As the Chief HR Officer for AIA Singapore, Tan is also a staunch supporter of human capital development and specialises in succession planning and organisational and performance management. Speaking in this exclusive interview with Chief of Staff Asia, she says companies must prioritise optimism within their workforces, to empower employees, and drive inclusivity, connectivity, and accessibility.
This has been particularly important over the last two years, which Tan says have had an unparalleled impact on employees. Amidst the emotional strain, and the physical exhaustion that has invaded workplaces with the pandemic, she says it is optimism that is key to stronger resilience across employees, and it is this positive mindset that has proved a particularly effective coping mechanism for AIA Singapore.
Optimism in the workplace
COS Asia: Why is AIA Singapore prioritising optimism within its workforce?
Tan: There is a saying, “misery loves company”. These days, it is easy to go down a slippery slope into the abyss and think everything is doom and gloom. It is about perspective and how you see the positive things in every crisis.
At AIA Singapore, we continuously prioritise our employees’ well-being and equip them with the necessary tools and support for their personal and work challenges. Optimism is about one’s mental well-being and the ability to be more resilient, unfazed by hurdles.
This links to AIA’s overall brand promise of (enabling) healthier, longer, and better lives.
COS Asia: The pull of pessimism has been unprecedented during this time. How has AIA sought to counter this force?
Tan: In 2021, we introduced many initiatives and activities for our employees. Our Microsoft Teams (video conferencing tool) has never been more active than in the past year!
We had everything virtual: Employee Townhalls, coffee sessions with our CEO Wong Sze Keed, getting to know our senior leaders, and talks by external speakers. This created many communication touchpoints between the management and the employees.
Wong certainly exemplifies optimism and belief in the strength of the human spirit. Long before it was fashionable to talk about mental health, she has been talking about it in alignment with AIA’s brand promise. We have not been remiss in making our employees feel that the company cares for their health.
At the start of the pandemic, we gave each staff SGD1,000 as work-from-home support, sent antigen rapid test kits, and activated a “reset day” option each week for self-learning or wellness activities.
COS Asia: What grade would you give AIA in terms of optimism?
Tan: I would grade us an “A” for transforming the workplace at the speed at which we did.
Mobilising the entire workforce to work remotely had no playbook for reference. This has given me a level of optimism I probably would not have previously imagined. Now, I see that anything is possible despite the last two years being unforgettable and unprecedented.
The HR vertical has never been more at the forefront. The intersection between people and working in the “new normal” has created an opportunity for HR to help the organisation. Our people thrive in a landscape where colleagues from various functions work to help in ensuring the health, safety, and well-being of our customers and employees.
In the past, we had probably taken some things for granted. Getting to a grade of “A+” would mean articulating and connecting initiatives for the employees to experience thriving in the workplace. It drives work to be more human-centric.
COS Asia: Tell us about the four drivers of effective optimism that are in play at AIA.
Tan: Optimism helps us look at situations, events, and people through a lens of positivity. In AIA Singapore, the team unites to overcome challenges, achieve great things, and encourage colleagues through difficult times.
Leadership influences a variety of things that contribute to people’s optimism “wells”, including:
- Recognising and celebrating our people: Their strengths, contributions, talents, and efforts;
- Constant communication: Sharing the company’s vision, accomplishments, and what else is in store for everyone; both the good and the bad news;
- Making work arrangements flexible: Enabling effective work arrangements for productivity; and
- Empowering employees: Shaping the ways of working so that everyone knows that they are empowered and trusted to make decisions, speak up, contribute ideas, and share perspectives.
COS Asia: How easily can the natural worriers in the workplace adapt to this optimistic mindset?
Tan: I think everyone must play a part in creating an environment that allows optimism to flourish. It can be done through a mix of communication campaigns, performance reviews, rewards; and role-modeling by formal and informal leaders.
