Leading the pack through tough times

Leading the pack through tough times
PHOTO: The Business Times

What does it take to be a good boss in bad times?

How are you, as a business leader and employer, helping your staff ride the downturn ?

Paul Lim

  • Chief Executive Officer
  • Secura Group Limited

Being R.E.A.L - that is what I will focus on in any downturn.

As business activity slows down, it is the best time to Retrain staff to take on new skills, improve on existing ones, or for personal improvement.

This is often impossible during business booms as there will be too little slack.

Secondly, this is a good opportunity to cut down on discretionary Expenses as well as wastages.

Thirdly, I will embark on large Automation projects using the spare experienced human capital to enhance the company's productivity in preparation for an upturn.

And the last and most important of all is to show Love to all employees in the way every action is executed.

The personal touch is the most important in challenging times.

As the boss, spending time to meet and chat with each employee goes a long way towards helping them know that the company is with them in going through this rough patch.

Walk more.

Listen more.

These seemingly insurmountable and expensive practices are only possible with the typically generous government grants during such periods.

Both employees and the company will emerge much stronger after the downturn.

David Emery

  • Chairman
  • Reciprocus International

In challenging times like these it's all about finding the right balance between loyalty and economical sustainability.

Before implementing any drastic measures, the team deserves to get full transparency about the company's situation and should be closely involved in the process of identifying new opportunities of revenue generation and addressing the profitability gaps.

As a result of this enrolment, everyone who is willing to engage will become an "owner" of the problem and committed to the implementation of the identified actions, even if those include some tough decisions.

As they say: "In good times and in bad times"...

Kenneth Worsdale

  • Chief Executive Officer
  • Extra Space Asia Group of Companies

In times like these, a good boss has to be able to sustain morale while making practical cost-cutting measures.

To compensate for the lower increment this year, we have instituted more flexible working hours to improve the work-life balance of our staff.

We have restructured compensation packages to include team-based performance bonuses to encourage more effective teamwork which would then improve the company's overall performance.

To enable employees to move from the "me" to the "us" way of thinking, we believe in encouraging open communication with the suggestions of every employee being valued equally.

John Bittleston

  • Founder & Chair
  • Terrific Mentors International Pte Ltd

Bosses are servants.

Good bosses are thoughtful, skilful servants.

That means engaging with their employees, learning what their fears and hopes are.

Clever bosses ask questions.

In tough times, they ask more questions, spending time with employees, learning about their problems, and explaining the difficulties of the business.

A good boss gets employees to think creatively, helping them ride the storm.

The employee who thinks s/he is a vital part of the business will contribute and stay.

And help the business succeed.

Max Loh

  • Managing Partner, ASEAN and Singapore
  • Ernst & Young LLP

Arguably, great leaders emerge during tough times.

These leaders are invariably bold, responsible, transparent and inclusive.

They help their people understand the hard truths and yet are honest about and empathetic to employee concerns.

Employees cannot be seen as "the problem", but a "partner" to finding the solutions to address business downturns.

At EY, our value proposition of building high-performing teams to deliver exceptional client service remains strategic; accordingly, we are committed to affording our employees training and development experiences and opportunities - whether in good or bad times.

Ultimately, employee empowerment and trust is a company's most valuable asset that is fundamental to long-term engagement and performance, and which enables our people to achieve their potential.

Terry O'Connor

  • Group CEO
  • Courts Asia

Leadership by example and being people-centric are key principles that guide my leadership philosophy - in good times and bad.

In the past, before we implemented a company-wide pay cut, the senior management took the lead.

The company's collective interests and preserving our employees' livelihoods have always been our priority, and we have previously chosen to mandate unpaid leave for our middle to top management over cutting jobs in order to weather the tough times.

Our employees realised that everyone was in it together, and we steered through with minimal manpower losses.

Our talent strategy is underpinned by consistently open communication lines between management and staff across levels and functions, allowing us to prioritise internally and implement job enhancement and team restructuring initiatives with speed.

As retail evolves, Courts sees the need to future-proof our employees' jobs by cultivating our people to develop multiple competencies.

A sound focus on our people has proven to be the best strategy to survive in tough times, and shows in the numbers - one of the lowest attrition rates in the industry, at 1.7 per cent, half of the industry average.

Judy Hsu

  • CEO
  • Standard Chartered, Singapore

Regardless of where we are in the business cycle, employers have to support the continuous development of their people.

Especially now when the world is rapidly changing, with new jobs being created and some old jobs becoming obsolete, this support is even more crucial.

Equally important, employees have to take ownership and invest time in their personal development.

We focus a lot on people development, helping them to grow and adapt to reach their full potential.

