Keeping the leadership carousel running smoothly

Aditi Sharma Kalra looks at the different considerations employers have in selecting a leadership development programme, the path undertaken for this careful, yet rewarding journey, and their experiences working with external partners.

Investing in a leadership development or succession planning programme takes time, money and effort, and in some cases, a complete overhaul of an organisation’s people processes. In return, HR decision makers are looking for now-ready and future leaders to navigate the business into newer markets, products and geographies – all while grooming a pipeline of leaders.

However, data suggests the reality is often harder than anticipated.

According to a 2016 report by the Hay Group division of Korn Ferry, 55% of Asia Pacific respondents judged the return on their leadership development spending investment as only “fair”, “poor” or “very poor”. Clearly, we need to identify the reasons for this gap between company expectations and the reality.

In this feature, we have a look at the different considerations employers have in selecting a leadership development programme; the path undertaken for this careful, yet rewarding journey; and their experiences working with external partners.

Customised development for successors

One of Asia’s leading telecommunications groups with about 350 million subscribers in 11 countries, Malaysia-headquartered Axiata Group is endeavouring to be a digital champion by 2020. Powering this journey are the components of innovation, connectivity and talent, and Datin Badrunnisa Mohd Yasin Khan is a key enabler in the talent piece as group chief talent officer for Axiata Group.

One of the most interesting initiatives has been the ongoing building of a leadership talent pipeline consisting of about 120 senior talent as future successors across the group’s C-suite. This programme is built on Axiata’s new strategy of building a triple core, where besides the core telecommunications business, it is diversifying into adjacent digital businesses and building an infrastructure business. Thus, the need to reassess the talent pipeline to have better insights into staff ’s future capabilities is more important than ever to drive the new strategy.

“We have now run the Axiata Development Centre for slightly more than 100 senior talent with the balance being planned soon, since not everyone was able to meet the first date,” Datin Badrunnisa says. “What we hope to achieve with these insights is the ability to customise their development plans to better suit their potential, hence, leveraging everyone’s strengths appropriately and effectively.”

As such, the next step is to take these insights to all the Axiata businesses to get them to help support the talent’s development interventions, and with their support, the plan is to debrief the talent and their leaders.

In parallel, the team has made some key observations. “Our biggest learnings are in the area of managing talents’ expectations as well as managing the expectation of the management from the different businesses, that is, our two biggest stakeholders!”

Both these stakeholders not only need to understand how these insights have been constructed, but more importantly how they will be useful for talent development. “The insights provide a lot more colour on the capabilities of these talents, but if they are not used properly, then it will be a wasted opportunity.”

I don’t believe there is any short-term metric; it will be based on the deployment of talent into more appropriate assignments and how effective these are for their progression.

As of now, the Axiata team has not set up any metrics for this initiative, as the priority is still on getting various businesses to understand the data construct and be comfortable in using it to their advantage.

“Once we are more settled with the acceptance of the data insights, we can establish metrics around rate of progression for the different categories of talent. However, I don’t believe there is any short-term metric; it will be based on the deployment of talent into more appropriate assignments and how effective these assignments are for their progression over the mid to longer term.”

During this journey to execution, Axiata has chosen to partner with a leadership development vendor, Accendo. Datin Badrunnisa lists the must-dos for any such partnership – experience and referrals in executing such projects for other trusted brands and a willingness to enter into a long-term partnership rather than treating it as a one-off exercise.

She provides advice for HR solution providers across the spectrum: “Vendors should try to work even more closely with organisations to understand more about their work culture, and how that translates to traits that would be most necessary for talent to perform.”

She says this will help to get rid of the “noise” and really focus on the few traits that are necessary for each talent to win in this particular organisation (as this would differ from other organisations). “This can sharpen the process of assessment and the insights derived from it.”

Holistic wellbeing for business continuity

Established in 2009, Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) is an agency under the Ministry of Health to facilitate the Malaysian healthcare industry’s penetration into the global market.

Part of MHTC’s management committee is Suriahni binti Abdul Hamid, chief operating officer, who affirms the agency’s people agenda is run consistently parallel to the needs of the wider organisation. This agenda includes clarity in strategy, translation of strategy to goals, framing the leadership and functional competence for leaders and individual contributors, just-in-time succession planning, tailored development interventions and fair distribution of rewards and recognition.

One of the most progressive initiatives as part of this organisational agenda is the development of a holistic programme targeted at overall wellbeing. Bringing together four components – physical fitness, mental agility, emotional intelligence and spirituality – the programme is executed via a calendar for all these activities.

Interestingly, what kick-started this programme was an organisational need for business continuity. “With a strong infrastructure (programmes and initiatives), coupled with a solid execution of peoples’ agendas, MHTC can deliver our promises to raise the profile of medical tourism in Malaysia,” Suriahni says.

Since then, several workshops and collaborative sessions have been held throughout the year; to name a few, stakeholder engagement workshops, people reviews, staff retreats, knowledge-sharing sessions, functional competencies training and cross-team projects. “Our experience has been challenging, yet fulfilling. We have developed our thinking capacity, our capabilities and our speed of delivery, making us agile and more effective in our quest for growth.”

Upskilling and strengthening our position at the same time, can sometimes lead us to lose focus. At times, we can be in an ‘organised chaos’ state.

