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Leading the charge

The winners of the Best CEO category at this year's Singapore Corporate Awards share their insights

"CEOs need to be able to attract and retain top talent and create the space and resources for that talent to run fast. They also need to balance the interests of many stakeholders at the same time." - Mr Hungate.

"It is crucial that a CEO leverages on a trusted senior leadership team ... and also be nimble enough to adjust and switch course when circumstances change along the way." - Mr Teo.

"As CEO, I hope my passion for helping our people to develop their potential and my love for building value for stakeholders will help to inspire everyone to keep learning and growing." - Mr Borch.


Alexander Hungate, president and CEO, SATS

Melvin Teo, group CEO, Yeo Hiap Seng

Christopher R Borch, CEO, Micro-Mechanics Holdings

Moderator: Nisha Ramchandani, The Business Times

Q: How have leadership roles changed over the years? What is required of a CEO today that may not have been necessary in the past?

Mr Hungate: Above all, companies today have to be agile in order to navigate markets that are changing more rapidly than ever before. CEOs need to be able to attract and retain top talent and create the space and resources for that talent to run fast. They also need to balance the interests of many stakeholders at the same time.

In the past, leadership focus was on management and business administration, directing what people do and how they do it. This was based on the assumption that the best decisions are made by those at the top with access to centralised information flows. Today, information is ubiquitous, with successful companies constantly harvesting data from their customers and their operations.

In the future, as the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to make better decisions, faster, is realised, the imperative for decentralisation of decision-making will grow even stronger.

Talented individuals can work wherever they choose: they can move between companies, between industries and across continents. They are not handcuffed by defined benefit pension schemes. So, leaders today must build an environment where talent can be successful in all of those dimensions. This responsibility is what, at SATS, we call 'servant leadership', leading by helping our people to be successful: in execution of our strategy, in their careers, even in their personal lives sometimes too.

With this in mind, I spend a lot of my time getting to know people from all parts of our company, hearing about their ideas and aspirations directly and understanding what I can do to remove any hidden barriers that might be holding them back.

I look for every opportunity to communicate a clear, inspiring vision of our company's future, so that everyone can understand what role they can play to help us achieve it.

Leaders need to balance the interests of many stakeholders simultaneously. Talented individuals are only one set of stakeholders. Customers must always be the most important stakeholders, because without them there can be no business. It is true that investors remain key stakeholders for every company, but their needs are relatively straightforward compared to the myriad other stakeholders, from partners to regulators, governments, NGOs and our local, regional and global communities. It takes time and effort to engage with so many stakeholders, but this engagement can be a source of great satisfaction, if approached with sincerity and openness.

Mr Teo: Important leadership fundamentals will always remain relevant and unchanged: clear vision, effective communication, commitment, and above all, integrity. However, with rapid technological/digital advancements, the volume and speed of data availability have increased exponentially. At the same time, the mindset and thinking of the millennial generation also differ vastly from the generations before.

These factors have transformed leadership roles from the more familiar traditional autocratic style to a more inclusive, consultative and influencing one. As the business and economic environment within which we operate today is complex with many inter-linking factors that could impact the outcome of any one management decision, it is crucial that a CEO leverages on a trusted senior leadership team within the organisation in order to ensure that all relevant factors have been taken into consideration and also be nimble enough to adjust and switch course when circumstances change along the way.

Working together with the millennial generation requires a CEO to reach out to them, allow their voices to be heard, engage them and most importantly make them feel that their views/opinions are respected and will make a difference to the organisation.

Mr Borch: Having vision and an effective decision-making framework are more important than ever. Markets and technology are changing with increasing rapidity. Although no one has a crystal ball, a CEO must have some ability to peer into the future, especially when it comes to how customer needs are likely to evolve. He or she also must have a solid grasp of the technical and other key details that make good strategy and execution. If vision and strategy are wrong, it's hard to expect positive results.

Q: As CEO, how do you ensure that your company operates in line with Singapore's corporate governance standards?

Mr Hungate: We have implemented procedures, systems and training programmes that are designed to meet Singapore's clear, thorough corporate governance standards. However, these measures alone will never be enough to ensure compliance. It is leadership, starting with commitment from the board of directors, who will determine the success of any compliance effort, because it is the values that stand behind the rules and procedures that our people will refer back to when they are making difficult decisions. The constant, visible commitment to these values of the entire board and leadership is the bedrock of compliance and ethical behaviour by the company and its people.

Multinationals, like SATS, operate across many jurisdictions, spanning a patchwork of sometimes contradictory corporate governance standards. Although, in Singapore, we are fortunate to have institutions like SGX (Singapore Exchange), MAS (Monetary Authority of Singapore), and SID (Singapore Institute of Directors) to help us to stay at the leading edge of these changes, it is a complex and demanding task to keep up with changes in standards across the world, as they constantly change to reflect changes in the environment and society.

