Lessons on Leadership: Tan Chuan Lye, Chairman of Food Solutions
Having joined SATS while it was part of the Singapore Airlines Group in 1976, Chairman of Food Solutions, Tan Chuan Lye, has enjoyed a strong 44-year-long career and is still leading SATS’ food businesses with pride today.
Over a virtual breakfast session in May 2020, he shared invaluable lessons on leadership he had received during his career at SATS and from his mentor - his General Manager from “back in the day”.
Starting from the ground up
During his early days as a Systems and Procedures executive, Chuan Lye assisted the General Manager of SATS Catering with day-to-day activities. It was there he learnt that making the effort to upskill was key to succeeding in SATS.
Part of his role required him to handle procurement for SATS’ kitchen equipment. This included overseeing a team of technicians for equipment maintenance and drafting kitchen equipment specifications - something he was not familiar with back then.
It was only after months of practice that he was ready to confidently play a major role in the development of Changi Airport’s state-of-the-art in-flight kitchen.
Chuan Lye worked hard: "five plus two half days - five hours on Sundays sometimes,” he recollected. But he wasn't alone. His boss, the General Manager, worked in tandem with him.
During the breakfast session, Chuan Lye joked that he still missed the home-cooked lunches his former boss' wife would prepare for the pair as they worked well into the weekends. Today, Chuan Lye regards his ex-General Manager as one of his biggest role models and credits, not just his work ethic, but much of his leadership skills to this mentor.
Celebrating every employee
One of the many things Chuan Lye learnt from his mentor was how important it was to build relationships with employees.
Every morning, at the start of his career, he would follow the General Manager as he walked the ground and struck up candid conversations with employees. The respect and trust shared within the team was clear.
“He talked to them about everything - their families and whether their children managed to snag a spot in the schools they wanted to enroll in," Chuan Lye said. "He shared a piece of advice with me: take care of your employees, and your employees will take care of you and the company.”
With this in mind, Chuan Lye made every effort to create opportunities for employee engagement when he took charge of the 600-strong team in the Catering Equipment and Preset department. Like his mentor, that included walking the ground every morning.
He also made time to celebrate everyone - with help from his administration team, he purchased birthday cards, penned well wishes, and gave the cards to employees personally. These gestures did not go unnoticed, as Chuan Lye shared that many years later he received a personal thank you note from a long-time employee who was retiring.
It was these little things that helped him forge lasting connections with them.
The mutual respect between Chuan Lye and his team didn’t just boost morale, it also worked well to keep the department running smoothly. He trusted all his employees to be aware of the “4Ps of management” – policy, processes, procedures, and people – guideposts that governed all matters within the department.
“It is our job (as senior management) to ensure that staff are educated and aware of company policies, processes and procedures,” he explained, “on top of that, we need to properly train and equip our people with the right tools.” These 4Ps played a big role in directing the actions of management if a mistake was made. “Disciplining employees must always been seen as the last resort,” he remarked.
Leading by example
Chuan Lye shared that an important quality for both SATS leaders and employees is the ability to empathise. While SATS sits within the aviation industry, its work is centered on connecting people and communities. Being approachable and compassionate is key.
He recalled two particular incidents where he was tested on this. The first, when two frustrated male passengers who were late for their flight hurled abusive language at the service staff. The second, when a nasty bout of aircraft delays saw over 20 passengers stranded at Changi Airport for over 12 hours. Impatient and angry, they demanded compensation for the delay.
Both times, Chuan Lye felt compelled to step up as a leader to protect his team. He intervened, taking over from the duty managers and started by apologising in a bid to help defuse the tension. Together with the passengers, he arrived at a compromise that settled the issue.
These qualities and experiences Chuan Lye has garnered over the years have served him and his team well. Together, they form an integral part of SATS’ business and continue to deliver excellence in Food Solutions.
I believe each time I say yes to an employee or a customer, I am making a commitment and must follow through.