On the challenges front, she cites them as multi-dimensional. In the backdrop of the current landscape of medical tourism, MHTC needs to grow its reach, deepen its skills and knowledge of the industry, and stay focused with the pace of change. “As such, our people need to constantly find new and better ways to manoeuvre in this space. Upskilling and strengthening our position at the same time, can sometimes lead us to lose focus. At times, we can be in an ‘organised chaos’ state.”

In its effort to mitigate this, a project management office has been created, both at the commercial and the organisational level, which tracks all programmes run. Th e dashboard is transparent to everyone, making it easy to identify gaps quickly and rectify. The people agenda is also linked to this dashboard.

Needless to say, the primary outcome of all these programmes has been the development of MHTC’s people, both leaders and individual contributors. “The wellbeing of our people allows for better retention of our good performers. Not only do we save the cost of hiring, we also continue to strengthen our performance culture year-on-year.”

From a wider organisation standpoint, she points out the growth of MHTC’s people gets amplified in shaping the industry, and growing revenue generated from healthcare travellers.

On the related topic of working with HR solution providers, she and the MHTC team typically prefer a blended approach of in-house and external expertise. “Reason being, as we encourage collaboration across teams, we bring our partners in-house to work with us to customise short and long-term programmes.”

However, in growing the capabilities of individual contributors, a specific development intervention may be needed, in which case outsourcing makes more sense. In such cases, the team looks for three things in HR vendors: expertise to promote cross-learning with in-house teams; willingness to grow with MHTC in becoming a learning organisation; and ease in doing business.

In her view, there is an urgent need for leadership development vendors across the region to develop industry-specific modular programmes that enable organisations more choices based on critical needs. In addition to this, with time being a key factor for a majority of employers, programmes that can be run over short periods and ones that bring about key insights from thought leaders can benefit organisations effectively.

Building top leadership during M&As

Th e Surbana Jurong (SJ) Group, an urban, industrial and infrastructure consultancy headquartered in Singapore, has been on an acquisition trail. This included its August 2016 purchase of SMEC, an Australian engineering firm, to undertake the design of the ambitious Snowy Mountain Hydroelectric Scheme, one of the largest and most complex hydroelectric schemes in the world.

A year later, SJ acquired Robert Bird, a Brisbane-based firm renowned for its expertise in complex structural, civil and construction engineering. The SJ Group has also made a number of smaller acquisitions.

With these transformative acquisitions, SJ now has 13,000 employees in 100 offices in more than 44 countries globally, and one of the leaders familiar with this journey is Daphne Lok, director of human resource, Southeast Asia, Surbana International Consultants (Malaysia).

She expands on the challenges faced: “In merger situations, risks of what some call ‘merger failure’ may occur. In an engineering and architectural consultancy, the risk that talent may literally walk out the door is by no means a small one. Without our technical and engineering experts, we would not have a viable business.”

Thus, very early on in the M&A, retention bonuses were offered to employees occupying key and niche positions. This not only helped stabilise the team, but also allowed time for knowledge transfer to take place while releasing the inevitable integration pressure.

Surbana Jurong was around 3,500-strong when it merged with SMEC, which at 4,000 was almost equal in size. Before the merger, Surbana Jurong had sizeable operations in Singapore, China and Southeast Asia, and the SMEC acquisition allowed SJ to expand its global footprint to Australia, South Asia and the Middle East (SAME), Africa and South America.

“We recognised that choices made around leadership succession are one very visible component of culture. Employees need strong symbolic assurances that change coming their way will be positive and not be unduly worried about their future.”

The SJ Group took conscious steps to ensure the key people that formed its top leadership were not just from SJ, but also from SMEC, KTP, AETOS, Sino-Sun and Robert Bird.

As a result, the SJ Group took conscious steps to quickly identify and ensure the key people that formed its top leadership were not just from SJ, but also from SMEC, KTP, AETOS, Sino-Sun and Robert Bird. Similarly, top management recognised strong brands had been acquired and their brand equity should be continued to be leveraged.

“In the same way, from a talent perspective, we respect and value each other for the diverse backgrounds and combined experiences.” As such, a priority was to articulate the corporate culture that is the DNA of the SJ Group. The team used a 360° tool called Life Styles Inventory by Human Synergystics, which helped business leaders hold a mirror up to assess their current and desired culture in leadership teams.

“The HR team, including myself, became accredited LSI facilitators, and we were able to facilitate culture workshops that helped our leaders understand the personal effect they had in creating a dominant culture of their own divisions. For a number of leaders, it was a wake-up call, as the 360° tool does not lie.”

What followed were one-on-one sessions with HR and their supervisors, whereby leaders developed culture change plans, which included role modelling change and initiating small, but tangible behavioural changes in their daily interactions.

“Our leaders are encouraged to be more visible, decisive and build trust to reduce internal competitive behaviours and develop more constructive and cohesive ways of working. In 2018, we continue to use this tool and run culture programmes at the next tier of mid-level managers.”

Additionally, the core values of the SJ Group were refreshed and rolled out at the start of 2018. In Lok’s belief, HR is the steward of these core values. “We recognise the SJ Group has grown to include many values-based organisations. As we continue to expand our footprint and evolve globally, it’s essential to adjust our core values to align with our growth strategy and culture.”

To conclude, she shares a quote from the chairman, Liew Mun Leong, who says: “The company must feel that it has a purpose beyond profit, and a soul to remind us to do the right thing. When the company has strong values, it will have a better chance of being a prosperous, purposeful and a lasting company.”