To add to the complexity, leadership must now find a way to anticipate future changes in standards, in the expectation that today's actions may be judged by those future standards, at some point in the future.

While no one can know for sure what future standards will be, everyone should have the ability to put themselves in the shoes of customers or other stakeholders in the community to think about how they themselves would feel if they were treated in a particular way. This surely must be the acid test for any standards of governance and ethics.

Mr Teo: We have crafted policies in line with Singapore's corporate governance standards which are vetted and approved by our board of directors. The approved policies are supplemented with operating procedures which are then disseminated to colleagues within the company. If needed, we conduct sessions with our colleagues to ensure that they understand what's required of them and that they will comply with them. The policies and procedures are updated as required and reminders sent as needed.

We have a risk management function, internal auditors and external auditors that assist us collectively in monitoring and ensuring that the policies and procedures are maintained, with lapses (if any) reported to the board audit and risk committee and appropriate remedial actions taken promptly. We also have an escalation procedure in place so that our colleagues will know how to identify significant occurrences that would require prompt escalation to the leadership team and/or myself and/or the board's attention.

The world is complex and evolving and we have operations in many countries worldwide. We need the help and support of every colleague to ensure that we operate and comply with Singapore's corporate governance standards.

Mr Borch: The spirit of good governance is honesty, integrity and fair-dealing with all the company's stakeholders. Through employee training, consistent policies and strong board oversight that includes financial and operational audits conducted by outside consultants and a well-communicated whistleblowing policy, we hope to foster a culture that enables everyone at Micro-Mechanics to make decisions and act in accordance with our purpose and values.

Our CFO has worked tirelessly with our chairman, board and investor relations firm to implement the letter of good governance with sound structures, processes and reporting. I hope everyone at Micro-Mechanics grows to appreciate that good governance is not a tedious compliance task, but an indispensable methodology for building and safeguarding stakeholder value.

Q: Many industries today are facing disruption from technology or new business models. How are you positioning your company to tackle disruption?

Mr Hungate: We encourage our people to challenge the status quo. We take a technology-driven, people-led approach, meaning that we want everyone across the organisation to innovate new ways of working themselves, using new technology and new processes to better serve our customers. We go out of our way to recognise and reward innovation and risk-taking.

Plus, we invest in learning and development so that our people can grow their skills, their compensation, and their careers with SATS over time, without feeling threatened by new technology or by change.

Mr Teo: Apart from monitoring closely industry trends and what our competitors are doing in the various markets within which we operate and being nimble enough to capture spotted business opportunities, a lot is dependent on changing the mindsets of our colleagues so that they are ready to identify and embrace these disruptive forces.

We try to do this by encouraging them to think outside of the box and to make such recommendations for the company's consideration, highlighting some examples of these which have happened in the marketplace so that they would know what are some examples of such disruptive forces and lastly, permitting a sandbox approach to try out some of the shortlisted ideas.

In addition to these internal measures, we have also engaged strategy consultants to help us identify some of these disruptive opportunities and how best we can capitalise them.

While we currently do not have an incubator concept like that in the fintech space, we are constantly on the lookout for companies with new business models which may be relevant to us and then explore opportunities to work alongside them.

Mr Borch: Disruption can happen when a new entrant does a better job, not just by meeting existing customer needs, but in anticipating future needs.

More recently, we've also seen how fast-moving social issues can roil a company.

The only way to avoid being disrupted is to be constantly scanning and thinking about actions, new technology or other issues that could disrupt a company's progress. It is also essential to have the willingness and ability to change and not be held back by legacy decisions and investments.

We are working hard to foster this mindset and create structures that encourage innovation and continuous improvement in everything we do.

Q: How would you describe your management style?

Mr Hungate: My management style is people-centric, because I believe that engaged, motivated people create exponentially more value for customers, the company and our community.

I try to be true to myself and my personal values at all times. Just like everybody else, I want to feel proud of what I do by knowing that I am contributing in a meaningful way.

Finally, I would say that I am outcome-oriented. I spend my time on what really matters, our customers, our people, our communities and our shared, long-term strategic imperatives, doing my best not to get distracted by other things.

Mr Teo: I encourage colleagues at all levels to approach me with issues they face and which they have difficulty to resolve. I walk around the company frequently to make myself accessible to them as well as to observe first-hand how they handle their work tasks.

When issues surface, I will engage my colleagues and their supervisors/managers to collectively look at how to resolve them. This assures the supervisors/managers that their direct reports are not by-passing them by approaching me directly.

I adopt an open and hands-on management approach. When issues are discussed, I encourage relevant stakeholders to contribute their views/opinions and after listening to them, I make the decision.

