Q&A with Aileen Tan of SingTel

Q&A with Aileen Tan of SingTel

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A mission for communication

Aileen Tan, group director of human resources at SingTel, speaks about the organisational transformation HR is helping to drive, and how it has brought employees on board for this change initiative.

How is the experience heading the HR function for one of Singapore’s oldest and most established companies?

Working at the country’s largest listed company means there is never a dull moment. There is a lot of hard work, but also a lot of fun and exciting challenges.

While we take pride in our 135-year-old heritage, our philosophy is to always look forward and evolve. The world is moving very quickly which means we have to stay ahead of the times, and not just stay with the times. To do this, we need to be a lot more innovative, open-minded and proactive.

The best thing about working in corporate HQ with a diversified business and a large workforce is we are at the heart of the decision making. We have a lot more bandwidth to put in place innovative people practices and programmes that have a wide reach. I see this as a great honour to be able to make a difference and receive a great deal of gratification from our efforts and contributions.

If you have lots of passion and energy, and want to be at the forefront where all the action is – this is the job to be in.

What attracted you to HR as a career path?

I come from an entrepreneurial family. My father ran a cassette shop and I helped out as a teenager. That’s where I got my first-hand experience at running a small business and managing people, although just two salespersons.

I landed my first job as a management associate in the operations department of a wholesale business and was tasked to lead a team of 20-plus people. I soon realised that managing a large team was totally different from managing one salesperson.

One day, my supervisor came by my desk and asked what I thought was causing staff attrition. I told him that either staff didn’t know how to do the job or they were just not motivated. Something I said must have clicked with him because two weeks later in the town hall, he announced that I would head the new training and development department.

I was really shocked he pinned his hopes on a rookie like me. But I really went out there and did all I could to get the function started. I realised I could actually make a difference to people. That is why I decided to stay in HR.

Back in school, I was a pure science student who went on to study computer science and statistics. Nobody would have guessed that I would pick an HR career.

As I ventured into HR, I decided to do a Masters in organisational behaviour, although a MBA was a more common path. This made me a unique HR person – having studied computer science, statistics and organisational behaviour.

I try to marry all of them into a more holistic perspective when I lead the function – adopting a systematic and analytical approach to issues, yet taking care of people.

SingTel started an organisational transformation initiative two and a half years ago. Why did the business require this?

As you can imagine, there have been many changes to the business over the years, but we are seeing massive changes in the industry landscape, especially in the digital era.

About three years ago, we decided to organise our business around customer segments, and established our digital businesses. We were glad that we had leaders with the experience and skills to lead the business.

HR was in the thick of this transformation. We had to light the way for many. We had to think about how we were supporting the leaders and engaging people in their new roles. We also had to understand employees’ concerns and work closely with the leaders to address them.

HR was in the thick of this transformation. We had to light the way for many. We had to think about how we were supporting the leaders and engaging people in their new roles.

What are the major things the business is looking to change?

We look at the change from the perspectives of strategy, structure, leadership, engagement and culture. Transformation will happen if it is supported by the right mindset and right culture.

Our core values – customer focus, integrity, a challenger spirit, personal excellence and teamwork – remain our bedrock for the way we work and behave. We got our employees to talk about what our core values really mean to them and how they bring them to life.

What role does the leadership team play in enabling this transformation?

Our leaders play a key role in leading the transformation. They have to continue to reach out and engage their people.

We worked with the leadership team to define the leadership competencies needed to be successful in the transformation. As a result, a new leadership competency model called SCORE – which stands for strategic ability, collaboration, opportunity, results-focus and engagement – was developed and implemented.

Essentially, our leaders have to understand the business, regardless of where they are in the organisation. While our leaders are very disciplined in execution, they are also expected to engage and develop talent.

How are you tracking progress on the initiative?

About six months after the transformation kicked off, we did an engagement survey with all 23,000 employees which included asking them these two questions – what do you think of the change? And, do you think this transformation will bring out the best in SingTel?

About 90% of our employees were on board. They understood the need for change and believed the change was for the better.

The transformation isn’t just a project. We will keep revisiting and reinforcing it to make sure it is fully embedded and institutionalised.

It is a lot of hard work, but when you see pride in the employees, it makes a lot of difference to us in HR.

This transformation will not happen if we don’t have the right talent. They are the heart, soul and brain of the company.

You managed to get the support of your employees on board which is half the battle won. Where’s a big area of impact for them in all this?

This transformation will not happen if we don’t have the right talent. They are the heart, soul and brain of the company. We knew from the beginning that to make this successful, we have to think about how we run our talent programmes.

We feel very strongly that we need to have talent across all levels. Given we have a four-generation workforce, we have the opportunity to expand and strengthen our talent pipeline.

