The interview presented below has been edited and abridged for clarity.
As we collectively set out to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, how are you thinking about purpose?
Kuen Loon Ho:
For us, we are very fortunate that we are in the right place, because we are health care service providers and the silver lining of this crisis is that it allows us to highlight our purpose. We are celebrating our tenth anniversary this year and our founding purpose was to provide affordable, accessible care in all of Asia Pacific. When the founders started the organization ten years ago, we started organically and in Singapore. Today, we are in nine countries with more than 550 clinics and about ten million patients. Two and a half years ago, we revisited this purpose, to test if it was still the right purpose for us as an organization. We said “yes” – and this time, with collective agreement from all the leaders in all the countries. With this renewed focus around purpose, we were able to respond well when the crisis hit in March.
This has been the guiding compass for us in the last six months – in the way we care for patients, in the way we care for the community, in the way we contribute to recovery, and in the way we engage with clients as well. When we talk about affordability, it is all about beating inflation. When we talk about accessibility, it is about how to provide care to more people. The number of lives is the key metric to us. In both areas, in this COVID-19 crisis, we have talked a lot about how to partner with the government, because a lot of the initiatives are government-led. This leads us to more than 15 projects across the region that we are involved with at a government-related level, so that we are able to help them solve problems, such as how to bring care to the community, how to do the [COVID-19 test] swabbing, and how to store tests. In Singapore alone, we were involved in eight different projects. That includes caring for almost a hundred thousand migrant workers and working on projects that we have never done before.
This brings out the essence of our purpose: doing things that we have not done before, but doing them because they enable us to bring affordability and accessibility to the general population. And in this crisis, we will do them no matter what. I am very proud of the team, that we all have gone out of our comfort zone to be able to contribute to this.
If you think about how you have approached this as a leader – this doubling down on your purpose and maybe even changing the way you interact with potential partners or customers, or communicate around your purpose – what would you say were the one or two key aspects of your leadership style that you changed to adapt to the current situation?
When the crisis happened, we had to change, at least for a period of time, from being long-term focused to very short-term focused, very immediate. I took on the CEO role on the first of January, and we entered the year with great plans. You have a five-year plan – how you are going to lead the organization, how you are going to live out the purpose for the long-term. When the crisis then hits, you have to put that aside.
This is very important. This is the reminder to our leaders that being agile, flexible, and adaptable is key. Because suddenly, in two months’ time, you have to switch your mindset, put the plan aside, review the current situation, recognize it is a crisis. We had to just focus on caring about the patients and our people. The safety of our people is key, because we have thousands of people at the frontline and they have direct contact with the COVID-19-positive patients. We have to prioritize their safety more than ever. And, secondly, is the patient: how do we bring more care to the patient? The discussion of the economics became a second priority; it is more about contributing to the community that will come first. Act first, and we will sort out the rest later. If this is the right project for us to engage in, let us take it on and figure out how to execute on it.
It is a very different dynamic. Normally, you do a lot of planning and work out your ROI before you take on a project. In such a situation, it is really the other way around. Is this the right thing to do? Then do it. Is this a thing that we think we can do, even though we have not done it before? Let us accept it and then figure it out. This has to be the guiding principle, and I give credit to my team that they have been very agile, and they have given us the ability to contribute in the last six months.
Anything else you are doing in your day-to-day to anchor purpose? I am assuming that if this now becomes part of the long-term plan, you are really leading with purpose.
That is true. I think there are a couple of things that are very important. First, you need to talk about it, very often. You just have to be a broken record. Keep reminding people what our purpose is and why we are doing this and keep reinforcing it again and again and again. Otherwise, in a very profit-driven world, sometimes you do not go back to why you are doing certain things, and the “why” is very important. We talk a lot about it in our leadership meetings. For example, in most of the meetings, we start off with one person sharing a case study of how they have come across the shared values, or how we live the shared values, because the purpose is driven by the five shared values that we have in the organization: compassion, teamwork, partnership, integrity, and innovation. Talk a lot about it, that is one.
Two, as the leader – not just myself but my fellow leaders as well – walk the talk. That is extremely important. If you talk, but you do not walk, there is a disconnect.
And, finally, intentionally showcase the moments when people really live this purpose, these shared values. We should share these examples, and really acknowledge how they have done it and why they have done it, and then this will reinforce each other. So, to your question, these are the three steps that we do on a daily basis to try to reinforce and anchor the purpose.
Could you talk a little about how you would assess people that you are hiring into the leadership team in light of this? How do you make sure that they are aligned to that sense of purpose, and how do you build that into them once they come on board?
