Desmond Kuek, president and CEO of transport operator SMRT Corp, spent over three decades in the military and public sector before joining the private sector in 2012. His past four years at SMRT have been tumultuous as he battled negative public sentiment and weak employee morale.
At the recent Orchestrating Winning Performance programme organised by the Swiss-based IMD Business School, Kuek shared some insights gleaned from crisis management. These are his five tenets of leadership:
Put staff first and central to your mission In the face of competing interests, companies often face difficulty deciding which stakeholder group to prioritise. But Kuek has no qualms about where his priorities lie. “Of course all [stakeholders] are important, but if I had to start with one, it would be our [employees] — all 10,000 of them that I have to straighten out, and get right and motivated and inspired to do better,” Kuek says. “Before that can happen, there can be no satisfying of the customers and shareholders.”
Be sensitive to cultural nuances In 2012, a group of bus drivers from the People’s Republic of China staged Singapore’s first industrial strike in 26 years. Kuek says their discontent stemmed from a human resources directive on year-end bonuses. In it, the HR department had written “excludes PRC [service leaders]” to indicate that short-term contract workers would not be entitled to a salary increase or incentive. “But to the PRC drivers, it was culturally insensitive and reminded them of the days of persecution by the Japanese in the 1930s and ’40s.” Kuek eventually defused the situation by addressing the workers in Mandarin during a special town hall meeting. He also paid a visit to their dormitories, a symbolic gesture that demonstrated the readiness of the CEO to go down to their level and engage with them.
Use culture as a weapon for change When Kuek took over the reins at SMRT, a series of breakdowns had drawn into question the reliability of its trains. And the seeming ease with which vandals were able to gain access to train depots had led to issues of public confidence. One of his immediate priorities was to instil a culture of service excellence. To do so, he engaged Disney, an entertainment company synonymous with service excellence. Like SMRT, the theme park operator deals with a mass exodus of visitors at the end of the nightly fireworks display. Kuek says lasting change cannot take place if leaders do not first address workplace culture. “The idea is that building trust and bringing on smiles is a higher order of lifting that service excellence.”
Communicate more, not less, in a crisis Companies should always be open and transparent with the findings of an inquiry, Kuek says. As information surfaces, leaders need to figure out what to convey proactively to fill the void of information and satisfy the natural curiosity of the public. “The cynicism that people have of big organisations is that we are always trying to hide something from the customer. A proactive effort to show openness and transparency goes a long way in building confidence with the affected stakeholder group,” says Kuek. It is also important for a leader to show empathy with those affected, be it the grieving family of a deceased employee or commuters who have been affected by a service disruption.
Stay connected to the community you serve “Everybody likes to know that you’re a company that has the larger society or the community which you are a part of at heart,” says Kuek. For SMRT, this has included accessibility for the mobility-challenged throughout the public transport network. Championing social causes also creates a positive impression in the mind of the public. “They are more willing to forgive, perhaps, if they recognise that you are playing a part in the community and fulfilling your social responsibilities.”
This article appeared in the Enterprise of Issue 760 (Dec 26) of The Edge Singapore.