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Audrey Cheong, managing director, FedEx Express, Singapore, reveals why the courier company puts people first, the people initiatives that are close to her heart, and what she enjoys about work.
Q How did you get to where you are in FedEx Express?
I joined FedEx in Singapore in 1998. True to the company’s policy of promoting from within, I have come through the ranks to be where I am at today.
Of course, each of us is responsible for our career progression. I applied for and had the opportunity to join FedEx Express in China in 2004. It was an eye-opener, from managing a mature operation in Singapore to (at that time) a developing one in China.
During the course of my career, I was also a beneficiary of the FedEx tuition assistance programme, which is available to employees who want to improve their career advancement opportunities at FedEx. I made use of the programme to upskill myself and pursued post-graduate degrees in Management and an MBA.
Q You have been with FedEx Express for almost 20 years now. What is your motivation for being loyal in this age of job hopping?
I like the FedEx culture of People-Service-Profit. It is not lip service because one can feel the same culture within FedEx in any part of the world.
The company believes in investing in its people and treating employees well, who will subsequently provide outstanding customer experience, which will in turn generate profits. These profits will then go back into investing in people. It looks like a simple cycle. In practice, it can be difficult if not everyone believes and follows the principle. This has made FedEx a great place to work at, and why I have chosen to stay at the company for 20 years.
What also keeps me here is that I am always learning. The pace is fast and like our chairman, Frederick W. Smith says, ‘change is the only constant’.
Q What does your typical work day look like? And what do you enjoy most about your work?
My drive to work is a long one but nice as I get to cruise along Changi Costal Road. I typically like to take that time to notice changes in the surroundings and to reflect. At the office, I am occupied with emails and meetings.
One constant reminder to myself is to be present when sometimes things may look seemingly routine. I treat what I do with pride. When one does things from the heart, the end result is telling.
I enjoy meeting people, be it internal or external, because there is knowledge exchange. Whenever suitable, I also like injecting humor into conversations to make meetings more casual.
Q Throughout your journey with FedEx Express, what was the toughest decision you’ve had to make as a boss, and what did you learn from it?
I had to cope with the loss of a very dear employee. Breaking the news to his loved ones and employees was the toughest call for me. He was and still is sorely missed.
Managing my emotions when breaking the news as a boss and as a person was a struggle. I learnt to cope with loss and self-blame. It was not easy initially for me or any of us when the usual seat he occupied during meetings was empty.
Q Having worked in two very different countries – Singapore and China, how do you adapt it according to the country?
I think respect for a country’s culture and its people is important. Singapore was already a mature economy while China was still developing at that time. It takes patience and time to guide employees to the expected standards.
When I was stationed in China, it had a ‘Go West’ mentality. The Chinese are keen to learn about the world outside their borders.
I believe in making friends to facilitate enhanced collaboration. In China, this is even more important as ‘guanxi (relations)’ is how the country functions.
China is a still a very dynamic country, while Singapore has achieved more stable growth. This has meant that in China, one has also to be more anticipative and nimble when corporate leadership changes hands, for example.
Q What would you say is the biggest talent challenge in the industry today? How has this changed over the years and can the industry tackle this challenge?
Today we have more Millennials joining the work-force. My observation is that this generation is more impatient for career progression and enjoys variety. As such, retention can be a challenge if we do not do things differently.
For example, the way we view job satisfaction has evolved to be about giving our millennial colleagues room to innovate as opposed to simply telling them what to do, and providing constructive and appropriate appreciation when a job is done well. The company has also begun to accept that jobs do not run from nine-to-five, but we allow our colleagues more freedom as long as timelines are met, and work quality is not compromised.
Studies have also shown that millennials are more inclined to join a company that is active in CSR. The financial results of a company are not the primary motivator, but how a company creates a positive impact to the community.
But let’s also not neglect earlier generations. Re-training them and helping them to be relevant takes equal priority.
Our philosophy of putting employees at the center of our business has enabled us to better serve customers and compete in the global marketplace.
Q What is your view of human resources as a business function? How closely do you work with your HR head and on what kind of issues?
HR is a critical business function. Our people are our most valuable asset. My interaction with the HR team is very frequent because in every aspect of our business, people are involved. People engagement is one topic that always surfaces.
I believe in order for all to head towards a common direction, employees must be highly engaged and onboard. The sense of purpose must exist. The ‘how’ warrants thought and structure. To me, today, everyone wears a HR hat, not just the HR department per se.
Q Are there any people initiatives that are close to your heart?
The FedEx Women’s Network (FWN) Singapore was launched successfully last November. Its aim is to create a structured support network to help women succeed and a platform to facilitate sharing of experiences with one another.
We have also launched a mentoring programme in June, where selected applicants (including FWN members) will be mentored by higher executives in a nine-month programme. Achieving gender parity is an aspiration that we are actively working towards in FedEx.
Research proves there are many benefits for businesses that make gender parity a priority. But there’s another, far more important reason why we do it: it’s simply the right thing to do.
Q How can the HR function contribute better to organisational goals, in your opinion?
It is important to stay close to the ground and with trends. In this era of technology disruption, HR plays a critical role for businesses to stay ahead by adapting to the needs of the diverse and ever-changing workforce. This approach creates a positive working environment for employees, and encourages them to provide better service to customers. All our employees are committed to the Purple Promise, which is to make every experience outstanding for our customers.
Q Could many HR leaders make it to a CEO level? Why/why not?
I believe so. There are examples of HR leaders assuming different roles in FedEx in order to get a well-rounded view of the business.
My take is that managing people is probably more difficult than managing numbers. If people management is robust and employees are happy, it provides a solid foundation to fulfill service and profit aspirations.
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