Few Singaporeans, if any, are ignorant of the extent to which Lee Kuan Yew shaped Singapore as the country’s founding father. For Gina Toh, CEO of facility services provider ISS Singapore, the late Prime Minister is the epitome of what a strong leader with an equally strong vision can achieve.
“I reflect back on what he has done for the country,” she says. “The strong visions behind the opportunities he saw – all it takes is to have a strong leader behind it. I have to constantly grow and build upon myself so as to drive the organisation forward.
“One of his famous motivational quotes was, ‘There is a glorious rainbow that beckons those with a spirit of adventure. To the young and to the not-so-old, I say look at that horizon, find that rainbow, go ride it.’ That’s resonated a lot with me, particularly through the early years of my career, and has inspired me to constantly be bold and have the courage to pick up opportunities.”
Gina started out in facility management before ISS, initially with private developer Far East Organization. As a result, she first got to know the company as a customer, with Far East being supplied with cleaning services by ISS.
In ISS, she saw the chance to fulfil an interest in a role more focused on sales and business management. In the intervening years since she first joined, Gina has risen through the ranks, starting as Sales Executive before being appointed CEO at the end of 2019.
What first drew her to the company was its people-centred nature, and what she describes as a very “down-to-earth” culture. That spirit has kept her going through the years, which now add up to two decades with ISS.
On a career level, she also saw numerous opportunities, thanks to the diversity of the company’s services, which include cleaning, technical, catering and so on, servicing industries like manufacturing, health care, finance and more. “There are a few key success factors behind my career progression,” she reflects.
“One is the willingness to embrace change and having the courage to take opportunities when offered, even though it could be a service area that I’ve never touched before. Most importantly, I’ve maintained my focus of being very people-oriented, because people are the core of ISS. That’s kept me going in my career growth over the years.”
Within the leadership team, Gina has seven leaders reporting to her, requiring a continuous dialogue to stay abreast of goings-on across the company. On a weekly basis, the team meets with customers and frontline employees based at customer sites in order to understand the challenges and successes of each – she ensures her calendar is left open on those Wednesdays in case she’s needed. “The people factor is one of my greatest motivations,” she says.
“I like to engage people. At the same time, I can see there are opportunities for employees with a very humble background, for example, to have the opportunity to become part of the management, to grow within the company. That’s also one of my strong motivators, to develop and grow people within the business. And within that, there’s also the desire to do good for the overall organisation, so as to sustain a great team throughout ISS.”
For Gina, leaders must build a sense of teamwork and effective communication. She believes that the down-to-earth nature of ISS means its employees appreciate a leader who reaches out, expresses gratitude for a job well done and doesn’t put up barriers.
To aid this, a leader’s communication must be simple and easy to understand; it’s critical to ensure employees have an awareness of what the organisation is doing, while feeling that those at the top are reaching out to them.
“Ensuring the right and timely communication on a one-to-one basis, in teams, and across our entire organisation is a constant focus area for us,” she explains.
“It’s a high-priority capability that we have to strengthen. For frontline employees, I reach out to them when there’s an opportunity. I engage with them and encourage them when I visit them at the customer sites. It’s also to make them feel appreciated, by sharing the great feedback from the customers.
It keeps them motivated and boosts their morale. It’s really to demonstrate the level of appreciation from myself as well. It’s something that I’ve kept in mind and I do it constantly.
We communicate constantly, to drive that common platform of sharing the same objectives.
“Within my leadership team, one of the key elements is to drive the purpose of our organisation – why we are in this people-centred organisation. So, in that sense, we have a common purpose and goals. I drive an action-oriented leadership culture, where we lead from the front with our teams. At the same time, I promote a very strong culture of customer focus. We communicate constantly, to drive that common platform of sharing the same objectives. With this alignment, I’m able to understand if there are any challenges, so I can support the team, build morale and improve team effectiveness.”
The biggest interruptions to ISS (and indeed, to anyone) in the past year was COVID-19, particularly when the Malaysia–Singapore border closed, an unprecedented occurrence. ISS Singapore has more than 1,000 employees who live in Malaysia and cross the border for work.
Besides enacting the essential business continuity plan, the company deployed its People & Culture function to find alternative housing for affected employees, allowing many to continue working for ISS by helping them stay in Singapore.
Gina stresses that, in such circumstances, it’s critical to demonstrate leadership without hesitation, by “beating the drum, setting the pace and giving direction”.
Regular and effective communication is even more vital in such circumstances; team calls among the leadership team became a daily occurrence to ensure everyone was tuned in, not only to internal company matters, but also to updates on government policy and the pandemic.
As an indirect result of this effort, Gina says the leadership team built a stronger bond, through regular and detailed communication.
“On a day-to-day basis, I’ll reach out to my teams or they reach out to me, and we spend time discussing and providing solutions, if there’s anything that I can support them on,” she adds.
“In addition, we have other more structured programs – we conduct virtual town halls across the whole organisation now, to adjust to the new norms and promote the adoption of technology. We can reach out even to colleagues working at customer sites. We also have award programs to appreciate employees, for long service or outstanding work. It creates another platform of interaction and communication with them.”
Even with the extent of its pandemic planning, ISS Singapore continues to face challenges that can’t be ignored. COVID-19 has led customers to cut back, forcing the company to adjust its business priorities while also supporting its continuing customers.
As a more long-term issue, Gina acknowledges that facility services isn’t the most attractive of sectors for local workers; to address this, ISS works alongside government agencies to promote the industry. The problem is compounded by the recently tightened governmental policy, which further restricts the number of work permit holders that a company can hire.
The reduced quota is a challenge, as the service industry is less attractive to locals, and is thus usually supported by a foreign workforce. Given ISS Singapore’s essential services, the company’s priority now is achieving long-term sustainability while still creating value for its customers.
But Gina is optimistic, as she has a concrete, multi-step plan to drive ISS Singapore’s growth through the post-COVID-19 world and beyond. “The first element is to be more focused in segmentation, in key customers as far as choosing services,” she reveals.
“This is part of the journey to execute our group strategy, the OneISS strategy. The objective is to better serve our key account customers and drive business growth.
We need to identify what will attract and inspire new, energetic talents.
“The second point is to drive a paradigm shift with customers, to move from an input-based headcount model to an outcome-based contracting model. If we can be successful in this, we’ll also be able to counter the workforce challenges that we face in Singapore. Third, to continue to drive digitalisation and automation, so that we’re able to drive up productivity, help our people achieve more and improve the overall attractiveness of our essential services growth.
“Long-term, my wish is to build ISS into a stronger brand, and the employer of choice for our industry. We want to be the world’s foremost facility services organisation. Thus, we need to identify what will attract and inspire new, energetic talents to embrace the opportunities available at ISS Singapore. We need to show we can empower and develop our people, and offer an exciting career. We can develop them to be excellent in the facility services industry, and to be the next generation of leaders at ISS.”
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