Engineering Human Resources

Mr Tan Seng Chai, CapitaLand Chief Human Resource Officer, shares how he has defined the art of developing and managing people to a science with a heart

Issue: May 2011

Mr Tan Seng Chai
From an engineer to Chief Human Resource Officer, Mr Tan Seng Chai applies an analytical and systematic approach to managing talent with success

What does human resource management (HRM) and process engineering have in common? To Mr Tan Seng Chai, there are many common grounds.

“HRM is like process engineering: there is the input, the process and the output. It’s a continuous supply chain. In this case, the input is human resource, the process is people management and the output is human capital,” explains the Chief Human Resource Officer of CapitaLand Limited. “Good HR is about understanding the fundamentals of the business, in the form of the supply chain. In the real estate development business, you need to acquire a piece of land in a good location, decide what to do with the land based on demand, find the funds needed, design and build the property, and project-manage it to completion. Finally, you have to determine whether you want to asset-manage or divest it in good time. If you cannot understand these fundamentals, you won’t be able to find the right people with the right skills at the right place. For example, you need someone entrepreneurial to find a viable piece of land for development to achieve good returns. You need someone with strong discipline and control to project-manage to completion with the best cost, high quality and within schedule.”

Seng Chai’s detailed analysis of HRM stems from his experience as a process engineer in his first job in a semiconductor manufacturing company for many years.

One Full Circle

Although Seng Chai was trained as a civil and structural engineer, he never realised his dream of becoming one earlier in his career.

“I have always been intrigued by super structures such as buildings, bridges, dams and tunnels. It was fascinating to see how civil engineers can build this world, literally. I never got to be hired as a civil engineer when I graduated in the mid 80’s as there was a recession in the industry then,” he reveals.

He ended up working in a semiconductor manufacturing company as a production supervisor. He then progressed on to become a process engineer and subsequently a manufacturing plant manager.

“I realised that I really enjoy the process of making things happen by putting the right people with the right skills in the job. It marked the start of my people management journey and I was made the HR manager in the company.

From a production supervisor to a HR manager, Seng Chai reflects that it was his attitude of non-stop learning that pushed him forward.

“I read up on materials engineering, quality engineering and statistical analysis; I studied the manufacturing process and questioned every process parameter in the specifications; I learned how to do salary benchmarking, macro economics and picked up interpersonal skills.

“I learnt the skills of actively engaging my staff through effective communication. My ability to speak English, Chinese, Malay and several dialects fluently helped me break down barriers with people and connect with them,” adds Seng Chai, who was a Malaysian from Muar, Johor. He became a Singapore citizen in 2007.

Seng Chai was delighted when he joined CapitaLand in February 2008 as he is now able to fulfill his ‘unfinished’ ambition of being involved in the civil engineering space. He feels that his role in HR has finally allowed him to combine his love for managing people with civil engineering products that have intrigued him since young.

Systematic Approach to Human Resource Management

Having an engineering-oriented mindset has helped Seng Chai to embrace the two critical components of good HR: People and System. “HR has multiple roles. We need to be people-oriented and be an employee advocate. At the same time, we also need to have good processes and systems in place to support growth and scalability. We must also review these two components in terms of what and how they are now (current, day-to-day) and what and how they will be (long term, strategic),” Seng Chai expounds.

Seng Chai connecting with a group of young talents at CapitaLand
Seng Chai connecting with a group of young talents at CapitaLand. He believes that CapitaLand’s scale, lifestyle real estate business, corporate social responsibility and core values of integrity are the key factors that attract Gen Y to the company.

So to Seng Chai, a good HR person or team not only deals with strengthening day-to-day people and process management. The person or team must also understand the future skill set needs in the next 5-10 years and how to grow and groom the right people for the next phase of growth.

“Living up to its credo of ‘building people to build for people’, CapitaLand has been successful in building and growing its people in tandem with the company’s rapid growth in the last 10 years since its inception. We must not lose sight of the changing competitive landscape. Other developers locally and overseas are catching up and we must find ways, new ways, to extend our leadership position. We will continue to recruit young talents to build our pipeline for the future. It is very critical to continue our commitment to train, to motivate and to grow our people; creating a positive environment for them to give their best. Where there’s talent deficit, we will back fill with our external recruitment. So we will do both, build and buy,” reveals Seng Chai.

Seng Chai with staff volunteers and kids at Pulau Ubin
Seng Chai with staff volunteers and kids at Pulau Ubin for the CapitaLand Kids’ Food Fund Programme in September 2010; He believes corporate social responsibility initiatives sit well with the Gen Yers

Building the Most Desired Company

CapitaLand was recently voted one of the Most Desired Company to work for among Gen Y respondents in a survey by executive search firm PeopleSearch and Boardroom Research. While he was pleasantly surprised by the survey results, Seng Chai concludes that this is probably because CapitaLand as a company offers many aspects that the Gen Yers are looking for.

