Gareth Ling, GroupM Singapore’s chief talent officer, speaks to Akankasha Dewan on the way the company has structured its policies to support large, multinational and virtual teams in their offices, and the role HR functions are playing in managing them effectively.

Vital stats: Gareth Ling joined GroupM’s regional talent team in 2012 and moved into the role of chief talent officer for GroupM Singapore in January 2014. In this role, he is responsible for attracting, developing and retaining the best talent locally, and ensuring a successful talent network and agency mobility. He has more than a decade of HR and talent management experience, working as part of a highly matrixed organisation structure and reporting to WPP.

Having been in this role for a little over a year, how would you describe working in this company?

It has been a wonderful experience so far, my first time working in Asia. Prior to this, I had been mainly in Europe, North America and the Middle East. Therefore, this was a completely new context for me.

How is the working culture in the West different from here in Asia?

The best advice I have been given upon my arrival here is to unlearn all that I have learnt – because everything here is completely different. If you try to apply the Western mindset to the working environment here, then you will quickly fail.

We have a very diverse workforce here in Singapore – probably about 60% local and 40% foreign. With that blend comes a need to adopt different approaches to different situations. If you try to force a one-size-fits-all solution, then you will quickly lose credibility.

What makes working in teams here quite unique for you?

I have found I need to ask my team the right questions to get the correct answers – rather than simply assume that I know what they are doing. If I don’t ask them the right questions, I can be wrong in assuming I know what they are doing or what they want. In a Western context, people are more vocal and tell you everything you need to hear.

How would you define the working culture at GroupM?

Fun, focused and fast. A key value of GroupM is fun – at the end of the day, we believe we are not just doing work. The enjoyment we get from working with our clients is equally important. We are also quite focused. I have just come from a regional conference, and we are very, very clear on the direction our business is going in.

While I have a talent strategy which I am busy implementing, it is completely aligned with our business objectives – which are about transforming the talent profiles in our organisation.

Before, we were working within a very traditional media context of buying and planning. That’s changing very rapidly to programmatic buying – which is very digital and data-driven.

So, the talent and capability that we need to deliver these new products to our clients in the new market is very important. It is critical to understand that GroupM and its agencies are highly matrixed organisations.

Our talent has to be resilient enough to work in an office with 40 different languages, and have the right mindset to work in an ambiguous environment and adapt to different working styles and ways of thinking.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have encountered when dealing with such large teams?

We have 8,000 employees in Asia Pacific. Singapore is our regional hub, and we have about 750 people in this market from GroupM and its six agency brands: Mindshare, MEC, Maxus, MediaCom, Xaxis, and Vocanic.

Essentially, that’s six different brand identities with six different cultures. And the absolute critical agenda for me is not to, at any point, dilute their identities and cultures.

What I am in the business of doing is to ensure the foundation of GroupM – the talent teams and company strategies – support all of their unique businesses and strategies.

It can all quickly become complex because each of these agencies have a global management team supported by a regional management team, in turn supported by the local market management team.

So the messaging and goals between all the teams have to be aligned for our talent to know what is expected of them and what they are working towards.

Gareth Ling of GroupM


How do you ensure these business objectives are aligned within GroupM’s diverse and huge teams?

Communication is absolutely essential. We have in place clear channels to communicate effectively, as well as clear training and development for all of our talent.

We conduct specific briefs within our agencies about the type of talent and capabilities they need – some need entrepreneurial mindsets, whereas others need data-driven and digital ones.

On the other hand, some of the agencies have global clients based out of this market. We’ve got to be able to find the right balance between the skills and experiences required among all the agencies.

GroupM also actively practises hot-desking, where employees can sit wherever they want. What was the motivation for structuring the work environment this way?

Employees didn’t like it, initially. We introduced it when we moved to our new office two years ago. This office was specifically designed to cope with activity based working, or agile working. Everybody has a laptop and a locker, and that’s it.

We encourage our talent to sit with the group that makes the most sense to work with.

For instance, if you are working on a pitch which is very content-heavy, then you should sit in the part of the office where the content team is sitting so you can interact with it effectively.

We do designate different parts of the office to different agencies. Every agency has its own door and its own reception because they are individual businesses.

But within the agencies, there are just desks and different working areas. We are all on one floor, on 55,000 sq feet of space.

I think the challenge, like in any circumstance of change, is winning the hearts and minds of your talent. You have to make them understand you are not doing this to be disruptive or to be difficult.

The challenge, like in any circumstance of change, is winning the hearts and minds of your talent. You have to make them understand you are not doing this to be disruptive or to be difficult.

Instead, you are doing this for the benefit of the organisation and its clients. Essentially, you are trying to break down barriers.

What impact has it had on team performance?

It has definitely improved communication and collaboration, and has also eliminated hierarchy from our organisation.

Everybody sits together and are equalised in the company – regardless of whether you are the CFO, the regional chief executive or the local MD.

We’re about to conduct our employee engagement survey in May, and are expecting a significant uptake in terms of engagement from when we last conducted it two years ago.

