Why leaders who listen are better poised for success

WE Singapore’s head of corporate on the way leaders are expected by stakeholders to show up differently in this new era of leadership.


‘Lead from the heart, find the right people and share wealth freely.’

This philosophy guided Sheng Siong’s CEO, Lim Hock Chee, to reward his employees with bonuses of up to 16 months’ pay when demand at the third largest supermarket chain in Singapore surged throughout 2020. Lim’s generosity is well documented internally, moves that have motivated his staff to be dedicated and solidified retention. It underscores how leaders can rethink how they lead to unite stakeholders around shared values and a purpose.

It has been 12 months since Singapore’s circuit breaker which instituted safe distancing measures to prevent the spread of Covid. And leaders like Lim have dealt with unprecedented challenges. They are now settling into new patterns and rhythms after being thrown off the precipice of maintaining operations, accelerating transformation efforts and managing a mostly remote workforce. 

As Singapore gradually reopens, leaders are under renewed pressure to cultivate new behaviours to infuse their organisations’ purpose in all aspects of their businesses, serve stakeholders’ interests, and engage with broader societal issues such as climate change. 

According to a recent global study released by WE Communications and YouGov, Singapore leaders recognise the importance of stakeholder engagement as a critical leadership behaviour to possess and demonstrate (71 per cent).

Although leaders are hopeful and optimistic, they are less confident in their ability to deliver, only feeling ‘somewhat prepared’ to manage all their organisations’ priorities and initiatives (47 per cent) and engage with all their stakeholders (41 per cent). This compared to global respondents who felt ‘very prepared’ to help their organisations address their priorities and stakeholder engagement (40 per cent and 43 per cent, respectively).

Leaders have strong foundational skills to tackle new challenges, and are long admired for the convictions they model, but leaders are now being asked to show up differently than they might be used to. They’re being asked to genuinely influence their stakeholders and tackle the issues faced by their organisations.

Listening with the intent to act

In the face of complexity and ambiguity, leaders cannot default to leading from a higher altitude. They need to be more grounded and connected with their people. This has always been good business, but is now more critical than ever, since so many stakeholders’ lives have shifted and changed over the past year.

In Singapore, leaders indicated that listening and engaging with a broad range of stakeholders (48 per cent) and building a culture of trust and empathy (40 per cent) are urgently needed today.

The first step is to create a culture of listening and ongoing dialogues to better engage with and serve stakeholders’ interests. By creating safe spaces for feedback to be heard, and actively using these forums to shape business decisions, leaders will build trust and genuine respect. Through active listening and promoting debate and sharing of critical opinions, leaders can better identify blind spots or opportunities to doing things differently.

Listening is intrinsically linked to empathy and is vital in turbulent times. People must know their leaders want to help them thrive. To lead with empathy, leaders must prioritise the needs of their stakeholders—employees, customers, suppliers, and shareholders—to offer meaningful support. Not every organisation can afford gestures like Sheng Siong’s, but tuning into your stakeholders’ human needs and taking action, big or small, will make a difference to productivity, employee retention and engagement, and attracting new talent. 

Positive change for the year ahead 

Our world changed overnight last year, and many of those shifts are yet to be understood and tabulated. The focus right now is to understand how organisations can use these learnings as we collect them to drive future success. Singapore leaders are already considering how they can drive positive change in 2021. 

Two of the top focus areas for many leaders align with the national agenda of Singapore’s economic recovery from COVID-19, preparing it for the next phase of growth: digitalisation and retraining of the workforce. Leaders will have opportunities to add to broader discourse on nation-building, and how their organisations contribute to Singapore’s transformation as a Smart Nation on the world stage.

Leaders are also recognising the value in driving purpose-led organisations, aligning brand purpose to organisations’ policies and practices. By doubling down on purpose, leaders can strengthen the connective tissue between all stakeholders and use their organisations’ purpose to guide all aspects of business, including its communications. Purpose will help organisations better articulate their ‘why’, which will promote employee satisfaction and affect their ability to transform.

Mustering the collective strength

2020’s leadership lesson was to embrace uncertainty. Although the path ahead remains somewhat ambiguous, leaders must continue leading from the heart and with purpose. Those who prioritise the needs and interests of stakeholders will be better prepared to navigate an uncertain future and create positive change that benefits their business and society. We are still reeling from change and will be for some time to come. However, disruption can lead to positive growth and new opportunities if we lead in a new, more thoughtful, and responsive way.

Alicia Eu is head of corporate at WE Communications, Singapore

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