employment Programme in July last year, to help patients find jobs and be self-reliant. We now have over 60 patients working with us and many more outside NKF.

How has your leadership style evolved over the years?

I moved from the private sector to a charity organisation. I feel a greater sense of responsibility here because while we have similar goals to minimise waste, improve productivity, and become more effective and professional, we are doing it with donor resources – other people’s money. Voluntary Welfare Organisations therefore need to be highly efficient to stretch the charity dollar, and ensure that the donor intent to help others is well guarded.

What are some staffing challenges NKF faces today?

We need to be constantly developing a robust portfolio to engage employees and have market alignment to stay competitive with the healthcare industry in terms of compensation and benefits.

With all these, NKF has seen a significant and unprecedented increase in young executives and fresh graduates joining the organisation.

Another major challenge is alignment. With our decentralised operations all over Singapore, it is very easy for individual employees to be caught up in their daily routines at work, making them unable to see the larger goals and move in tandem with the organisation.

What succession plan do you have in place?

We have a leadership competency development framework that allows employees coming on board across all levels to be appropriately trained, including our young executives who show good potential. They are then exposed to more leadership or management roles and duties.

We also conduct sessions that allow young potentials to meet with our Chairman, and board and committee members, where they learn first-hand from industry leaders.

We are also actively considering several individuals and are in the process of developing them for greater leadership roles. 

 

Yong Ying-I

Permanent Secretary
Public Service Division, Prime Minister’s Office

Champion of HR, 2015

What do you think contributed to your victory?

The Public Service is Singapore’s largest employer. Our officers account for four percent of the total workforce. Those who choose to join are motivated by the call to serve, as they get the unique opportunity to help make Singapore a better home for their families and fellow Singaporeans. Many officers have told me that they choose to remain in the service because they believe they can continue to make a difference.

Their motivation to want to better serve the public motivates us at the Public Service Division (PSD), as the central people agency, to also want to better serve our 143,000 public officers.

This award was a good reminder that it is the team that made it work. So I would really like to thank my team from the PSD and the Civil Service College, for their passion and dedication in championing these HR practices in the Public Service.

How have things changed professionally and personally for you since the victory?

In the last five years, the Public Service has put in a big effort to improve our integrated service delivery to citizens. This is not just about using new high-tech equipment. It is also about how our officers can be more empathetic to the citizens’ individual concerns and considerations. This has changed the way we have trained many officers, and how teams of officers interact with each other closely when designing policies, all the way to their subsequent implementation.

So while in a way, nothing much has changed for me since the award, there have been many changes in other ways for some time now.

The Public Service operates much of its day-to-day personnel functions in a decentralised way. This is efficient and responsive to localised ground needs. But we are one team that must pull in the same direction. So as the chief people officer for the Public Service, a big part of my role is to communicate our thinking and influence practices and behaviours across the public service agencies. This may be on more concrete issues such as training programmes, or also on softer issues such as values and cultural norms, and always working as one team.

Do you have a fixed or fluid leadership style?

I believe that leadership styles depend partly on the individual, and two people with different styles can be equally effective in the same job.  On the other hand, I do think that most leaders have recognised that their own leadership styles have changed as the environment and people in their organisations have changed.

Rather than always tell people what I think, I have tried to engage more and encourage officers at all levels to join in to offer their ideas and co-create better solutions. And, I usually find that officers have thought about possible solutions and have many useful insights and perspectives to contribute.

What are some key current HR challenges for the PSD currently?

Just as the Singapore Public Service is moving to a model of partnering citizens to co-create solutions and enhance the quality of services, PSD has likewise moved from being an HR policy regulator to a partner to HR leaders in public agencies.

I am happy to say that over the years, many agencies have realised that HR is not just a support function. Over time, PSD has also worked with agencies to develop competency roadmaps for different categories of officers, especially to meet new and emerging needs. Beyond skills upgrading for individual officers, we are also working with agencies to develop their strategic workforce plans.

In addition to HR competencies, we have also been working with Organisational Development teams to address capability needs. As champions of culture and organisational change, they play a major role in enabling our public sector agencies to move forward in a healthy and sustainable way.

In the world of instant communications and social media, we can do more in communications than we have been.  So today, we look for opportunities to showcase the good work of our officers in mass media, as well as over our own social media platforms.

Last but not least, we will work at being lean and productive as we strive to do more with less.

Is there a succession plan in place for when your role?

One of PSD’s roles is to ensure that the Public Service has a healthy talent pipeline for leadership renewal. We take a systematic, centralised approach towards leadership development and succession planning by identifying, assessing, and grooming the talent pipeline across the entire Public Service.

Many public sector leaders, who are generalists, are rotated to handle different portfolios in various sectors over the years. This helps them to build up a government-wide perspective on issues. We are also emphasising leadership development of specialists and professionals, to ensure that there are people with deep expertise in the pipeline for specialist leadership roles across the entire Public Service. We believe in building from within, as a philosophy. This has served us well, producing a cadre of organisational leaders who are committed to the ethos of public service.