Last year, we set aside S$2 million to launch our Skillsfuture@sc programme designed to offer training on skills and expertise that are relevant to the evolving financial services landscape.

This is one of a number of people initiatives we have in place to create a supportive workplace.

No business is successful without its people.

Singapore is a great place because of its people.

I am confident that we will support each other and take on what the future may bring.

Cheng Heng Chew

  • Singapore Country Manager
  • American Express

The key to being a good boss, particularly in tough times, is timely and honest communication.

Any lack of information is unsettling, erodes morale and leads to the rumour mill starting.

It is important that your people are well-informed about the threats and opportunities that a downturn brings to the business and more importantly, that they know how you're taking steps to manage things.

There are a number of ways to do this well - through email or other internal communications updates; through all-employee meetings, or face-to-face meetings with individuals or small groups.

In addition, you have to continue to reward and recognise good work to keep your staff motivated and engaged.

It's important not to lose sight of the company's key asset - its people.

Rosalynn Tay

  • CEO
  • Dentsu Aegis Network Singapore and Dentsu Singapore

Responsibility, agility and a collaborative spirit are key to ensuring steadfastness amidst uncertainty.

Focus on the long-term vision of the company and use it as a pull towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

At Dentsu Aegis Network, talent sits at the heart of our company and we recognise our people as our best resource.

Through our robust learning and development programmes, we ensure our people stay relevant and ahead of the crowd, supporting our vision for innovating the way brands are built and confidently riding out the wave of uncertainty.

Matthieu Imbert-Bouchard

  • Managing Director, Singapore
  • Robert Half

During tough times, managers need to decide on a strategy to overcome business challenges, together with their team, and clearly communicate what the company expects so that staff are accountable for the success of the strategy that they have set together.

Good bosses shine when they communicate clearly with their staff, and establish a sense of trust within the workplace.

Managers should be empathetic and honest in their feedback to their employees, and allow them to take on important projects without micromanaging - whilst also setting achievable standards and leading by example.

Bob White

  • President, APAC
  • Medtronic

Leadership in challenging times requires a leader to be "more" - defining reality more crisply, providing direction in more detail, and inspiring resiliency more consistently.

At Medtronic, our leaders focus our teams on working towards a common goal through a culture of behaviours that we call Leadership Expectations: Shape, Engage, Innovate and Achieve.

Each of these Expectations helps us reinforce personal connections to drive engagement internally while driving business results externally.

Most importantly, as a healthcare company, our mission to alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life sustains us through ups and downs.

We know what we need to do and why it's important.

Wong Heng Chew

  • Country President
  • Fujitsu Singapore

The key focus for a good leader should be to always have open and ongoing engagement with employees, regardless of the business situation.

This builds confidence amongst the employees in their business leaders. In case of a downturn, employees can trust their leaders to make the right decisions which provide stability and lay the foundation for growth.

I believe in a shared vision with my employees to prepare us during good times to remain agile and evolve during a downturn to meet changing market and customer demands.

We should not make changes only in reaction to downturns.

Karl Hamann

  • Chief Executive Officer
  • QBE Insurance (Singapore) Pte Ltd

TRUE leadership is put to the test when times are trying.

It is these times when people look to see what their corporate leaders can bring to the organisation.

I am a strong practitioner of compassion and leading by example.

My staff's well-being is tantamount to our business health.

People are our assets and they bring life to the organisation.

During these difficult times, we intensify our training programmes and staff engagement initiatives to help staff morale and better prepare ourselves for the market upturn.

I believe true leadership will withstand the test of time - the good and the bad.

George Chang

  • VP, Asia Pacific
  • Fortinet

Bucking the broader trend, we are continuing to grow above the industry benchmark.

This may be due to the nature of our business - in economically troubling times, cybercriminals don't stop their hacking activities, and the need for enterprises and individuals to protect themselves remains high.

The general gloom around us, however, gives me the opportunity to remind staff that they should take nothing for granted.

The virtues of self-reliance, hard work and persistence remain relevant.

They should also remember the government's call to be in lifelong learning mode − keep abreast of industry developments, constantly upskill, and plan for the long term.

For my senior business managers, I have an additional mandate − build your business to weather the good and bad times, look for synergies, and find new markets for growth.

Invest now, so that we can ride the upturn when it arrives.

Derek MacKenzie

  • Managing Director
  • designphase dba

In the face of economic uncertainties, business leaders need to keep in mind that being a valued employer goes beyond cost management.

After all, motivated employees are more productive.

At designphase dba, the slow economy was a great opportunity for us to focus our energies internally.

