Leadership is key to success in a company’s HR and business transformation strategy. But, often, the absence of a robust leadership pipeline is one of the greatest challenges bedevilling any business seeking to grow and innovate. To succeed in the dynamic context of what we call the ‘Future of Work’, having the right vision to steer the ship forward while building the leaders of tomorrow will play a vital role in aligning the growth strategies with the company's purpose and the business goals. It is imperative to share and communicate this vision to emerging leaders who are next in line so that even in a period of rapid transformation and disruption, the business has a strong sense of clarity on the larger goals the business is striving to achieve, in order to make the necessary adjustments. So, this brings us to the critical question of what it takes to build leaders who can take on the demands and harness the opportunities of a dynamic business landscape for growth.
This brings us to the fourth episode of the Leaders on Innovation series brought to you by People Matters and Alight Solutions. Ester Martinez, CEO & Editor-in-Chief of People Matters, speaks with Say Hong Teo, Group Chief Officer, (Integration, Mergers & Acquisitions) of Surbana Jurong Group and Anirban Dass, VP, Professional Services at Alight Solutions, to explore how leaders can shape a successful digital and business transformation.
As an urban and infrastructure consulting firm, Surbana Jurong Group’s mission is “Building Cities, Shaping Lives”. Headquartered in Singapore, Surbana Jurong Group recognises the value of collaboration, with a talent pool of 16,000 across the firm and its nine (remove hyphen) member companies located in over 120 offices spanning more than 40 countries. Since its inception in 2015 with two brands, the Surbana Jurong Group has grown to 10 global brands through acquisitions, expanding its portfolio of expertise across the built environment value chain.
The company’s expertise in the infrastructure and urban development sector is in high demand as governments and developers ramp up vital projects post-pandemic. The group provides a full suite of multidisciplinary consultancy services across a diverse range of sectors that includes aviation, healthcare, hospitality, transport, water and environment, as well as energy and resources. Leadership is vital to steer collaborations and build teams in the right direction. The group engaged Alight - a leading cloud-based human capital technology and services provider - to help the company implement Workday, and this was the beginning of their partnership to champion innovation in today’s fast-moving business landscape.
Here are some excerpts from this interview.
My first question is for you, Hong. In light of the recent changes from the rapid automation and digital transformation to quiet quitting to even the economic slowdown that has reshaped how we work, interact, and collaborate with each other, how do you see the role of leaders evolving to ensure the business transformation is a success?
Say Hong: Firstly, we need to recognise that business transformation today rests on digital innovations. As much as organisations seek to harness more technology to enhance productivity, the human touch is still very important. People still need to meet and understand each other in person even though they are already collaborating virtually. Leaders need to create that balance between being virtually and physically present in a workplace with accelerated use of technologies. Simultaneously, to be inclusive, we must nurture a high level of comfort with digital tools and technologies across the entire workforce.
Secondly, as we empower our people to become digitally agile in this new phase of work, leaders must also address the challenges of building relationships virtually. They need to find ways to maximise opportunities for team-building, collaboration, and engagement in a virtual set-up, especially since the workforce is likely to be spread over different time zones and different locations. Keeping that sense of common purpose among our teams is very important.
In one of our earlier episodes, we spoke to Steven Yudiyantho, SVP, Human Capital Strategy, PT Bank Mandiri and explored how learning and development are pivotal to mitigating future threats. In your experience working with leaders across the board, Anirban, what have been the major innovations that leaders brought in ensure transformation leads to business growth?
Anirban: ‘Changing the wheels while you are still riding’ is what makes the leader of tomorrow. Transformation has to proceed with adaptability, agility and speed. A growth mindset among the leadership bench is highly vital. From my experience, some of the ways in which I have witnessed leaders champion innovation and change is, first, defining and articulating the future state they want to achieve with clarity. The vision and larger outcome must also be backed by purpose, and you need to get that complete buy-in from your team; they need to support and trust that ultimate outcome.
As we define our vision of how we will serve the customer, the second thing we need to consider is the value of inclusivity. Every business transformation needs to be backed by people transformation, and so it becomes fundamental to incorporate the voice of the employee in your growth journey and transformation plans. Thirdly, we need to celebrate all our wins along the way. The journey ahead may have its twists and turns, but a positive energy indeed makes a difference; leaders must continuously recognise the work put in by their people and keep their motivations and spirits high. Finally, every transformation journey needs to embrace ambiguity, especially in today’s business landscape. Leaders today must become the champion of communicating change and be a decisive force even if they are finding their way through the dark.