“First of all, CapitaLand has built its business model to be scalable and has gone international. This gives prospective employees a good sense of a long-term existence as we are able to export our business model and skill sets overseas. Secondly, CapitaLand enjoys a good reputation through its products and services: quality homes, practical yet exciting malls, convenient location, etc. This lifestyle-related business resonates with the Gen Y. Thirdly, there’s high integrity among the management and the staff; they are transparent and upright. Last but not least, CapitaLand has demonstrated to be a company with a soul, going beyond just chasing after the bottom-line. Gen Yers are attracted to CapitaLand’s credo of ‘building people’ and our corporate social responsibility sits well with them,” Seng Chai evaluates.

Mr Tan Seng Chai receiving the May Day Upturn the Downturn Award
Mr Tan Seng Chai receiving the May Day Upturn the Downturn Award from Lim Swee Say, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Secretary General of National Trade Union Congress on behalf of CapitaLand Limited in 2010. CapitaLand won the award due to its people-first policies during the global financial crisis in 2008-2009.

Making People’s Hearts beat with Zest

CapitaLand strives to create a positive and high-energy work environment that motivates the people's "hearts" to beat with zest. With a sizeable strength of about 11,000 staff operating in over 110 cities in more than 20 countries, getting everyone to align with its core values can be a challenge. “The company’s gone through the first 10 years of growth and expansion. Many staff have put in a lot of effort to get to where we are today,” says Seng Chai.

The company recognises that some of the staff may feel ‘burnt out’ particularly after weathering through the global financial crisis that came immediately after the high growth and peak cycle in 2005-2007.

“We recognise the hard work of our employees. That’s why we are looking at ways to re-energise and re-engage them. We are also looking at re-inventing and re-juvenating our people to ride the next phase of growth,” shares Seng Chai.

“In December 2010, we conducted an inaugural employee engagement survey to take stock of where we are and to find out what areas of our work environment can be further improved. While the overall results are very positive especially in comparison with our peer companies, we notice the need to unleash more energy and ideas from our staff. Quite clearly it will take both the management’s and employees’ efforts and willingness to push us forward in this area. We hope to see more informal chat sessions between senior management and employees for example skip-level sessions to encourage more open dialogues about work improvement opportunities.

“In fact, we are working on many fronts to address the key feedbacks we received from the survey. We want to continue to demonstrate that as a company we care for our people and we sincerely want to engage the CapitaLand community to care for the company too,” added Seng Chai.

All for the Family

CapitaLand knows that comprehensive staff welfare programs and friendly work-life policy resonates well with its staff. The Happy Programme, for instance, allows staff to enjoy much-subsidised room rate at any of its serviced residences around the world.

“The Happy programme is a good benefit policy because we can involve our staff’s families to know more about our business. Employees and their families (children and grandparents) who stay in our serviced apartments will have a firsthand experience of our products and services. This will leave them much to talk about among family members even after the holidays. Another example is in giving out CapitaMalls Asia’s shopping vouchers to our staff at various occasions. During the financial crisis and the early recovery stage, we even gave out these vouchers as part of the executive staff’s annual bonus. It generated excitement in our staff’s families about shopping at our malls. That made our employees feel proud to work for CapitaLand,” explains Seng Chai.

CapitaLand also provides flexible work arrangements and policies to support employees’ needs in juggling between work and family commitments.

But to Seng Chai, having work-life-balance is not about balancing the number of hours between work and life. “It’s about having a peace of mind,” the Chief Human Resource Officer explains.

Seng Chai personally finds it increasingly difficult to find a balance between the hours spent at work and life. This is especially true when working for a dynamic company that is striving amidst fierce competition and continues to extend its growth internationally.

“We have to accept the reality that there is a need to work hard as we strive to grow at the rate we are growing. Policies like flexi-work hours, part-time arrangements are set in place for people who need time off to look after family needs. For example, if staff need to pick their children from school or childcare centre earlier, they can arrange with their supervisors to leave earlier and pick their kids up and attend to domestic needs. They can continue to work later in the evening to finish up their work. This way, staff will surely have a better peace of mind, meeting family needs and producing good quality work. So work-life balance to me is about how to integrate work with life and be at peace when doing both. To achieve work-life balance is about being flexible to yourself and your expectations,” Seng Chai reflects.

With such fine analysis and understanding of human resource management, Seng Chai is indeed the accidental people manager who has turned out to be good at what he does.

User Ng Kim Chuan
175.142.108.X | 2012-05-19 14:36:52
Hello! Mr. Tan Seng Chai...congratulations to you for achieving what you stand now. I have nothing to do with HRM or business, but just what to let you know...may be a surprise to you that I am your long...long time ago friend and ex-classmate from St. Andrew School and SMK Dato' Seri Amar Di Raja, Muar. Well...I am Ng Kim Chuan, teaching at SMK Sultan Abu Bakar, Kuantan, Pahang D.M. Hope to chat with you and other ex-classmates.
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