SMRT President & Group CEO, Mr Desmond Kuek, gave an exclusive interview in the plenary session of the 2016 HR Summit on 17 May. The interview was facilitated by Channel NewsAsia newscaster, Steve Lai, and attended by close to 1,000 participants. For the first time ever, members of the public were given the opportunity to pose questions directly to Mr Desmond Kuek, and gain greater insight to the inner workings of SMRT. Here are some highlights from the interview with Mr Kuek:
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When asked about his leadership dictum, “You either lead, follow, or get out of the way – but you never stand still” and what it means to him:
Mr Kuek shared that he first adopted the leadership dictum when he was with the Singapore Armed Forces to inspire his people to take the initiative and make changes that can lead to a meaningful difference, instead of just accepting the status quo. There is always an opportunity to make a difference, whether one is leading or following another’s lead. Failing to do so would only render one increasingly irrelevant and ineffective.
He continued to apply this leadership mantra when he moved on to lead the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, and also currently in SMRT where we are constantly pushing the boundaries and driving for excellence.
When asked about how he ensures that staff morale is maintained amidst growing public dissent over the MRT system:
Mr Kuek confessed that there were numerous challenges and issues that had to be addressed when he first joined SMRT. The major train disruptions of December 2011 shook public confidence and dragged down the company’s reputation. Staff morale was low, and some staff shared that they were embarrassed to wear their uniforms because of public dissent. Compounding these difficulties was the need to engage multiple stakeholders: the public and commuters, shareholders, regulators, business partners, and also SMRT’s own employees.
Against this formidable backdrop of challenges, Mr Kuek chose to place his key focus squarely on SMRT’s employees as they are the cornerstone to any improvements to be made. This meant placing a sharp focus on leading and engaging employees well, believing that this would translate to superior workforce health and operational performance. This would in turn inspire stronger commitment to create shareholder value and a positive customer experience.
Thus, Mr Kuek invested much time and effort in engaging ground staff, understanding their concerns, and building trust. For instance, one of the first things he did upon joining SMRT was to send an email to all staff asking ‘What are you thinking?”. He was pleasantly surprised to see hundreds of employees coming forward with their thoughts and ideas to make the company better. In addition, various initiatives were put in place to enhance engagement and strengthen open communication. He is heartened that employees appreciate these efforts, as reflected in SMRT’s sustainable engagement score of 86% in the organisational climate survey conducted by Towers Watson. This places the company on par with global best-in-class standards.
When asked about how he reconciles SMRT’s role in providing an essential public service while being a publicly listed company whose profit margins are answerable to the shareholders:
Mr Kuek frankly acknowledged that it is not an easy task to provide a public service while remaining answerable to shareholders – but it is not impossible. He shared that SMRT comprises not just Trains and Buses, but also a commercial team which does an excellent job of managing the retail and advertising businesses.
He further revealed that that most of his energies are devoted to improving rail reliability instead of the commercial business because of the urgent need to renew and upgrade the North-South and East-West Lines, Singapore’s oldest, longest and most heavily utilised MRT lines. Much work is being done to reconstruct the biggest arterial lines while keeping the trains running during the day – akin to conducting surgery on a patient who is awake and complaining about the pain.
Despite recent high-profile train breakdowns in the past year, Mr Kuek shared that rail reliability has improved. SMRT’s mean distance travelled between delays of more than 5 minutes has improved around threefold, and the team is striving to bring down the frequency of breakdowns lasting more than 30 minutes. He concedes that SMRT has some way to go before catching up with the best metro in the world. Together with the rest of SMRT, he takes it as a personal and organisational challenge to improve rail reliability standards to be the best in the world.