Like many companies in Singapore, we do have an ageing workforce. So we want to engage our “silver talent” to continue to contribute to the company. We are currently reviewing our policies around re-employment, skill development and benefits for this group of talent.

At the same time, we also went deeper into the organisation to identify our young talents who are just starting their career. We hope that some of our highest potentials that are in their 20s can take on leadership roles before they turn 30 through our accelerated development programme. We have already identified 50 to 60 of them.

Talent has to be owned by the leaders and not HR. For our talent initiatives, we have our CEOs as our business sponsors and HR plays an enabling role. HR continues to ramp up programmes to get leaders to be good talent managers.

Aileen Tan SingTel

How do you identify the top talent? Do you see line managers taking an active role in this?

We have very robust assessments and internal benchmarks to identify talent – looking at agility, performance, mobility and motivation.

Our line managers are indeed starting to take a more active role in this. They have to and if they don’t, they should not be managers.

It is important to set expectations right for our line managers. For example, we expect our managers to be talent magnets – to attract the right people to work for them.

Next, they have to be a talent developer and not a talent suppressor. Our leaders are expected to develop our talent and ensure those talents are rotated to different areas for exposure. What gets measured, gets managed – our managers carry a talent rotation target as part of their KPI.

Managers have also got to be talent optimisers – to optimise the strengths and potential of their teams.

Finally, they have to be talent motivators. We encourage managers to practice “PCP” – praise, counsel, praise. As a leader, they have to learn to deliver tough messages to their employees, but with the best intent, so this feedback must be constructive.

SingTel has a lot happening in the area of work-life balance such as coaching, recreational club and flexi hours. What’s behind this focus?

I would not call it work-life balance – balance is very quantitative, like 50/50. We prefer the concept of work-life integration, which is about focusing on the quality of the time spent at work and at home.

The wellbeing of our employees comprises of a number of different elements, including physical, emotional, developmental, material and social dimensions.

For example, our staff recreational club organises inter-group games that our employees can participate in – from the most physical activities like dragon boat racing to the most intellectual, like a mahjong competition.

What gets measured, gets managed – our managers carry a talent rotation target as part of their KPI.

The emotional wellbeing of our employees is also very important. Should any of them encounter difficulties – whether work or personal – we encourage them to seek support and confidential help through our employee assistance programme.

Wellbeing can also be about having a strong desire to grow, learn and stay relevant. For this, we have our learning fiesta which is bite-sized sessions for employees at all levels to develop personal and professional skills.

For our younger group of talent, we have career talks, along with assigning them coaches to help navigate their careers. Coaching happens at the executive level too, based on their requirements.

Besides HR, you also head CSR for the group. Are the responsibilities linked in some way?

To me, they are linked. Employees want to feel they are a part of a community, they want to work for a company committed to CSR and they want to be able to contribute.

Our employees play an active part in our CSR activities. We call it “VolunTeaming” – combining CSR initiatives with team-building activities that enable our employees to interact with the beneficiaries that SingTel supports.

Even from a strategy perspective, there is linkage. CSR is a key component in sustaining the business. Customers want to buy from a company which is a good corporate citizen that supports good causes and protects the environment.

What’s your take on the HR focus for the year ahead?

We in HR have to light the way to lead and shape the agenda. The other thing I feel strongly is that we have to execute with pride, passion and care.

When we embark on something, SingTel has an amazing appetite to commit to the journey. Being such a big organisation, we must be adamant about making things simple. Similar to the 80/20 rule, we need to focus on the vital few that will make a big difference to the business and put time and resources to get that done.

We challenge ourselves not to take the conventional path and will continue to make bold departures in people practices in 2015. For example, while many companies typically measure employee engagement, we actually go beyond to find out if our employees are also energised and enabled so that we can achieve sustainable engagement.

Customers want to buy from a company which is a good corporate citizen that supports good causes and protects the environment.

In addition, we recognise the company alone cannot determine how engaged the employees are. Each employee has a big part to play in making SingTel a great place to work in.

This year, we are introducing E2E: Empower to Engage, a personalised, confidential engagement report for each of our employees. We hope the personalised report will empower our employees to take action and make a difference.

On the external front, we are committed to enabling the government’s SkillsFuture agenda and have just launched a diploma scholarship programme, which focuses on nurturing young talent in the areas of engineering, cyber security and customer experience.

The first corporate programme of its kind, the SingTel Cadet Scholarship Programme offers a total of 90 scholarships each year to students from Singapore Polytechnic and Republic Polytechnic.

Cadets will be offered exciting career paths that include scholarships, internships, secured roles and developmental opportunities. High performers may even get overseas assignments and degree sponsorships.

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