In the recent Alight State of HR Transformation Study, it was reported that the lack of a robust leadership pipeline is one of the biggest challenges in front of companies across Asia looking to grow rapidly. So what, according to you, should be the approach to training and building leaders of tomorrow to ensure companies have the right people at the helm of affairs?
Say Hong: Investing in a leadership pipeline should be one of the top priorities of businesses today, especially as attrition continues to be one of the biggest challenges businesses face. However, one must acknowledge that the type of leadership we will need differs from time to time and depends much on the business context, which is often very dynamic.
Usually, the leadership pipeline is built internally. But given that businesses are in a constant state of change, simply nurturing leaders from within might not be sufficient. Instead, businesses need to strategically build, buy and borrow the leaders of tomorrow.
By building leaders, we have to ensure that we give continuous growth and development opportunities to our leaders and that they empower themselves with skill sets that are cross-functional in nature. It’s vital to give them the room to stretch beyond what they are expected to handle. Simultaneously, they also need to be given opportunities to strengthen their muscle for decision-making. A mix of build, buy and borrow has become critical as a strategy for finding the right leaders. Therefore, businesses also need to have a constant presence in the wider talent pool and be on the lookout for champions of change and transformation who can make a difference to the workforce. Leadership-building demands a constant link to the broader market to explore novel strategies to find those innovative leaders.
Coming back to you, Anirban, how should leaders create the critical balance between investments in business transformation and ensuring they’re getting the right results?
Anirban: Balancing investments and delivering immediate outcomes continues to be a relentless source of pressure for leaders. There are three things that they can do to address this challenge and mitigate the pressures.
First is managing time. Outlining one’s day-to-day tasks is essential, but leaders also need to ensure that they avoid getting overwhelmed by last-minute responsibilities and maintain the integrity to the calendar. What they have prioritised must first get done. Secondly, managing personal stress. Balancing stress is known to lead to better outcomes and output for leaders. It is imperative that they tackle the stress of solving challenges in the transformation journey without getting burnt out and without it affecting their daily routine and collaboration opportunities. This is where having the right culture comes to play a critical role.
Finally, leaders need to boost their rank-and-file morale. They need to encourage their people to stay upbeat and energetic continuously. As Say Hong said, encouraging people to go beyond the journey and showing the larger picture, motivating them to believe in the larger learning involved beyond performing their JD, is essential.
What would be your advice as we enter 2023 for business leaders aiming to boost their performance and productivity along with building a people-first culture in a rapidly evolving business environment?
Say Hong: We’re living in a rapidly changing world. Looking back at the time when the company went through a whole strategic planning session, many of the scenarios that we had planned for at the beginning of that exercise have indeed changed. So, correspondingly, there is a need for organisational change to empower our leaders and our teams to better adapt to new environments in our business. Today, your cheese is continuously moving around, and you must hunt for new cheeses.
While leaders need to outline goals and plans, it is more important that they have the ability to feel the market, especially when some of the markets may suddenly become unavailable in today’s dynamic business landscape. As a result, organisations need a lot more forward-thinking indicators, rather than lagging indicators, to help them design their growth strategies to help them adapt faster to the evolving landscape.
Also, lifelong learning among the workforce will help them to stay relevant and competitive. These days, the first 15 years of school life for an individual do not necessarily prepare him or her to succeed in the next 50 years outside of school, because the skills they have learnt may not be relevant for the next 10 (remove hyphen) to15 years of their working life. As a result, leaders need to foster a culture of learning where their people are adaptable and have the mindset to continuously learn, pick up new skills, explore and enter new markets.
Finally, reward structures that align with the interests of the workforce need to be implemented to recognise their efforts and contributions during good times. And when in bad times, leaders need to lead by example. When they walk the talk, they inspire others to follow in their actions to build a positive work culture. In this way, they show their people that they’re together with them through thick and thin, united in a common goal to rise above the challenging environment in a transformation journey to build a better future.
Anirban: Following up on what Say Hong has already said, leading by example is the one thing I strongly believe in. Leaders have to be the change they want to see; they need to be strong advocates for change even within themselves because, at the end of the day, that is what strengthens culture and fuels transformation.