 

Yuen Kuan Moon

CEO, Consumer, Singapore

Singtel

Champion of HR, 2014

What do you think contributed to you winning the Champion of HR award in 2014?

It was the team that I have. They are fully-engaged across all levels of the organisation, and all 5,000 of my staff truly are ambassadors of Singtel. We have made this possible through the “Let’s Create Amazing Together (LCAT)” initiative by engaging and changing the mindsets of our people to create a customer-centric culture of service excellence. Through LCAT, we are able to get a feel of what our customers experience daily, lift our service levels, and empower all employees to be ambassadors of Singtel.

I also make it a point to communicate regularly with them through various channels so I can give clear guidance and direction for the business and also get feedback in return.

In addition, I spend a lot of time coaching young talent as an executive sponsor of our Management Associate programme.

How has your leadership style evolved over your career?

Over the years, my leadership style has evolved from being prescriptive in decision making to empowering and coaching my people to make decisions that are aligned to our business goals. I believe in shared leadership, where all employees understand the strategic direction of Singtel and how their actions impact our customers and business as a whole.

It is important for me to communicate my business objectives clearly to the team, and to get their belief and commitment in what we are doing. I therefore make it a point to communicate regularly with my team through meetings and communication sessions.

What role did you play when Singtel overhauled its brand in January last year?

As a company which has over 130 years of history, we have seen the industry transform and communications evolve – from monopoly to liberalisation, and from our core telecommunications services into the digital business.

We wanted to communicate this new phase in our transformation journey to consumers to let them know that we recognise their changing needs as well as our commitment to product and service innovations, better content, and service to enrich their experiences. Our refreshed brand identity is a reflection of this.

To prepare ourselves for the 2015 brand relaunch, we knew we had to start with our employees. Hence, there was an internal rebranding in 2012.

I was involved in bringing the vision of the new brand to life and driving the culture change. By taking the lead and embracing the change myself, my team recognised this was a top priority and that inspired them to constantly look at ways to deliver great customer experiences.

Has the increased competition in the telco space changed the way you manage your people?

With the entry of any competitor, it is only natural to expect some degree of interest from everyone. As leaders, we need to anticipate this and ensure ongoing efforts to engage and develop employees so they feel valued.

We don’t believe in knee jerk reactions to competition; rather, we believe in ongoing and sustained efforts to retain and engage our staff.

We do this through development and engagement activities to help employees find meaning and growth within Singtel. Given our size and diverse businesses, our employees have career and development options in Singapore and internationally. We believe this has been largely effective in keeping our employees within the group.

You started the change process by getting highly engaged leaders to be ‘change champions’. Who or what inspired this?

Change champions are important because they take on the role of communicating and working with their peers and team members to communicate the vision, direction and rationale behind certain actions or policies of the company. They also facilitate action planning and the implementation of changes.

As CEO of our consumer business, I appreciate and support the work done by change champions by endorsing and working alongside them to help implement the resulting initiatives. I believe that my actions here set an example for my team to follow suit in supporting HR change initiatives.

In this highly competitive industry, leaders cannot afford not to take a hands-on approach on people matters.

Is there a succession plan in place for your role?

Like most organisations, we have a robust annual talent review process to identify a pipeline of talent at all levels, with a view to develop and groom them into future leaders with the capabilities to assume senior leadership roles in Singtel.

Succession planning for key roles is done regularly and at the group level to ensure we have a pipeline of potential successors who can assume these roles over a period of time.

 

Jan Smits

CEO

InterContinental Hotels Group, Asia, Middle East, and Africa

Champion of HR, 2013

What do you think contributed to your HRM Award win in 2013?

Creating and embedding our “Winning Culture” in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (AMEA) was a key milestone for IHG. With our teams operating across a large and diverse region, with 24-7 operational complexity, we needed to find a common language and a consistent measurement of success. It worked across the whole operation, from teams in our hotels across all our brands to those colleagues based in our corporate offices.

The culture embedding project was so successful in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa that it was rolled out globally the following year.

How have things changed professionally and personally for you since that win?

I was, and still continue to be, immensely proud of the work we’ve done to grow our people and develop a strong, unique culture with values and behaviours embedded across the business.

I have driven the embedding of a continuous learning culture so we continue to build the skills and capability of our colleagues, whether they have been with us for three months or 30 years.

I spend half of my time on people. Whether that’s working with members of my management team and supporting them in their planning, or strategizing on talent needs (including development, succession planning and ensuring we have the pipeline of talent to run our growing business into the future).

Professionally, I’m leading an even stronger, award-winning team than it was prior to the HRM Award win in 2013. 

You played a big role in the transformation of IHG. How have you continued to drive change in the organisation?

As CEO, I lead change from the front and encourage my leaders to do the same. We are working in a dynamic and highly competitive industry, and we need to embrace change rather than be worried or anxious about it. 

When we embarked on the transformation process in late 2015, my role started with identifying the need for change in how we worked and envisioning the business needs both today and into the future. I was the thought-leader throughout the process which included providing a lens on both diversity and employee engagement.

