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Suite Talk: Barathan Pasupathi, CEO of Jetstar Asia

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As the winner of the Leading CEO Award, Barathan Pasupathi, chief executive officer of Jetstar Asia, shares how leaders can take an informal, visible and “walkabout’’ soccer coach approach to engage staff as well as how HR can connect, engage and develop people. 

How did your career lead you to this present role?

In my teens, I had set a goal that I would run an airline by the time I reached my forties and I achieved it at 45. When I was young, I loved aircraft and aviation and dreamt of working for the national carrier. To make that happen, I gave up a post graduate scholarship and applied for a job with the airline. However, I was unsuccessful and subsequently pursued a career in finance in the oil and gas industry. Fourteen years after, I received a call from Jetstar to be the first CFO to join the Jetstar Asia start-up team in 2004.

After three years at Jetstar, I moved to the Middle East to join Jazeera Airways to expand my experience in aviation. Given the scale and growth ambition of Jazeera, I was put on a steep learning trajectory in purchasing and financing aircraft, setting up teams, listing in the stock market and growing an airline and its services. At Jazeera, the people’s team responsibilities helped me understand the intricacies of managing a diverse and complex team of people in an airline. I relished the experience. After returning to Singapore in 2010, I held a leadership position at an oil trading outfit and was subsequently invited to be CEO of Jetstar Asia in 2012.

How would you define your leadership style?

I adopt an informal, visible and “walkabout’’ soccer coach approach. At Jetstar, we set out to remove hierarchy and to create an open office environment. I enjoy engaging teams directly and I feel comfortable working with them in the organisation’s full vertical spectrum. My team members are familiar with my open style of management and I make a conscious effort to remain genuine.

My open and informal style of management has allowed me to connect with a diverse team of personalities and at all levels of the business at Jetstar – from frontline to backend. I seek their feedback about the processes and strategies and appreciate the business insights from their perspective. The feedback from our team and customers are discussed with my leadership team.

Over time, I have learnt to lead my staff with what I call a “soccer coach” approach. A CEO is not an active striker or defender but a coach who gets results from the team, by motivating, strategising and getting everyone behind the team goals and aspirations.
Barathan Pasupathi, CEO of Jetstar Asia

Over time, I have learnt to lead my staff with what I call a “soccer coach” approach. A CEO is not an active striker or defender but a coach who gets results from the team, by motivating, strategising and getting everyone behind the team goals and aspirations. I strongly believe that the real hero of the business is not the CEO, but the people in our teams as they responsible for delivering the performance of the company.

What has been your most memorable moment with the company?

Aviation has seen headwinds in the last few years. My most memorable moment with Jetstar was how the team rallied and handled the recovery of passengers at Changi Airport when our back-end operations were temporarily impacted. I was so impressed at how our team members worked as one team to tirelessly bring the business back to our usual high standards of operations. Two years on, not only has our operations maintained high standards, but Jetstar Asia has pioneered seamless self-service options at Singapore Changi Airport. This year, I’m proud to announce that Jetstar Asia continues to be ranked as the top Singapore-based LCC in the Skytrax Airlines Awards.

What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make as a boss and what did you learn from it?

As one of my very first decisions as a CEO at Jetstar, I had to make the difficult decision to curtail our aspirations to build a long-haul wide-body operations from Singapore. After careful study and re-evaluation of the market in 2012, we felt that it was a necessary decision for the business. This was painful as the leadership then had made the necessary investments to gear up to support an expanded business.

The next most difficult task was communicating the decision and getting the buy-in and support from all stakeholders in the business. Understandably, teams were upset but we were able to engage the teams, rationalised the decision and introduced an alternative strategy of growth appropriate at that time.

To be the best low fare carrier (LCC), we rolled out our strategy of fixing the basics, increasing productivity and efficiency and putting the customer and our people at the heart of the business. Over time, the strategy gained ground and the teams were able to rally around this as we met targets and goals year after year. While our results turned for the better, other carriers who had embarked on a strategy of expansion during that period were struggling in a market of over-capacity and competition. I’m pleased to say that we’ve stayed the course and remained true to our strategy.

What is your view of HR as a business function?

Personally, the term ‘human resource’ does not adequately depict the multiple functions the department plays in today’s dynamic world. Today, the functions of HR have evolved from merely recruitment and payroll processing to a partnership role of business and a core engine for performance. I prefer to use the term human capital or the people team.

People teams of today will have to juggle selection, recruitment, retention, engagement, remuneration, performance and talent management, succession planning and also build exceptional relationships across teams and people as well. We operate on short runways today and our people team need to achieve much in compressed timelines.

How can HR contribute better to organisational goals, in your opinion?

The people team is the core engine of any business. Today’s runway to success is short and the people team plays a pivotal role in partnering businesses to pursue the vision and strategies of the company.

In following our group’s aspirations, the people Teams aim to connect, engage and develop people.

Connect refers to facilitating an understanding of each and every person’s role in contributing to the organisation’s success and the setting up collaborative platforms for teams to build exceptional relationships.

Engage refers to recognising teams and individuals, and helping build trusting relationships amongst the staff. It is he championing of flexible work arrangements, managing diversity in the workforce and also looking after the staff’s well-being at work.

Develop refers to the creation of a consistent performance management framework that encourages open and honest feedback between the staff. It is also recognising and building talent and managing succession plans in Jetstar.

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