Suresh Sachi, deputy managing director at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), clarifies why he lives by the pillars of integrity, innovation and industry, in a conversation with Aditi Sharma Kalra.Having been a partner at a law firm, what prompted you to switch to A*STAR 13 years ago?
The main draw for leaving private practice and joining A*STAR was the opportunity for me to be more involved in the business end of things, in particular, the commercialisation of the intellectual property generated from the A*STAR research institutes.
Prior to joining A*STAR, my role was largely providing legal advice as an external consultant. When I joined A*STAR, I was able to be really involved in the deal making and negotiations and making business decisions. That was certainly more exciting.
Did you carry over any people-related learning from the law profession?
There are three main things that I try to live by – integrity, innovation and industry. As a young lawyer, I learnt very quickly that without integrity, you are nothing. You will not have the respect of your seniors, your peers or your subordinates and more importantly, the courts, the judges and those in the legal system. I had great mentors who drummed this into me from day one.
Innovation is important. One needs to work hard, but also work smart – learn always and continually improve, but try new ways of doing things and be more efficient. Leverage on technology and new methods to experiment and find better solutions that are more resource effective for the client.
Finally, there is no substitute for hard work. One needs to put in the hours and grind it out. Along the way, you learn from your mistakes, better still, learn from the mistakes of others, and don’t repeat them.
As a young lawyer, I learnt very quickly that without integrity, you are nothing.
I do not think there is one particular style of leadership – it is largely contextual and leadership can and often should be situational. Much depends on the needs of the staff at a particular point in time or situation.
Sometimes there is a need for a “team hug”, other times there is a need for discipline. In some circumstances, you need to exhibit vision and be able to coach, mentor and rally the staff.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
The variety. There is always something interesting going on at A*STAR. A new project, another significant deal, new process improvements to implement. We deal with science, scientists, products of the mind (intellectual property and technology) and the economy. The business of science is quite different from any other industry – it is interesting, challenging and thought provoking.
I see developing people as my main role. I love working with people who are willing to learn and to teach. As a coach and mentor, it is my responsibility to help my staff achieve excellence and to give them every opportunity to learn and grow.
Everyone struggles at times. What’s the best way to motivate staff having a tough time?
Understanding the underlying problem is crucial. If something is wrong, a good manager should have picked it up early and intervened.
All staff behave differently. Even self-motivated staff need coaching and mentoring, reassurance and direction setting. So, staff who are less self-motivated will need more help. Sometimes a simple conversation helps to find out if an employee is struggling with some problem. If we listen carefully, it can be surprising how quickly a problem can be resolved.
Training is important. Good managers will analyse and understand the capability gaps and ensure their staff are adequately trained.
It is also important to give credit and acknowledgement where it is due. Telling staff they are doing a good job goes a long way. Everyone wants acknowledgement for their work – even if it is something that is expected of them.
But what does one do in cases where they haven’t done a great job?
As a good leader and manager, it is important to be totally honest with your staff. If there are performance issues, we need to understand what these are, the reasons behind them and then find a solution to address the issues.
If there are capability issues, then it is important to have that candid discussion with the staff and deploy them to their strengths in other areas. In some instances, it means coming up with a performance improvement plan and making difficult decisions at the end if it still does not work out.
I do not think there is one particular style of leadership – it is largely contextual and leadership can and often should be situational.
I spend time with my family. That always lifts me. My family is the most important thing to me, and I often feel guilty that I do not spend enough time with them. I try to exercise regularly as well (not doing very well with this right now). Exercise helps to relieve stress. Prayer helps too.
What’s your take on the human resources function?
I think HR is a critical business function. At A*STAR, there is a recognition that our most valuable asset is our people. And HR is about our people – how we coach, train and mentor them to get them to be the best that they can be; not just to do work and perform for the organisation, but to do so for themselves. If we are clear about this and put in place strategies to achieve this, then the overall business of the organisation will naturally improve.
How can HR better its contribution to the business?
A well-managed and good HR outfit will help ensure an organisation is able to attract the best people to join the organisation and strive together in an aligned manner to achieve the vision, mission and objectives of the organisation. Good HR practices means greater staff engagement and ensuring the leadership is attuned to what motivates employees to do better.
Do you see many HR leaders making it to the CEO level?
I actually see no reason why not. I am of the view that HR is not merely a support function, but a driving function. However, it’s not very often that one hears of HR managers rising to take over as CEO, especially in large companies.
I can hazard that many boards may not see HR leaders as a future CEO because HR is a cost centre and does not directly contribute or be seen to contribute to the bottom line in terms of generating revenue. Also, in many instances, HR is viewed as a back-room operation and a support function. As such, it is not typically regarded as one of the premier functions within an organisation and, thus, HR leaders are not seen as being capable of driving organisations as CEOs.
But I think it is really up to the individual to make the case and to exhibit he or she is capable of taking on that CEO role – be larger than your job.