I also know that while my years of operating hotels meant that I was used to managing people through good and difficult times, there are leaders in the business who may not be used to running big teams or managing through change. I spent quite a bit of time coaching the senior leaders I knew were having more difficulties in leading the transformation, and continue to do so as we embed our new ways of working.

You oversee a large number of territories. How do you manage so many different markets and cultures?

I have lived and worked in many different countries and led businesses that are truly diverse, be that geographically, culturally, or socially. However, no matter the market, in addition to respecting and celebrating difference, it’s really important to have clarity across the business with a common goal and language.

I believe it’s important to give your leaders from all functions the freedom and space to do their jobs and not try to get in their way.

I also bring my personal values to my approach to employee communications across the region. I believe communication needs to be transparent, authentic, and trustworthy. This is easy to stick to in good times. However when times get more difficult, it’s important to stil continue with this approach.

One of the ways I recently led by example was when we set up “Day in the Life of…” experiences for our corporate colleagues in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. We wanted to ensure all our corporate staff spent the day working in a hotel to understand the business better. I was the first to participate, spending the day working at Holiday Inn Express Clarke Quay and serving our guests.

You led the development of the General Managers Express programme, along with other development initiatives. How helpful are these in identifying new leaders, and do they remain relevant today?

We know that to remain competitive and an attractive employer of choice, we have to offer something different.  It has to be something of value to find and, importantly, retain the very best talent.

In today’s fast-paced working environment, the reality is employees are looking for quicker ways to advance their careers and have a huge amount of choice. We can’t just think of hotel brands as competitors when it comes to talent; we also have to look at restaurants, cruises and leisure attractions as competition.

In the past, it could take up to two decades before you’d reach a General Manager (GM) role, which - to a university graduate or young job seeker - could be considered just too long these days. 

Both our GM Express and our Future Leaders programmes help those team members identified as high-potential, ambitious talent to “fast-track” their career progression, whether that be making a department head position within a two-year period or a first-time GM role in a fraction of the time it would have taken in the past. 

What succession plans do you have in place?

My current management team has five members whom I spotted as high-potential talent a few years ago and have personally created opportunities, experiences and learning roles to accelerate their progression.

 

Professor Tan Ser Kiat

SingHealth Board Member and Emeritus Consultant, Singapore General Hospital

Former SingHealth Group CEO

Champion of HR, 2011

What do you think contributed to your win in 2011?

I was completely taken by surprise at being given the award. I’ve always been supportive of and have been keen to see staff be given ample opportunities to develop and hone their skills, and to realise their potential to the fullest. This benefits not only the staff concerned, but the organisation as well.

What lessons have you learnt through your career?

One important leadership lesson I always carry with me is in building a leadership pipeline. I’ve always described myself as an “accidental” leader, as I moved from my clinical practice into a management role some 30 years ago not by choice. Back then, I was asked to stand in for my Chief of Department when he was ill, and my leadership journey developed from there.

Leadership succession and continuity thus became a priority to me and I recognised the importance of grooming the next generation of leaders and equipping them with the right management skills.

Since my win in 2011 and after stepping down as SingHealth’s Group CEO in 2012, I saw my efforts in building a leadership pipeline come to fruition, with the current leadership successfully taking over and leading the organisation to new heights. 

Of the HR initiatives you were involved in at SingHealth, which was the most impactful?

During my time as SingHealth Group CEO, we designed and rolled out talent retention programmes to nurture, engage, and empower staff in meaningful healthcare careers. Some initiatives included a critical talent retention scheme for doctors, redesigning of job scopes, and expanding of roles for nurses, as well as developing career track options for allied health professionals.

People are the most important part of any organisation and they make a vital difference to healthcare and patients. I believe these initiatives played a crucial role in keeping our employees engaged and fulfilled in their careers.

What do you miss the most, or remember most vividly from your time as Group CEO of SingHealth?

I don’t miss anything since stepping down in 2012. In fact, I’m very happy now that I can devote more time to my professional and clinical work as an orthopaedic surgeon at Singapore General Hospital, as well as to teach (undergraduates and post-graduates) and train the next generation.

I also serve on some statutory boards and organisations, as part of my contribution to our nation.

What are the key HR challenges for today’s healthcare leaders?

With increasing healthcare demands, evolving strains of viruses, and a buoyant economy, one of the key challenges in today’s healthcare landscape is in attracting and finding people and talent who are passionate to serve.

Today’s healthcare leaders need to continue building capacity and capabilities in their workforce through talent attraction and retention initiatives, as well as staff development efforts.

Employee engagement is also important for management to understand and address ground issues and staff concerns, which plays a big part in building a healthy and engaged healthcare workforce.

What succession plan did you have in place before you stepped down from SingHealth?

My succession planning started the day I was appointed as Group CEO – identifying the right people and putting them in leadership positions of decision-making to take over from me.

It was also important to ensure that they were adequately prepared, by sending them for training, such as for MBAs, early in their careers. I’m glad that these leaders have taken over successfully and are now leading SingHealth to the next lap.

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