Alignment vs approval: What Sports Hub CEO Lionel Yeo learned from the private sector after 22 years in govt

The writing’s been on the wall for the past five years — the Singapore Sports Hub has definitely not been having an easy time.

The ongoing pandemic continues to grind large group activities to a halt — this means no concerts, no football matches, no events that involve large crowds of people filling the high-tech aerated seats at the new Grand Old Dame.

Sporting activities have resumed for some time now though, so people are slowly returning, but the glittering dome in Kallang remains largely a shadow of the hive of activity it used to be all year through in the years prior to 2020.

All this, of course, throws up questions about the sustainability of the Sports Hub, as it navigates the tricky and thorny public-private partnership it as a private limited straddles between its financiers, the public and of course, its biggest customer, the Singapore government.

In the middle of this complexity and tension stands Lionel Yeo, the man headhunted for the role of Sports Hub CEO just over a year ago.

A revolving door for CEOs

Yeo is the fourth CEO since the project first started construction in March 2011.

Frenchman Philippe Collin-Delavaud, who led the Sports Hub for four years (March 2011 to December 2015), handed over to Manu Sawhney in 2015.

The subsequent four years saw three people in the hot seat.

Sawhney’s 19-month tenure saw complaints about his management style and decisions, as well as a spate of resignations from the Sports Hub’s senior management and staff.

Former national swimmer Oon Jin Teik took the helm as acting CEO from May 2017 to January 2018, and he resigned a year later alongside a couple of other senior executives, reportedly over disagreements with the Sports Hub’s board over the business direction the company was taking.

Welshman Bryn Jones, Sports Hub’s chairman, subsequently took over as acting CEO in May 2019 until Yeo came along.

One would certainly wonder, then, why anyone in their right minds would seek out (or perhaps in Yeo’s case, agree to take on) what looks to be an unenviable, thankless role that almost looks doomed to difficulty.

Initially said no to the job

The answer to this question, at least in Yeo’s case, is that he initially didn’t.

“One day, I got a call from a headhunter — I’m in the second half of 2019 — to say hey, you know, there’s this opportunity, what do you think?

My first reaction was ‘No, I don’t think so. Let me help you think of a few other people who might be up for it?'”

Yeo with Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling, co-founders of Grab. (Photo courtesy of Lionel Yeo)

At this point, Yeo had not that long ago left the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) — and by extension, 22 years working for the government and six at the STB’s helm — and was in the middle of a “vacation” of sorts from public service, at Grab.

How he got the job of Adviser to the CEO at Grab was decidedly spontaneous too — Anthony Tan, whom he incidentally met at an event held at the Sports Hub “in 2016 or 17” while he was still STB CEO, kept in touch with him over the years and when Yeo casually mentioned to Tan he had left, invited him to join in some shape or form.

So eager Tan was to take Yeo on that he was ready to create a special new role for him and figure out the details later on.

The Lionel Yeo backstory: a GEPer, a PSC scholar, and 22 years in civil & public service

Yeo with his son and S Magendiran, senior deputy headmaster at Raffles Institution, where Yeo also attended school as a teen. (Photo courtesy of Lionel Yeo)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. To understand how Yeo got to this point, it is worth backtracking to where he first started — a bright kid who was in the second batch of GEP(Gifted Education Programme)ers (back when *truly* gifted people were drafted into the programme and nobody had a chance to “prepare” themselves or work toward getting into it).

He remembers fondly enjoying his classes — being asked to apply trigonometry knowledge to calculate the height of a building, for instance, and walking down from Grange Road (where Raffles Institution used to be) to Orchard Road to catch a movie in the cinema and write a review of it as homework.

From there, he scored a Public Service Scholarship, and while one might expect a scholar to delight in leaving government service upon completion of his or her six-year bond, Yeo realised he actually really enjoyed the work, which saw him do stints at the Ministries of Finance and Trade and Industry, and take charge of the Civil Service College as well as, of course, STB.

Writing Budget speeches for then-DPM Lee Hsien Loong, and trawling Harvard Business School case studies with Lim Siong Guan

Apart from discovering he was quite the policy wonk, Yeo also credits the not-so-common fulfilment he derived from his government time to the leaders he worked under and learned from.

PM Lee, for instance, was Finance Minister at the time Yeo was a middle-ranking officer at MOF arrowed to work on the main Budget speech in Parliament.

“He was very much on top of the material. And, for sure, he kept us on our toes. That’s always helpful. So in a way it was good, because when you have a boss who’s so good, it forces everybody else to raise their game. So we all felt like we had to try our best to raise our game. It was quite intensive.”

He speaks glowingly of then-Permanent Secretary Lim Siong Guan, too, who would devote meetings he had with the younger officers to include sessions on management principles and values.

“So it’s not unusual for us to be discussing a Harvard Business School case study, for example, as part of our management meetings.”

