Working in sync: leading crossfunctional teams

Leading more than one function requires versatility and adaptability. As the head of communication and environmental affairs at DB Schenker, Andrew Seah shares with us how he ensures both teams perform in harmony.

Dafydd Phillips: Why are communications and environmental affairs under the same leadership at DB Schenker?

Andrew Seah: It is rather serendipitous really, and unique only to DB Schenker in Asia Pacific. In 2008, the function of environmental affairs for Asia Pacific was mooted to support the increasing demands for carbon footprint accounting requested by customers in the region, as well as to support our European head office regulatory reporting requirements, and to represent the APAC region on the Corporate Global Environment Advisory Council. It was a new role which required a new set of integrated knowledge as well as managing a diverse spectrum of stakeholders.

Since there wasn’t a precedence set at that time, the Asia Pacific board was looking at placing the responsibility with an existing function which manages multiple-stakeholder relations in order to build up the role. Management was considering communications (among a few other functions) as a likely candidate to lead this new initiative. As I was intrigued by the challenge and interested in the subject, I stepped forward to take it on. Seven years later, though there are some synergies between the two functions of corporate communications and environment affairs, they are very distinct from each other with different structures and reporting functions to the head office. Nevertheless, I relish the challenge and the unique opportunity to create value, meaning and purpose to both communications and environment affairs.

To what extent is tying environmental affairs together with communications an acknowledgement that companies’ environmental efforts are key element of reputation strategy?

At the beginning, I would say that, to a large extent it was. Most would naturally presume that linking the two functions together acknowledges an already obvious interconnected objective for reputation management. Now however, I would take a contrarian view, and that it goes beyond merely representing an organisation’s reputation strategy. Over the years, managing and understanding the dynamics of the two separate functions, I have come to appreciate the fact that there exists a much deeper and significant impact. For instance, environmental affairs are more than just the typical reduce-reuse-recycle programme, which is commonly perceived. Especially for a global transport and logistics organisation, the carbon footprint accounting traverses beyond recycling waste and managing utilities consumption at our hundreds of locations. It entails understanding and scoping the carbon emissions in the supply chains across the various modes of transport in all the countries and markets, applying the appropriate carbon emission factors to big data, working with relevant stakeholders (such as customers, suppliers, airlines, shipping lines, regulatory authorities, non-governmental organisations and so on) to optimise and improve the carbon footprint, conducting carbon emissions consulting with interested parties, accounting for the carbon performance of the fleet and organisation, aligning with the global sustainability strategies and framework, and many more. The engineering and science of it all is highly sophisticated and thought-provoking.

The communications function, on the other hand, demands that practitioners be cross-discipline and expert generalists. The communications role has the advantage of managing information to create value and knowledge, to influence and win over hearts and minds. The role has moved beyond being a filtered mouthpiece or a reputation gatekeeper; now it is absolutely necessary to understand the ins and outs of the business in order to orchestrate relevant interactions, craft effective messages and calibrate tones of voice to shape and mould the company’s culture. The complexities of communications in this current era of disruptive technologies in new media which are transforming media consumption patterns, certainly makes this one of the most demanding and impactful fields today.

While my communications background has helped me in my role for environment affairs, to put the two together as simply elements of a reputation strategy would risk missing the bigger picture of the critical work that the many professionals in corporate communications and environmental affairs undertake respectively, and the impact they make day-in-day-out.

As communications head for the Asia-Pacific arm of a Europe-headquartered company, what’s your working relationship with the communications director at headquarters?

Being based in such an exciting and diverse region like Asia Pacific, and especially with the region being the economic engine of the global economy, interest from headquarters and all the other regions is very strong to say the least. It is inevitable especially for communications in global organisations to have to work very closely to harmonise the collective senses of the brand. In Asia Pacific, with over 13,000 colleagues across 20 very different countries speaking hundreds of different languages, synching with 65,000 colleagues around the world across 130 countries, you can well imagine that it requires a lot of close and frequent collaborations not only with headquarters but also with other regions. Contending with the news, information and developments from all around the world and harvesting insights from it to create market intelligence and new knowledge that would be useful for the region is an important objective. And this is best done 24/7, following the sun and making full use of the time we share with the other regions. I would say that the relationship is symbiotic and we learn something new from each other every day.

