Looking at Aileen Tan’s success as the group chief human resources officer (GCHRO) at Singtel, you wouldn’t be able to tell that she wasn’t always a great manager. AHRI chairman Peter Wilson AM (FCPHR), talks to her about finding her calling in HR, plus the trends she sees shaping workforce management.
Peter Wilson: When did you first know a career in human resources was right for you?
AT: My first job was working in wholesale business, in the company’s operations department.
My boss gave me a lot of responsibility and very quickly made me a supervisor of 20 staff. When I was starting out, my ideas about leadership and workforce management were from text books. But when I applied these ideas at work, I was not a very good supervisor.
One day one of my staff came to me and said: “I think we’re all going to quit. We can’t work with you. You have a nice heart but you are so difficult to work with.”
I was very young then and was taken aback. She said: “Let me give you feedback if you want to make it work.” I listened to her, and the next morning I called for a team meeting. I apologised to them for making their work so miserable every day. It was difficult, but it was the right thing to do. I asked them, “Teach me how to be a good boss to every one of you.”
I became a better supervisor, but I began to realise something and I shared it with my boss. Either people don’t know how to do their work or they’re not motivated to do their work. The next day he announced that I was being appointed head of training and development. I was only about 21. When I was given this opportunity, I grabbed it – though with a lot of fear – because I knew that human resources was really my forte. I like to work with people and I like to make a difference in people’s lives.
PW: What do we need to know to prepare people for in the new world of work?
AT: It’s very important for people to consider how the world is going to change, how their industry is going to change and how our businesses are going to respond to those changes. Then we have to figure out how human resources is going to plan for this and what is the workforce management agenda?
As a human resources chief, I need to ask how I’m going to lead and how I’m going to help shape and support the business. We can be the catalyst for change.
Taking Singtel as an example, many of our new emerging portfolio businesses are never going to be run as a night job for somebody else. It cannot be a part-time agenda. We are actually running two agendas concurrently, and that’s very tough because if you look at the digital business and you look at the core business, they are very different.
In our core business, the network has got to be 99.9 per cent reliable, which means you have no room for experiments.
In our digital set-up business, the culture that you want to build is experimental and fast. You hire differently. Regardless of the differences, we still need to be accountable to shareholders.
PW: How has digital changed things?
AT: When we first started there were a lot of things happening on the social front, such as Whatsapp. But, interestingly, many of them have morphed into core business because consumers are telling us, “I’m using this, it’s part and parcel of my day-to-day life.” As much as we’re managing this digital portfolio, the core business is also digitising by itself. And we have to consistently look out for what is the next emerging technology because eventually it will become part of the core.
PW: What are you expecting of top leaders in the future?
AT: If you’re going to be a top leader, your mindset has got to be very open to what is coming your way and you have to think globally. At the same time, you must have that curiosity to want to learn and pick up new things and apply them very quickly in a way that makes sense to your business.
Enterprise leadership is also key, whereby we have to collaborate a lot more. Look at where the inter-dependencies are with each other and leverage on every possible resource that we have within the organisation. At the same time be very strong in terms of execution and make it happen.
PW: What have you learnt about what engages your people?
AT: We typically ask two questions at Singtel: Why did you join us, and why do you stay? We then analyse their response by their profiles such as age and gender.
Firstly, we find that people want good pay and a career, but it’s also important to them that the company has a good reputation. People stay because of strong leadership and challenging assignments, and because they feel the organisation is making progress. We have a very strong communication agenda with messages that are authentic. We will share with employees our success but we are also open about what we need to improve.
Take teamwork. In employee engagement surveys, my favourite question is: “What do you think of teamwork in this organisation?” Answer: “Terrible.” But when you ask another question, “Are you a good team player?” the answer is: “Yes, I am.” I’m trained in statistics, but I couldn’t figure out the correlation of these two questions. You tell me that teamwork is terrible but you tell me you are a great team player. It takes two hands to clap. Somebody has got to make the first move, right? If you are a team player, do your job, lend support and that’s where you will start to see teamwork coming into play.
PW: What is your approach to performance management?
AT: The good performers, intrinsically, will always love us because through a strong performance management system like ours, their performance is differentiated. Our mid-year performance review is compulsory, but we abolished ratings so that people can focus on conversations. When it comes to the year-end rating, it wouldn’t be a surprise because expectations were already set during the mid-year review.
PW: What are you doing to encourage gender diversity?
AT: The ratio of women to men in executive and management ranks at Singtel is about 40:60. I think it’s easier for women in Singapore to rely on some family support [for childcare] as compared to Australia. Singtel is an organisation based on meritocracy, so when talented women get a job with us, they know it’s not because we are trying to meet a gender quota, but rather it’s because they were the best candidate. I think that gives women a lot of confidence.
PW: You have the Optus group in Australia. In managing across international cultures, what are some of the challenges you’ve experienced?
AT: Seventy per cent of our earnings are outside of Singapore, so we want to make sure that the business is run by a diverse group of people from different parts of the world. There is a local flavour to everything we do in the company.
When we formulate a policy, it cannot be one that is based purely on the Singapore view because if it’s irrelevant, it’s not going to be effective.
It’s like holding a little bird by the neck. If the grip is too loose, the bird will fly away. Hold it too tight and the bird will suffocate and die. It must be a nice balance.
PW: What awareness do you have of the health and welfare of employees?
AT: When I first came to work some 20 years ago, there were no mobile phones in the office. The only place that I could read email was on a PC and we used fax a lot. Today thanks to smart phones, I have 24 hours to work on things. For that reason, it’s very important that our employees don’t carry unnecessary burdens, and they must know how to say ‘no’.
If we are thinking about productivity, it’s quite clear that mental welfare is important. As in Australia, we have a big problem with mental stress: how do you cope with it? As part of our employee assistance programs, people who feel stressed can access support which is confidential.
But if we are trying to prevent stress, instead of us trying to tell people what’s good for them, I think it’s important for us to help them figure that out for themselves: what is the right balance? They’ve got to give themselves permission to do certain things and permission not to do certain things.
PW: Tell me about corporate social responsibility that’s part of your role.
AT: When I first took over CSR, I understood it to be a lot around community involvement. We have a donation fund, you do good things, you spend time with your beneficiary. It was very philanthropic and based on volunteering. Later, I realised that CSR is not that, it’s beyond that. It’s about sustainability and, along the way, we have moved CSR into a corporate sustainability function. That comprises of four key areas: our customers, the community, our people and the environment. Each of these pillars carries a very different weight. How do we make sure that Singtel is a sustainable organisation on all fronts, for our stakeholders?
We conducted a review to learn what would make a difference. If you just take community as an example, we were clear that we always wanted to be supporting underprivileged youth and children, but we also realised that two or three things would make a great impact because of who we are. The first one is about cyber wellness. We have seen how our services empowered many people, but also technology has the potential to wreck the lives of people. Hence, we have a digital citizenship program to promote cyber wellness among youth and children in the community. We own that and we put it in the curriculum in schools.