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Suite Talk: Khoo Seng Thiam, FedEx Express

As someone who has advanced from being a ramp agent (that is, a person who handles freight) to the managing director at FedEx Express, take it from Khoo Seng Thiam – progression will come when you’ve earned it.

Having started with FedEx as a ramp agent in 1992, how does it feel to have progressed to managing director?

The basic functions of a ramp agent are to load and unload freight and keep check of the weights and balances. Many people look at this job as a task, but to keep one going in a company, you need to understand the job in its relation to the overall objectives.

In my case, a lot of people felt the job was very monotonous. But the fun lies in the fact there are many capable individuals who form a chain of work processes that make it possible for ramp agents to load the packages onto the plane – there lies the meaning of the job.

At the end of the day, everybody desires a promotion. But I keep reminding them that when one is in a job, it’s more important to excel in it. When you do that, people around you take notice, and when the opportunity arises you will be given a fair opportunity for progression.

How has FedEx’s organisational culture developed amid the company’s growth in Asia?

Our growth would not have been possible without FedEx’s fundamental people-first philosophy, also called People Service Profit (PSP). We truly believe people are our greatest assets, and that we have to look after them well.

In return, they will be motivated to look after the customers and provide them impeccable service, which will translate into profits.

This thinking is ingrained in every one of us. No matter what we do, that spirit has never shaken. This drives the company’s continued success into the future.

At the end of the day, everybody desires a promotion. But I keep reminding them that when one is in a job, it’s more important to excel in it.
On a personal front, what has been most memorable for you about your career to date?

There have been many moments, but at the end of the day it’s the people around me. I have worked with many great individuals over the years, and many of them are still in the organisation doing good work.

Even those who have left still keep in touch and speak highly about the good times together. This is what FedEx is about – creating a possibility to connect and touching lives through what you do.

If I had the power to make everyone happy, I would definitely do that, but this is a process of emotional connectivity. Every organisation is like a house, but how do you make it a home?

Working with people has been one of your favourite things here, but has anyone played a mentorship role to you?

There are many. When I first encountered FedEx in 1992, I was just a young boy who came from Malacca to Singapore. I spoke no English, and knew only Malay and Chinese.

If I could name someone, it would be the first person who hired me as a manager, Dennice Wilson, who was vice-president of planning, engineering and support for FedEx Asia Pacific, before she retired earlier last year. She was a great boss – very inspiring, tough, demanding and with high integrity. She continued to push me to realise my potential and acquire further education.

My wife is also important in my life. She was always there when I was learning English or studying, guiding me. I couldn’t be more fortunate and blessed with such people around me.

What are some of the key HR initiatives undertaken at FedEx?

As a company rooted in PSP, everything we do, every decision we make puts the people first and this shows in our HR policies. We have an open-door policy. Anybody can knock on anyone’s door up the line, all the way to presidents and even the CEO of the organisation.

Our guaranteed fair treatment policy is a channel for employees to be assured of a fair hearing in case of grievances. We take it very seriously to ensure no one has been discriminated against or treated unfairly.

Beyond that we conduct a once-a-year climate survey called survey feedback actions. It surveys employees on 33-34 questions to generate an index of how each manager is performing. It asks questions like whether employees feel free to communicate with their boss, and if they have been treated with respect. This is a great tool for managers to gear themselves up to be great leaders.

How do you use such inputs to connect better with your staff?

Policies are structural basics that we have had in the organisation since we started in the 1970s. But on the leadership side, the important thing is for all leaders to come across as authentic and sincere. We have to take things forward as a conversation. A lot of people think that is the same as communication, but it’s not.

As managers these days we are no longer managing – we are there to facilitate the conversation, the processes and the structures – so our people can be successful in the day to day of what they are doing.

I personally like talking to the front line a lot, and understanding what is happening with them. From time to time, I have to remind everybody there are no barriers between them and me. The only difference is in our roles and responsibilities, but we are all here to make things work together.

As managers these days we are no longer managing – we are there to facilitate the conversation, the processes and the structures – so our people can be successful in the day to day of what they are doing.
How can HR spread this message better?

HR has to play a more active role in not only putting up policies, but also making sure that communication goes out on the exact intent of each policy. If this is not done, we risk making our next generation leaders very robotic.

Also, the important thing for a leader beyond all conversations is action. When leaders are committed to something they need to follow through. This helps people trust you in times when they want to talk about something.

Work keeps you very busy, but how do you spend your free time?

I spend as much time as I can with my growing kids. I enjoy dropping them to school, because I have their full attention during the 20-30 minute ride.

I am trying to be an early sleeper, so I can get up fresh. I have begun to enjoy running, while listening to rock bands from the ’80s and ’90s, like Bon Jovi and Guns N’ Roses. With the team in the office, we like to get around on a Friday evening for a quick beer after a week of hard work.

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