What does it take to be head of two departments and what skills have you found to be most useful?

Most would presume that what are needed are lots of very good coffee and the ability to manipulate the space-time continuum for time management. But seriously, a great team is the key success factor, for which I am extremely fortunate to have and who support me in the respective functions. There has to be an obsessive compulsion to invest in every member of the team and build the right dynamic within, as well as among, teams. Also, as communications practitioners are typically cross-functional integrators, the need to have high learning agility and social awareness, to pro-actively engage and counsel the board and management on all issues, from internal stakeholder management with human resources and operations, to investors and shareholders with finance, and even strategic sustainability issues with external stakeholders that determines if the organisation remains relevant in the long term is absolutely critical. This versatility and adaptability is probably the most needed and enduring skill to possess.

What are the challenges involved with being a multi-disciplined leader?

A typical and pervasive challenge for instance, is that touch points to win the hearts and minds have increased exponentially, which means communicators have to be clued up 24/7 (not that there was ever such a thing as after-office-hours in the first place for communications folk), and yet be able to contend with the overwhelming volume of information, to leverage, capitalise and integrate with the organisations’ broader strategic tenets. But generally, I see fewer challenges but more opportunities to cross fertilise ideas and bring fresh perspectives to a situation. Admittedly, there are issues which are more complex and the need to focus with clarity on specific topics demand some level of flexibility in calibrating priorities. But what is important is not the limitation set within a particular discipline or function, but the exciting possibilities for discovery and innovation. While sometimes it may require more time and effort to help colleagues and stakeholders be more receptive to a different approach, so as to overcome inherent bias, it is very inspiring when we see new mindsets nurtured, empowered and unleashed.

What strategies do you use to overcome these challenges?

It is exciting to witness the transformational changes around us today. Technology has essentially proliferated the capabilities of harnessing data and information, and with analytics harvesting insights and intelligence from the perpetual avalanche of news and noise. Just as big data is transforming business information as valuable currency, communications has always been in the realm of converging the science for big data with the art of measuring perceptions and influence. While this has become empowering, it has also become far more complex and sophisticated. We have to remind ourselves that the very fundamental role of communications still hasn’t changed and to stay focused while simplifying hybridisation and inter-disciplinary application. As the chief- interlocutor of the organisation, communications also has the innate advantage of shaping corporate culture, engaging stakeholders, managing crisis and so on (all of which are game-changers in itself). This is a natural strategy to exploit in overcoming any challenge in any discipline or function.

How do you organise time and effort between your two roles? Do you keep each role separate or merge when possible?

As much as I’d like to consciously define very clear and quantifiable segregation of schedules and energy, it‘s a fine balancing act prioritising projects which does not guarantee a pious subscription to the plan. While the environmental affairs portfolio may have a more predictable and manageable rhythm to the volume of work, communications is extremely dynamic. So from a functional perspective, each role is separate. But from an organisational point-of-view, there are always opportunities to merge, link and align toward the overall vision. It isn’t so much about an opportunistic merger of roles wherever possible just for the pragmatic economies of scale, the substance of the output must be substantial (or to borrow a cliché, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts) and it has to make a meaningful difference.

With seven years under your belt as head of two departments, plus your previous experiences in leadership roles, what are your ultimate top tips for leading teams?

Interestingly, over the years I’ve increasingly evangelised listening as an underrated virtue for exceptional leadership. Together with the principles of servant leadership, listening helps focus on building great teams and the opportunity to help members of your different teams see each other’s perspective and be exposed to a different field. In the end, it is always about the people. After all, leadership and teams are all about building the right qualities and skills in the people you work with (regardless of function or department) in order to develop an exponential pipeline of effective leaders for the organisation.

Andrew Seah

As head of corporate communications and environment affairs for DB Schenker in Asia Pacific, Andrew Seah is responsible for all internal and external communications within the region, across the 13,000 employees across 20 countries. Prior to joining DB Schenker in 2006, Andrew was head of corporate communications and a member of the managing director’s office in the YCH Group of companies (which include companies in logistics, properties, information technology, Insurance, and others).