AIA’s longevity and productivity secrets
AIA Singapore’s Aileen Tan gives us a firsthand look at the company’s endurance secrets.
COS Asia: Thriving in a competitive industry, what is your main source of longevity and productivity?
Tan: We empower our employees to take ownership of their work through an incredible work ethic guided by purpose, and going above and beyond. This helps to shape us into a purpose-driven organisation with a single-minded focus on enabling healthier, longer, better lives.
We are increasingly prioritising the things that truly matter to our customers and employees by easing our working and business processes. We place importance on environmental and social causes, diversity, equity, and staff inclusion. We have greatly appreciated the difficulties some employees face as they balance work and family, and the need for greater flexibility.
We are fortunate to have a CEO — Wong Sze Keed — who has been lauded for her focus on people. Her guidance has further poised our organisation towards a people-first culture. The quality of our people and our team culture are the common thread behind what I have said.
COS Asia: What key HR best practices can you share?
Tan: We adapted swiftly to the onset of the pandemic, pivoting to remote working, and introduced hybrid working while prioritising our employees’ well-being. At AIA Singapore, we push this further to zoom in on the “why” of our workplace value proposition and the real purpose of calling employees back to the office.
We want our people to “want” to come to the office not because they are told to, since taking calls and doing emails are now doable at home. The pandemic has forced us to rethink deeply-entrenched approaches, beliefs, and more flexible collaborations.
Leading by empowering
In a pandemic-stricken world, the first thing the community needs is a leader that empowers an organisation to give back. Here, Tan shares the collective effort of the company to better peoples’ lives — both inside the organisation and across the wider community.
COS Asia: Please describe your most impactful corporate social responsibility programme.
Tan: Our strategy and mandate to enable healthier, longer, better lives for everyone, including our people, is rooted in AIA’s business practices. We have moved away from the traditional transaction-focused insurance model to become a trusted partner for every life stage.
This year, to fulfil our brand promise and celebrate 90 years in Singapore, we launched the AIA Green Pledge and the AIA Better Lives Fund. The Green Pledger speaks of our environmental, social, and governance ambitions while supporting the creation of green environments for healthier, more active living in Singapore.
The Better Lives Fund is an initiative for disadvantaged children, youth, and their families, that aims to give them greater access and opportunities in education, growth, and development. AIA Singapore has also committed SGD 5 million to the Garden City Fund for Singapore’s parks and nature reserves over the next five years. AIA’s contribution to the OneMillionTrees movement and the Garden City Fund’s Plant-A-Tree programme is the largest by any private organisation.
COS Asia: It takes a good leader to ensure the success of these kinds of activities. What’s your management style?
Tan: I aim to manage with empowerment and fairness. I tend to take on more than I can handle. I have been making a conscious effort to now get out of my team’s way once we have decided on a course of action so that the team will have room to grow. I learned that “more” can sometimes be “less”, and I try to do things with more impact.
COS Asia: If you were to look back, what was that one stumbling block that has impacted you as a leader?
Tan: Not recognising the usefulness of mistakes. I started work in a different era for multinational corporations, one that emphasised execution at all costs. So, I made mistakes without spending enough time reflecting on avoiding them. Instead, I moved on and got cracking at my next task. Now, I recognise the importance of reflecting and learning from both the successes and the setbacks.
Getting to know: Aileen Tan
Job title: Chief HR Officer, Singapore
Company: AIA Singapore
Years in the role: Over 4 years
Family status: Married, with one Generation Z daughter in the family. My dog would be classed as a Boomer!
Corporate background: Building and leading teams in IT, technology, and education, and across blue-chip multinational firms and local organisations.
Music jam: I have a rather diverse taste in music. My daughter says it’s so “messed up” because there is no particular genre!
Leadership philosophy: We need to create a work environment where people can feel they are adding value and are valued, where we allow them to be their best selves. Sounds simple, but as Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.
“Go-to” leadership quote: “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” — Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State.