We advocated for better employee worklife fit with reward systems, and went through an overhaul of our workspace for a more conducive environment.

We believe such investments would go a long way in ensuring that our employees remain happy and healthy as we tackle more challenges together as a company.

Tan Mui Huat

  • President and CEO, Asia
  • International SOS

The fundamentals of any successful relationship, be it professional or personal, are two-way communication, loyalty, trust and support.

Be it during good or bad times, bosses have to communicate honestly, help their employees adjust and adapt to the times, and demonstrate positivity and confidence in their leadership approach.

When employees are invested and engaged from the get-go, the likelihood of them feeling valued, motivated and secure even during the toughest of times becomes much higher.

Employees expect us as management to provide honest answers and clear direction instead of false promises and unexpected outcomes.

It is what differentiates leaders from managers.

Jessie Xia

  • Managing Director, Singapore
  • ThoughtWorks

In an uncertain economic climate, it becomes more crucial for business leaders to have an overall long-term perspective and focus on building a sustainable business model.

As a global technology consultancy, ThoughtWorks believes it is critical for businesses to upskill and cross-skill employees, particularly in innovation-driven sectors, as human capital will continue to remain a company's biggest asset.

Employers should invest in staff development and build capabilities to help staff become more efficient, productive and adaptable.

In the long run, this helps retain top talent and drives sustained organisational growth by ensuring the firm stays competitive even during a downturn.

Tan Peck Ling

  • Country Director
  • USG Boral Singapore

While an economic slowdown presents a myriad of challenges, it is pertinent for good leaders to recognise the opportunities during bad times and capitalise on them.

Besides managing costs prudently and consistently, a far-sighted employer should focus on what the company does best in order to reinforce the core business, which will put the business in a favourable position to accelerate when the markets improve.

It is also important to recognise that the core of the business includes its people.

Investing in upgrading existing workers' skillsets and capabilities during an economic slowdown is key to our company as we prepare for economic recovery.

Dileep Nair

  • Independent Director
  • Keppel DC Reit Management

Good management practices should remain the same, regardless of the times.

Honesty and integrity stand out as uppermost.

In difficult times, one should continue to be open and forthright with staff as well as other stakeholders, explaining the problems faced and the steps being taken.

Another is to be frugal with all expenses, spending only on things that matter.

However, rather than retrenchment, an all-round wage cut should be considered, with management and even the board setting an example of the belt-tightening needed.

Finally, management should imbue staff with a sense of preparedness so that when the economy turns, as it must, the company is well positioned to ride the next wave.

Daniel Hua

  • Senior Vice-President & GM (APAC)
  • Juniper Networks

Macro-level economic uncertainty might be unavoidable, but not the implementation of long-term strategic decisions to weather these downturns.

At Juniper, we have focused on putting in place the right leadership, while also providing our teams with the motivation, resources and ownership required for success.

By pairing this emphasis of an empowering internal culture alongside an astute understanding of the market, we have successfully overseen a turnaround towards two consecutive years of expansion and growth in APAC, with the continued long-term development of our employees right alongside us.

Robin C Lee

  • Group COO
  • Bok Seng Group

A good boss proactively engages and communicates with his/her staff to keep them engaged and involved in the company's business performance as well as challenges.

This is even more important in troubled times where market uncertainties and negative news can trigger heaps of stress and anxiety among staff that can adversely impact morale and productivity.

Hence, it is always sensible to be upfront and keep everyone in the loop of the difficulties faced, and sometimes you will be pleasantly surprised what positive ideas and actions your colleagues can bring to the table to enhance the business.

Toby Koh

  • Group Managing Director
  • Ademco Security Group

Ademco has retained our team through the good times and bad.

Over the last 30 years, we have weathered many economic downturns without any retrenchment or even a salary cut.

Our team knows they have job security in Ademco.

It is a team effort and all staffers understand their part to play in ensuring that our business model is resilient even in the most trying economic conditions.

Across the seven countries that we operate in, the entire team works together to help the Group even when some offices may have a challenged year.

This is my personal responsibility as the owner to my team and my partners.

Andrew Calvert

  • Managing Director, APAC
  • AchieveForum

When times get tough, the job of a leader is to bring employees through the process of denial, or anger, as quickly as possible.

The most effective leaders are transparent and give a clear view of the future, rather than focus on the past.

They articulate organisational goals and highlight how their responsibilities add to the firm's success.

They also encourage an open channel of communication.

This is one of the fundamental mechanics of coaching, and should be done one-on-one.

Tough times will always ensue, so you need to future-proof your workforce through constant engagement and training, and leadership skills, too.


This article was first published on February 13, 2017.
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