From Lim, Yeo learned the concepts of servant leadership, as well as to ask the question “How can I help you do your work better?” — something he applied in his 12 years across his two public service CEO stints as well as at the Sports Hub today.

Solving the mystery of why Yeo ended up taking on a role he didn’t initially want

So how did he end up somewhat back in service of the government? For as we alluded to earlier, who would want this job, really?

At this moment especially, the role is tough, thankless, nobody’s impressed by all the gaffes that happened on the watch of his predecessors, and just look at the number of predecessors he has in such a short time — something must be inherently tough about this position too, relative capability notwithstanding.

To this, Yeo gives credit to the headhunter who convinced him to consider the “opportunity” — he recalls she invited him to speak with Jones, who was also acting CEO at the time, as well as a few of the Sports Hub board members to “update” himself on what’s been happening since the time he left STB.

“So I agreed… And then as I went through that process, I realised that things were starting to get better. And there was starting to be better alignment, at least amongst the internal stakeholders. Not perfect yet by any stretch of the imagination, but I think, you know, during the most of 2019, when there was no CEO, I think credit to Bryn (Jones), he had done a good job in terms of starting that process of achieving better internal alignment.

So that gave me some confidence — Bryn comes from Infrared Capital Partners, which is the majority shareholder in this consortium. So they gave me a little bit of confidence that maybe there is some hope in this project.”

Yeo as STB CEO at the signing of the 4-year contract extension of the Singapore Grand Prix with Minister S Iswaran, former F1 CEO Chase Carey and tycoon Ong Beng Seng in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Lionel Yeo)

He says he gave it further thought and remembered that as CEO of the STB, he was always “very excited and bullish” about the Sports Hub as a project — even waxing lyrical about its promise in a speech he made at an industry forum in 2013 or 14.

“We were all very excited. New National Stadium, you know, new facilities, we’re going to have world class events, etc etc.

So, I think, I already had that history and background of the promise of the Sports Hub, and I thought, hey, this is a national project, it would be meaningful to come in and see if we can get things onto a better trajectory. And so I then realised that okay, it could be a meaningful challenge.

And decided, to cut a long story short, that it was worth a try. Like I said, I was looking for new learnings, adventure, so I certainly wasn’t looking for a quiet life. Right? If I wanted a quieter life, I may have stayed in the public service. But obviously I didn’t leave the public service because I wanted a quiet life. So this constituted the kind of challenge that seemed right for me at that moment.”

Keeping a place that earns money from live events & large gatherings alive despite Covid-19

Yeo at the Singapore Sports Hub National Badminton Open Championship 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Singapore Sports Hub)

Interestingly, despite any grand plans Yeo might have had for the Sports Hub in 2020 prior to the pandemic slamming into Singapore (and indeed, the rest of the world, hence restricting travel for stars, athletes and international sporting teams) being scuppered, he’s still managed to get some things going last year.

The National Stadium and the OCBC arena became home to 3,000 foreign workers requiring community isolation accommodation last year, at the height of the spread across our densely-packed dormitories. In this period, the Sports Hub clocked in 148,000 man hours, provided 485,580 meals, and also gave 2,500 haircuts (we reckon the other 500 guests decided to keep their hair long during their stays).

The Sports Hub was also fittingly the location chosen for Singapore’s first live event — a mixed-martial arts one organised by Singapore-based ONE Championship, for which all 250 tickets were sold on the first day they were launched.

For this, the arena was organised into zones with segregated gates for entry and exit as well as bathrooms. With the addition of individually-zoned F&B concession stands down the line, it’s also hoped this arrangement can pave the way for safe organisation of larger-scale live events in future, and possibly this year.

Yeo with Dr Hing Siong Chen, President, Singapore Cycling Federation at the Singapore Cycling Federation Urban Eliminator event in November 2020. The event was held at the Singapore Sports Hub. (Photo courtesy of the Singapore Cycling Federation)

Putting together lessons learnt from the civil service, the public service & a fast-moving startup

For one to confront the tricky challenge that is taking the helm of the Sports Hub, one must undoubtedly have under their belts the right combination of sufficient experience and leadership qualities to navigate previously-soured relationships as well as differing and seemingly-irreconcilable directions.

Here are some of Yeo’s:

a) Servant leadership — how can I help you to do your work better?

This, he says, he learned from Lim Siong Guan — as a servant leader, he reminds himself constantly that he is here to serve his team, serve his organisation and serve its stakeholders. The other, a simple question, is one that assists him in navigating the partnerships he has with the government and Sports Hub’s investors:

“So how can I help my staff do their work better? How can I help my peers do their work better, because a lot of the government worries about collaboration across agencies. So it’s not just about well, my agency, and what I want to do, but it’s also about how my agency works well with another agency as well. So this culture of working with other CEOs, and their success is my success.”

Externally, Yeo is also mindful of the multiple operating partners and the priorities that Sport Singapore and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) have pertaining to sport and the Sports Hub.

