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Setting the bar high

Staying ahead of the curve, benchmarking against global practices and building star teams are the key strategies of Singtel's Chua Sock Koong, winner of the Best CEO Award (Large-Cap).

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Ms Chua says a good leader is one who can see what his players can become, rather than what they are.

JUST like how it takes a whole village to raise a child, it takes an entire diversified team to be able to work together to push the management boundaries and reach for the stars. This rings true if one looks at the example of Singapore's largest telco Singtel.

Its group chief executive Chua Sock Koong, also one of Asia's most powerful corporate personalities, is acutely aware that "the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts", which explains her emphasis on building star teams and not star players.

The trained accountant and chartered financial analyst who worked her way up from treasurer in 1989 to CFO in 1999 and eventually group CEO in April 2007 is a firm believer that managers can only be as good as the teams they have. This, she says, is especially vital in the complex and fast-changing nature of the telecommunications world today. Naturally, teamwork and collaboration are key features of her management style. As a leader, the 59-year-old singles out perseverance, tenacity and the ability to stay nimble as key attributes that have helped her stay relevant.

"The telco industry is no walk in the park, having moved at an ever increasing speed from 2G to the current 4G cycle. As we stand on the cusp of 5G and ideate all kinds of exciting applications for that new reality, I feel grateful for having had the opportunity to navigate such a challenging landscape."

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In the group's international business, she has also learnt to engage Singtel's partners and work with them in culturally sensitive ways to build trust and forge strong long-term partnerships. "I've also learnt that we have to agree to disagree sometimes," she says matter-of-factly.

One thing that bugs her though, is how to speed up the way people are wired to push for breakthroughs - an area within the company she believes can improve further.

SENSE OF URGENCY

"It's important to innovate and invest smartly in businesses and in talent so that we stay relevant. That said, getting into the digital business was a lot more difficult than we expected. Cultural mindsets in a former traditional telco like ours are starkly different from those you find in startups where there's a greater sense of urgency and people are wired to push for breakthroughs or risk crashing out. This is something we're still trying to instil in order to better attract and retain digital talent."

The other takeaway from her experience is to not be paralysed in decision making as that may mean the group risks missing out on opportunities. "In some matters, timing is everything. We've got to build that acumen to know when to take certain crucial decisions," she explains.

Ms Chua is a big believer in mentoring - something she holds dear due to "the good fortune of meeting many good mentors".

On the topic of succession planning, she says no CEO should overstay his relevance as the key responsibility of a leader is to proactively prepare for succession. Given the group's global aspirations, strength and experience of the existing management, as well as new leadership talent are the foundation to driving the telco's next phase of growth.

Over at Singtel, recruitment is global and international experience is a must for senior leaders. Besides the internal talent review process, Ms Chua says the ability to offer defined career paths and a clear future with the group helps it to recruit and retain better people.

Even as she stresses the importance of team work, Ms Chua acknowledges that it is equally important to stay open to new ideas, thus, the importance of having people on her team who challenge ideas. "Most people are inclined to rest on their laurels, particularly if they've experienced success. Either that or the rationalisation that if something isn't broke, then why fix it? Thing is, past success might not necessarily see you into the future, particularly given the speed of technological change," Ms Chua says. This is why Singtel ventured overseas way before the local market was opened up to competition.

"Similarly, five years ago, we embarked on a company-wide digital transformation as the shift from voice to data accelerated. Today, we are growing new businesses we never thought we'd be in, businesses such as digital advertising and cybersecurity. If others are threatening to eat your lunch, we'd better wake up and go not just on the defensive but the offensive."

In Ms Chua's view, the hallmark of a good leader is like being a good coach who can communicate openly, articulate visions clearly and inspire the team to work together to bring about extraordinary outcomes.

"A good leader is also someone who can see what his players can become, rather than what they are. This is never an easy task. It requires the ability to understand how each person functions, to determine their strengths and weaknesses, and to bring out the best in them," she shares.

These qualities have helped Ms Chua stay ahead of the curve and go on to bag the Best CEO of a company with a market cap of S$1 billion and above in the Singapore Corporate Awards (SCA) this year. In 2006 - the first year of the awards - she also snagged the Best Chief Financial Officer Award while with Singtel.

CORPORATE GOVERNANCE

At the group level, the telco is also no stranger to excelling in corporate governance having won awards a total of nine times in various categories such as best managed board, best investor relations and best CFOs since the inaugural SCA. For 2017, the telco was awarded the Special Recognition Award.

Observers have pointed out that the group has, in many areas, exceeded the guidelines in the corporate governance code, which is no mean feat for a massive organisation like Singtel. On this, Ms Chua credits the company's long-term view on corporate governance to ensure the business' success and value creation for shareholders.

"We do not just comply with the rules and guidelines laid down in the Companies Act, Singapore Exchange Listing Manual and Singapore Code of Corporate Governance 2012, but constantly seek to benchmark ourselves against global best practices." Among those Singtel has adopted ahead of many companies are implementing an effective whistle-blower programme, appointing a lead independent director, constituting a board risk committee and conducting annual evaluations of the board with the assistance of an external facilitator.

Keenly aware that strict compliance may mean high costs, Ms Chua says it is essential to "steer us to do the right things in both good and bad times".   The tricky part for Singtel is to strike a balance between setting the right tone for the entire group and oversight of group entities, without over-reaching into the management of these entities, especially partly owned subsidiaries, associates such as SingPost, and joint ventures.  When asked, Ms Chua says her team works with group entities within a structured governance framework.

On the topic of gender diversity, Ms Chua notes that there is definitely room for higher female representation on the boards of Singapore companies without having to resort to setting quotas. But more important is board diversity which provides a greater number of perspectives and approaches to issues, in turn generating robust conversations and better outcomes.

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