There is, therefore, a consultative and inclusive phase but then it is followed by a decision, as otherwise things will not be able to move forward.

Notwithstanding this, there could be instances whereby the decision is not the correct one because facts were not complete at the time the decision was made, but then the responsibility of the wrong decision rests with me.

Being accountable and responsible for the decisions taken in the company is one of the hallmarks of my management style.

Mr Borch: I love working with our amazing team and striving to create meaningful value for our customers and other stakeholders.

As CEO, I hope my passion for helping our people to develop their potential and my love for building value for stakeholders will help to inspire everyone to keep learning and growing.

I see management as a process not unlike manufacturing where good outcomes are the result of good processes. This process-oriented approach helps to depersonalise problem-solving, which usually allows us to find the root cause that is needed to be fixed more quickly.

At times, I can be tough and demanding, but I also know that difficult issues can take time to resolve and require patience and understanding.

Q: Can you share an example of a crisis that you've had to weather in your role as CEO?  How did you steer the company through this?

 Mr Hungate: Traditionally, the business of providing food solutions and gateway services has been people-intensive. Naturally, those people expect to be paid more as they become more experienced and skilled and as they themselves face higher costs of living. The crisis in performance began as the revenue per person started falling in 2010, reducing margins and threatening the company's ability to invest in capabilities for the future.

Our approach to this crisis was people-centric and open. We told our people the truth about our situation, and asked them to help us to change the trajectory by contributing ideas that would improve productivity and help us to grow. We invested in their ideas, building new capabilities in technology, data management, and digital customer journey management.

At the same time, we simplified the business, selling off non-core businesses, like a fishery in Australia, and created partnerships to strengthen underperforming businesses.

As a result, the engagement levels of our people are some of the highest in Asia, we have become known as an innovator in our industry, with airlines and food companies across the world interested in partnering with us, and our financial results have grown stronger and stronger.

Mr Teo: Shortly after coming on-board, the company lost a major agency brand that it has been handling and this had an impact on its business performance. Fortunately, we had earlier carried out extensive work to tee up several new business initiatives and these were then quickly put into execution. All these new initiatives required all departments within the company to work seamlessly as a team to pull things together and many colleagues worked over time selflessly to ensure clockwork completion of the critical tasks within a very short time.

Although we lost that one major agency brand, today, we have emerged more resilient than ever with a stronger and more diversified portfolio of products that enables us to cushion business downturns and/or dependency on any one agency brand much better than before.

The incident reminds us the importance of having contingency plans, the ability to steer/galvanise colleagues to collaborate with each other as one voice and, above all, the can-do team spirit to overcome adversity.

Mr Borch: During difficult and intense periods, it's easy to get distracted by emotions or other false signals. Since we only have so much energy, I try to narrow my focus to the accomplishments that will matter most over the long term. About seven years ago, we started a major development and engineering initiative aimed at creating a highly efficient and round-the-clock manufacturing system we dubbed '24/7 Machining'.

Although the project turned out to be a bigger, more expensive and challenging undertaking than initially envisioned, I never doubted the value of what we were working to accomplish or the capability of our people to do great things.

Through it all, we learned some invaluable lessons about persistence and teamwork, and gained a deep appreciation for something the great inventor Thomas Edison said: "The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and common sense."

Q: What is your long-term vision for your company?

Mr Hungate: Growth in urbanisation in Asia is fuelling demand for air travel, for safe, high-quality food, and for e-commerce. We have a vision to meet this demand by building platforms that will help us to feed and connect Asia.

Thanks to our reputation for service quality and innovation, we have been able to grow our footprint of operations to over 60 cities in 14 countries. There is no doubt that this reputation is enhanced by our longstanding partnerships with SIA (Singapore Airlines) and Changi Airport, so these partnerships remain the most proactive in terms of investment and innovation.

As we expand the number of cities that we serve, we are also investing to build platforms that create value for our customers across those locations. These platforms will allow us to serve customers better than our competitors: by enabling faster, traceable delivery of air cargo to support e-commerce growth; providing a more seamless passenger experience to support aviation growth; and by creating a competitive edge in supply chain and culinary technology to provide the best food solutions for our catering customers across Asia.

Mr Teo: To bring happiness to consumers by delivering consistently good tasting, innovative, quality and safe food and beverage products of an authentic South-east Asian taste and at fair price.

Mr Borch: At Micro-Mechanics, we are fond of saying that 'People Make Everything Happen'. As every person at Micro-Mechanics improves the effectiveness of his or her decisions and actions, the company will inevitably see better and better results.

To this end, my vision is to help everyone at Micro-Mechanics reach their full potential. It's a big and idealistic goal, but as the saying goes: "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars!"

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