“How can I help the Singapore government succeed? How can I help them do their work better? So you know, I’m always asking myself, what’s MCCY’s policy agenda when they look at a project like the Sports Hub? I need to understand their agenda so that I can understand how I can lead the Sports Hub to meet those policy objectives.”

b) Pursuing an evolutionary approach with a revolutionary outcome

Big concept, this sounds like — but really, he points out, it’s as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.

“That means that on a day to day basis, we are making small steps, incremental progress, but we’re doing this with a (big) objective in mind. And when you look back after a year, three years, you realise, oh my goodness, a lot of things have changed.

Sometimes when you try to sort of do that change, or communicate that change up front, it can be quite scary — people are like, you sure, are you mad? But if you know that that’s where we’re going to, and then you are able to sort of break it down into smaller sub-journeys. I think that’s more palatable. And then that helps you to bring people along with you.”

c) Seeking alignment, rather than approval

Yeo hosting Indonesian tourism minister Arief Yahya at Grab’s offices in Nov. 2018.

This is something Yeo learned from his stint at Grab, where he noticed how in meetings, the culture and perhaps buzzword, if you like, was “alignment” — in many meetings he attended, people would say, “Are we aligned on this?”; a refreshing departure from the culture of approvals he was used to in the civil and public service.

“So I guess, the subtle difference is, it’s not so much that you need a hierarchy, and then get it approved, all the way up to the top.

But what’s more important is to ensure alignment. Because we know that when we walk out of the meeting room, we all have something to do, right? And we cannot all be coordinating with each other all the time, because it is super inefficient.

But if we have confidence, right, that the three of us, for example, we are aligned, right, and then you know, you have to do A, you do B, I do C, but we are aligned in why we’re doing A, B and C, that’s very powerful. Versus let’s get steps A, B and C approved, then we do.

If you’re confident that you’re aligned, and then you know, everybody pushes forward in their own way. And you don’t come back unless you have a problem. I mean, people kind of expect that you will do it, you get it done.

So what’s most important is that whatever you’re doing, is it aligned with a bigger picture? So I find that that in a way, helps an organisation be more agile, be more responsive. Because if you’re always trying to come back and seek approval for things, it slows you down.”

That being said, Yeo notes there are of course good reasons for the public sector having multiple approval processes — they are, after all, still looking after taxpayers’ money, and from a governance and accountability perspective, that is crucial. And so whether an organisation operates by approvals or alignment or both, each method serves different purposes, he says.

d) Porosity, and the importance of an organisation having it

Porosity, which you might derive meaning from its root word “porous”, is the notion that when applied to companies or organisations, suggests that a company is flexible with allowing its talent to leave and spend time in organisations outside, and perhaps in future return to share the new things they have learned.

This smooth inward and outward flow of talent, Yeo strongly believes, helps renew an organisation and keep it, as well as its people, growing and diverse in experience and world view.

“I was very clear to the young officers in STB. You know, you come in you give us a few good years. Right. If you want to stay on that’s great. If you if you want to sort of explore the world outside STB, carry on. And if you done right by STB, we will welcome you back when you’re ready.”

And besides, he says, you can’t hold on to talent by force or by contract —

“I mean, talent will will do what talent wants to do. But if you’re able to sort of strike a mature relationship with them, I think talent appreciates being treated like a grownup.”

f) How will history judge us in whatever we do?

This is another guiding principle for Yeo, inspired in part by Amanda Gorman, the girl who recited her poem at U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration earlier this year.

“‘For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.’

So how will this decision that we take be judged? It’s not just how we will be judged tomorrow, or next week, or next year, but about how when people look back on this project five years from now, 10 years from now, whatever, how will they? How would they think about the management in Sports Hub, during this period?

And I think if we consider that as part of our decision making process, I feel we can make better decisions if we are mindful of, you know, if we’re prepared to be humble before history.”

For all Yeo has achieved in his years working thus far, he does strike me to be someone who is, as it were, born with significant intellect and wisdom that I’m glad he has over decades chosen to use in service of Singapore.

His vision for the Sports Hub is fittingly not only to be a premier destination for big-time sporting events or entertainment gigs, but ultimately for “every Singaporean to develop a personal and collective attachment” to it.

It follows, too, that as someone uniquely placed to be both passionate about the Sports Hub’s success but also acutely understanding of the challenges it will face in navigating the tricky tensions in the relationships with government and other stakeholders, and balancing them all, Yeo truly is the right man for this punishing job.

And I, at least, am glad he said yes.

Lessons on Leadership is a new Mothership series about the inspiring stories of Singapore’s business leaders and entrepreneurs, as well as the lessons and values we can learn from their lived experiences. 

Photo by Jeanette Tan

Stay tuned for our next interview in April with Dr Loo Choon Yong and Dr Alfred Loh, founders of the Raffles Medical Group. 

Top photo courtesy of the Singapore Sports Hub

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