At the end of the day, however big we grow, we will continue to encourage and adapt to a more flexible working environment.

We don’t like to be bound to a conventional office perspective, nor to a contractual hours perspective. We believe our employees should be able to work from anywhere and at any time, with no limits and boundaries.

Does that mean the company likes to encourage an effective work-life balance?

We don’t believe in that. We believe in work-life “integration” because you will never achieve that “balance”. It doesn’t happen.

People are ambitious and driven in their work, but they also have lives outside of the office. We have to treat them like adults, and accept they will be accountable for their time and deliver what they have to.

I see my job as implementing the right strategies to allow people to achieve that integration between home and work life. But I think trying to apply rigid policies around flexible working isn’t going to work.

But with employees working from different locations at different hours of the day, how do you keep updated with their progress and engage with them?

We have tried to implement the right kind of tools to support leaders in managing virtual teams.

We’ve moved away from the traditional paper-based appraisal system. Instead, we’ve implemented a system called My 360, which adopts a holistic approach to performance management.

This is an electronic social platform which allows managers to go online at any point from any location and set their staff a goal. Employees can accept that goal and know the deadline set against it – which can range from a week to a month. They can also set their own goals and inform their managers about what they are doing to achieve those goals.

It’s become a completely different and more fluid way of being accountable for what you are achieving. Again, you can’t apply a conventional performance management approach to an unconventional work environment.

When you do encounter staff who are not living up to expectations, how do you help them become more efficient?

We are very focused on recognising high performance and high-potential talent, like most organisations. But what we don’t do is keep a blind eye towards low-performing talent.

We are measured very much by our clients, and must make sure we are deploying premier teams on their business. So if somebody is on the bench, we must deal with that and not make excuses for it.

To create high-performing teams internally, we must train and make sure line managers understand that dealing with poor performance is a good thing, and not a negative thing to do.

To create high-performing teams internally, we must train and make sure line managers understand that dealing with poor performance is a good thing to do.

At GroupM, we consider feedback as a gift, whether it is excellent or constructive. Creating the right environment and conversational habit is critical to doing so.

We encourage people to take the initiative to give feedback in an environment where they will be listened to because there is no point in giving someone feedback if they are not going to listen to it.

What we don’t do is to encourage them to simply go up to people and point out their mistakes.

What then is the philosophy behind the HR function at GroupM?

My role is to ensure we attract, retain and develop the very best talent, but that is very difficult.

An annual attrition rate of 25% is standard for us. The fact that Singapore has a low unemployment rate of 2%, and that most Millennials – a high proportion of our workforce – still live at home, creates a very low barrier to exit.

They don’t have a mortgage to pay, for instance, which would stop them from leaving.

This creates a different dynamic for the organisation – in this context, we have to question how we can create an environment which will encourage people to work here, and when they do, how best to retain them.

While attracting talent, we follow our three Ps – pay, performance and progression. We have to make sure our pay scales are attractive, and that we track and manage the performance of our employees well.

We believe the sky is the limit when it comes to doing what you can here. One minute you might be a media buyer and the other you might be in a content team. We can offer all that opportunity for you, but all you have to have is the right attitude.

So what type of people does GroupM look for?

We look for people with the right attitude and mindset because we believe we can teach them skills. We want the best of the best to come and work for us at GroupM.

We are also building a strong relationship with the top universities in Singapore. We are launching an internship programme this year in which we expect to have 19 interns to come and experience life at GroupM.

How much of a role does technology play in GroupM’s recruitment processes?

A big one is the answer. We lead the market in terms of the technology we use for recruitment. We have an applicant tracking system called Jobvite which allows for video-interviewing. Two clicks and it allows you to send us the video interview.

We email pre-set questions to the candidates and they just need a smartphone or their laptop to record their interview.

Another piece of award-winning technology we use is Chequed, a digital reference system where we can pre-load questions for a candidate’s referees.

Here, candidates include the emails of a maximum of five referees, who the system emails out to. It gets them to complete a pre-ordained questionnaire, which comes back to us after generating a report.

We also use tools like LinkedIn to source for talent much more commonly now.

If you try to apply the Western mindset to the working environment here, then you will quickly fail.

What do you think are the biggest HR challenges the company may face in the next five to 10 years?

Talent profiling is a big challenge for us –understanding what kind of talent we need to hire one year ahead from now. We can’t rely on the conventional approach of figuring out what possible vacancies we are going to have in the coming years.

We have to think about the fact that if our business is rapidly evolving and becoming more data-intensive, where are we going to get that new talent from? And what capabilities must they have?

Additionally, when we are competing for talent in the same small market against companies such as Google and Facebook, we need to have a point of differentiation which will encourage the best candidates to join us.

To do this, we need to leverage on our scale – we are the biggest in the market, and therefore, the best. We’re part of a big regional network as well as a global network.

What we have to make sure is that our HR policies and structures allow the freedom of movement around our networks and our agencies.