That is a very good question. There are a few things that happen now when we have conversations with potential candidates, or potential future teammates, when we first interview them. Instead of just focusing on what they can do, we also ask about their value systems. We talk a lot about what they believe in, how they can contribute as a member of the team, not just in terms of the economics, but also in terms of the dynamics, and whether they believe in the purpose statement or not.
But you have to strike a balance, because at the end of the day we are still a profit-driven organization. We still have stakeholders and shareholders. And we cannot just bring in people who are completely purpose-driven but not balanced with the financial economics. I think the new world is to find somebody that is balanced, but not to one extreme, because if you are purely focused on purpose, you may be better off in a non-profit organization.
This is where we need to strike a balance when we bring in people and talk to them. Once they are integrated into the business, it should become part of their performance appraisal. We have not yet done this but are starting soon. It is not just how competent they are, or how many KPIs they have achieved, but also about whether or not they live the purpose and the shared values that we have. We are adding that in, starting in small steps, in the sense that we will have a trial run to communicate this will be evaluated, but not part of the KPIs yet. But next year and onwards, they will be a part of the weightage. Our hope with this change is that people will realize that we are serious about it, walking the talk.
That is fascinating, Kuen, particularly around aligning the incentives system to the behaviors. Can you tell us a little bit more about the concept that you have, and how are you thinking about operationalizing that?
To be honest, that is why we are taking smaller steps to try to operationalize it, because this can be quite subjective. We try to ask very direct questions during the evaluations, using a scale of one to five, to gauge what level the individual is at now. For example, under “compassion”, we have five questions and we ask the individual: “Have you done this or not, where are you now?” That is our starting point. But over time, we need to refine it. Over time, I suspect, the question will be different for different seniority levels, and different for people with different functions.
“Compassion” will mean something different to a person who is a nurse at the frontline versus a finance person at the backend. I believe it is a learning journey, a way for us to get to something that we are comfortable in, because it is again a balance of not being overly generic but not too specific. We need to start off with something, we need to start with a vision and an end goal and the understanding that it is a learning journey and a process together.
We look forward to learning from you on how that goes. We are hearing across the board from clients that they are taking steps in this direction, because you are right, it is not only about profit. It is about people and it is about society, which is what we mean when we talk about sustainable leadership.
Looking at the bigger picture again, you run one of the largest and most influential healthcare provider associations within Asia Pacific, so you also play a very important role to the industry. What impact do you hope to have, or what role do you hope to play, in advancing and enhancing the overall purpose of the industry? You are living it at Fullerton, but how would you like to influence the rest of the ecosystem?
There are three levels that we think about in relation to this. One is from the perspective of our principal values around universal health. We look at how to play a part in advocating more for private sector participation in universal health coverage. There has been a lot of talk in the past – the paradigm has always been that the universal health system has to be for the public sector. Increasingly, I think the private sector has a role to play and we have to look at how we can contribute and collaborate here. It is a big topic, but that is something that we are very keen on. In different countries, we probably have to play a different role in the broad spectrum of universal health. That is one theme.
The second theme is our involvement in the World Economic Forum. We have been quite active in this particular dimension of universal health coverage, through private participation at the Economic Health Forum. We have been a member of the Economic Health Forum for the last few years and one of my founders has been taking the lead in this area in a couple of countries as well. We are proud to be collaborating with a leading organization to achieve this together.
And, finally, we have taken the initiative to drive more local partnerships. For example, we are active in tuberculosis screening, starting in Indonesia. It is quite interesting, because the statistics today show that more people die of TB than of COVID-19. Since everybody is talking about COVID-19, many people forget about the three diseases that have not been fully resolved: TB, malaria and HIV. Those three health issues have killed more people than COVID-19 at this point, and because of COVID-19, resources have channeled in other directions, so that area has been even more neglected. We have been championing TB screening in Indonesia, we have done a lot of health screening, and we work with a lot of fellow partners, like Philips, Johnson & Johnson and many others. My point is that at the local level, if there is a specific disease that you want to focus on, you can also bring in very tangible, actionable steps. Our outreach has impacted close to hundreds of thousands of Indonesians. Because of the COVID-19 situation, it has slowed down this year, but we do want to continue to champion this. Just because COVID-19 arrived, many have forgotten about other diseases which have been around for centuries and are killing even more people.
Thank you so much. This has been so interesting to hear, especially the last point you made about joining hands with the pharma and the devices sectors as well. This puts the trinity together – pharma, devices and healthcare delivery services – to look at an integrated care model. Thank you so much for your time today, this was a wonderful conversation.
Thank you so much – it has been a very enjoyable session.