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Vistara’s Phee Teik Yeoh, the democratic expat

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-08-2017 Aparna Piramal Raje

Sometimes, chief executive officers disrupt the Head Office workplace interview format with the lightest of touches. This edition of Head Office takes me first on a tour of an open-plan office in Gurugram, and then to an outdoor coffee shop at a hotel in Aerocity. This new commercial district, bordering Delhi’s airports, is where I meet my subject, Phee Teik Yeoh, the chief executive officer of Vistara, a joint venture between the Tata Group and Singapore Airlines. A long-time Singapore Airlines manager and a seasoned expat, Yeoh worked with the airline for over two decades, in senior roles in the UK and US, before coming to India to start up Vistara in December 2013.

Vistara recently announced that Yeoh would be moving back to the parent company; this interview was conducted before the announcement and supplemented with a brief email interview.

The two-stage manner of our interaction tells me as much about Yeoh as the design of his workplace. On the afternoon of our scheduled meeting, Yeoh was running late after a meeting with government officials in central Delhi. If I waited for him to return to his office, I would be perilously close to missing the flight back to Mumbai. So Yeoh arranged for me to visit the office in his absence, and meet him subsequently at the closest possible location to the airport. This is trademark Yeoh process efficiency, something that helped in getting a new airline off the ground in 14 months.

Phee Teik Yeoh’s desk, with minimal personal belongings.

Compact footprint

But first, Yeoh’s workplace. Most senior managers covet a corner office, with privacy and a decent view. Yeoh’s workspace provides a corner and a view, but is not enclosed. In keeping with the prevailing trend among start-ups in India, Yeoh chose to work from a stand-alone desk located within the main open-plan office, alongside his colleagues. The desk has one of the most compact footprints I’ve come across for a CEO’s workspace. Just two visitor chairs and a selection of official memorabilia set it apart from the average Vistara employee desk.

His reasoning illustrates why going open-plan is such a strategic human resource decision for any company.

“We took a look at 65 offices. Many did not quite fit our minimum requirement of an open space because they had cubicles. And we wanted to create an open office because my belief is that the staff should get as much sunlight as the bosses, and as good a view as the bosses,” says Yeoh, adding that meeting rooms were provided to address concerns on loss of privacy or need for confidentiality.

Yeoh’s inherently egalitarian statement expresses three critical aspects of democracy: equality, employee engagement and transparency.

For Yeoh, equality in workplace design fosters cultural equality. “The idea of having an open office stems from the fact that I do not want to have a ‘maharaja’ culture. The prerequisite to have no maharaja culture starts with the office itself. When the maharaja sits in an enclosed cubicle, he is a maharaja. You may say I don’t behave like a maharaja, but you have to go through a physical barrier,” he explains.

Next, the workplace can serve as a tool for promoting employee engagement. Yeoh has made it a point to organize regular events for employees in the office, including cabin crew, who are not required to come to the office. “Just because of where they are located or the nature of their job should be no excuse for us not to try harder to engage them. I just want to make sure that the entire team feels like they belong to the same family,” he underlines.

Third, an open-plan office promotes transparency. “At the first instance when you make a mistake, we will embrace you, but more importantly, we want them to learn from the mistake,” says Yeoh, who likes to lead by example. He freely shares his own error, of overestimating the proportion of business-class seats that would sell on the fleet, and then having to course-correct the configuration a few months after the launch—an important business decision that he got wrong.

“I always share with them the mistake I make and I own up. Why do I do that? It’s to make sure that they also have the courage to own up when they make a mistake. After all, if the CEO can own up, then anyone should feel comfortable doing that. I don’t want to sweep problems under the carpet,” he says.

A poster announcing the merger.

The ‘OTP’ mantra

Yeoh’s democratic drive is notable given that his roots lie in a country better known for its process efficiency than its transparency. His ability to manage both considerations has perhaps helped Vistara get off the ground—he prefers to be open with employees, while maintaining a keen eye on industry compliance.

For example, the licensing process was made harder by the fact that when “we were in middle of getting the licence, the Indian regulatory body, the DGCA (directorate general of civil aviation) , was itself assessed by the FAA (the US federal aviation administration),” says Yeoh. This led to changes in aviation requirements and benchmarks. Yeoh decided to actively engage employees throughout the licensing process in order to maintain the momentum of collaboration rather than keep it top-down and tell them what to do.

The process of getting airborne was “like a roller-coaster ride. We had our share of ups and downs. In 14 months we shed tears of joy, tears of success, tears of disappointment at the same time. But what is important is that through the multiple setbacks, we never gave up because we had one common destiny, which is to secure the operating permit, the licence to fly as early as possible…. So we found excuses to celebrate the small successes as much as possible because that’s the only way to keep the passion going,” he says.

There were other times when democratic concerns were clearly overshadowed by compliance issues. When a new joinee wanted to start an independent WhatsApp group, Yeoh made it clear that the social media platform “is more of a communication tool, not a medium to document important business decisions. Documentation is very important in the airline industry because you want to make sure that there is a sustainability and consistency in your delivery of service. So that’s why we focus a lot of time in documenting our processes, our operations and our service procedures.”

As he prepares to move out of India next month, Yeoh hopes that Vistara’s corporate culture, as expressed in its open-plan workplace, will be its most sustainable asset. “At Vistara, we follow the mantra of OTP i.e., ownership, teamwork and passion to challenge the status quo. We take ownership for everything we do, tap into the collective potential of our teams to deliver excellence and keep up the passion to drive us to do it even better the next time,” he says. For a company that seeks to bring back the joy in flying, it is important to start by redefining the basics of aviation vocabulary.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, a compilation of Head Office columns, published as part of the Mint Business Series.

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