Investing in a leadership development or succession planning programme takes time, money and effort, and in some cases, a complete overhaul of an organisation’s people processes.

Daphne Lok, director of human resource, Southeast Asia, Surbana International Consultants (Malaysia), clarifies that ins and outs of such a programme.

The Surbana Jurong (SJ) Group, an urban, industrial and infrastructure consultancy headquartered in Singapore, has been on an acquisition trail. This included its August 2016 purchase of SMEC, an Australian engineering firm, to undertake the design of the ambitious Snowy Mountain Hydroelectric Scheme, one of the largest and most complex hydroelectric schemes in the world.

A year later, SJ acquired Robert Bird, a Brisbane-based firm renowned for its expertise in complex structural, civil and construction engineering. The SJ Group has also made a number of smaller acquisitions.

With these transformative acquisitions, SJ now has 13,000 employees in 100 offices in more than 44 countries globally, and one of the leaders familiar with this journey is Daphne Lok, director of human resource, Southeast Asia, Surbana International Consultants (Malaysia).

She expands on the challenges faced: “In merger situations, risks of what some call ‘merger failure’ may occur. In an engineering and architectural consultancy, the risk that talent may literally walk out the door is by no means a small one. Without our technical and engineering experts, we would not have a viable business.”

Thus, very early on in the M&A, retention bonuses were offered to employees occupying key and niche positions. This not only helped stabilise the team, but also allowed time for knowledge transfer to take place while releasing the inevitable integration pressure.

Surbana Jurong was around 3,500-strong when it merged with SMEC, which at 4,000 was almost equal in size. Before the merger, Surbana Jurong had sizeable operations in Singapore, China and Southeast Asia, and the SMEC acquisition allowed SJ to expand its global footprint to Australia, South Asia and the Middle East (SAME), Africa and South America.

“We recognised that choices made around leadership succession are one very visible component of culture. Employees need strong symbolic assurances that change coming their way will be positive and not be unduly worried about their future.”

The SJ Group took conscious steps to ensure the key people that formed its top leadership were not just from SJ, but also from SMEC, KTP, AETOS, Sino-Sun and Robert Bird.
As a result, the SJ Group took conscious steps to quickly identify and ensure the key people that formed its top leadership were not just from SJ, but also from SMEC, KTP, AETOS, Sino-Sun and Robert Bird. Similarly, top management recognised strong brands had been acquired and their brand equity should be continued to be leveraged.

“In the same way, from a talent perspective, we respect and value each other for the diverse backgrounds and combined experiences.” As such, a priority was to articulate the corporate culture that is the DNA of the SJ Group. The team used a 360° tool called Life Styles Inventory by Human Synergystics, which helped business leaders hold a mirror up to assess their current and desired culture in leadership teams.

“The HR team, including myself, became accredited LSI facilitators, and we were able to facilitate culture workshops that helped our leaders understand the personal effect they had in creating a dominant culture of their own divisions. For a number of leaders, it was a wake-up call, as the 360° tool does not lie.”

What followed were one-on-one sessions with HR and their supervisors, whereby leaders developed culture change plans, which included role modelling change and initiating small, but tangible behavioural changes in their daily interactions.

“Our leaders are encouraged to be more visible, decisive and build trust to reduce internal competitive behaviours and develop more constructive and cohesive ways of working. In 2018, we continue to use this tool and run culture programmes at the next tier of mid-level managers.”

Additionally, the core values of the SJ Group were refreshed and rolled out at the start of 2018. In Lok’s belief, HR is the steward of these core values. “We recognise the SJ Group has grown to include many values-based organisations. As we continue to expand our footprint and evolve globally, it’s essential to adjust our core values to align with our growth strategy and culture.”

To conclude, she shares a quote from the chairman, Liew Mun Leong, who says: “The company must feel that it has a purpose beyond profit, and a soul to remind us to do the right thing. When the company has strong values, it will have a better chance of being a prosperous, purposeful and a lasting company.”


READ THE FULL FEATURE: Keeping the leadership carousel running smoothly