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The Star Online (Malaysia): Getting right man for the job

EXTRACT: This is another management technique that Idris has brought over from Shell where he had served in various capacities since 1982.

Monday June 18, 2007

Having reduced Malaysia Airlines’ losses tremendously in the past six months, managing director Datuk Idris Jala is now focusing on inspiring the more than 19,000 staff members by coming out with a new human resources development

By WONG SAI WAN

KUALA LUMPUR:: THERE is a line in Hotel California, the famous song by the Eagles, which goes “You can check-out anytime you like but you can never leave” and this has become the theme for Datuk Idris Jala when giving out tasks to his staff.

“This line in Hotel California has become a favourite of mine because this is what we need to do to turn MAS around,” he said during a briefing for foreign and Malaysian journalists at the sidelines of the International Air Transport Association AGM in Vancouver last week.

He explained that one of his projects was for his staff to brainstorm their way out of problems that were before them.

“We have them cooped up in a room for hours where they have to find the formulae and solution to a real-life problem affecting MAS.
Asking people to do the impossible and not fearing to fail is important, says Datuk Idris Jala
“It is a pressure cooker situation and I tell them that they have a limited time to find the answers. I also remind them of the line in Hotel California.

“Almost all of them came out with the answers after being put into a live laboratory situation,” Idris said, adding that there had been 50 live laboratories held so far.

He revealed that the new airline Firefly was a live laboratory for MAS.

“Whatever we learn from this community airline on reducing cost, we will apply to it at MAS,” he said.

Getting the people to think outside of the box and to reinvent the way they do things to improve efficiency, reduce cost and improve service is the heart of Idris’ talent-unleashing plan.

“Causing people to do the impossible and not fearing to fail is important,” Idris stressed several times in the interview.

Idris was one of the most sought-after airline CEOs during the AGM. Everyone, from fellow CEOs to journalists, wanted to hear how he could turn around MAS from RM1.3bil losses in 2005 to just RM136mil in the red last year.

Instead of just re-telling what he and his new management team had done, this ex-oil and gas executive revealed the next phase of his plan.

“Unleashing the talents within MAS is a priority under the BTP (Business Turnaround Plan).

“We have set out to create 100 top people to lead the airline into the future. These are the level two or three leaders,” Idris said. 

“These are the guys who will move and shake the company,” said Idris, who is bent on “making them understand the vision of the BTP.”

“It is like the case of a bicycle. MAS has been stuck on second gear for too long. We want to train everyone on how to change gears and move up until the fifth gear.”

While saying that he was committed to “making do with what we have” as far as staff was concerned, Idris said he recognised the need for the airline to also recruit the very best talents.

He identified four types of recruitment, which MAS was already undertaking. They involve cadet pilots, engineers and technical staff, specific experts and management trainees.

Idris revealed that to overcome possible future shortage of pilots, he was “flooding” the three pilot training schools in Malaysia with cadets.

“We will send in between 100 and 200 cadets a year at the schools in Langkawi, Kelantan and Malacca.

“Pilots are very marketable and many of them have moved to the Middle East. By flooding the schools, MAS need not worry of any more such situation, as we would have the feedstock to replace those who leave,” he added.

As for technical staff and engineers, Idris said the BTP called for Maintenance, Repairs and Overhaul (MRO) to be a profit centre. Thus the airline has to ensure there is only adequate staff but also the correct people.

He said 50 management trainees, who are possible future leaders of the company, were recruited last year.

Other than these groups, Idris has decided that there should be a moratorium on hiring other types of staff.

Besides the acronym BTP, a catchphrase that has become part of the MAS vocabulary nowadays is “Current Estimated Performance” or the CEP, which is a method to gauge a person’s potential but it is done in advance

This is another management technique that Idris has brought over from Shell where he had served in various capacities since 1982.

“The CEP identifies the person’s strength and weaknesses. It also enable us to know in advance what is the potential of a certain staff and how high he or she can go.

“It is just a simple report cardand the supervisor must complete it in just four sentences,” Idris said.

Knowing a person’s strength is also key to Idris’ style of management.

As an example of how he had applied this to MAS was the appointment of Eddie Leong as the Firefly managing director.

“I chose him because he is a single-minded person and not because he knows everything about running an airline.

“His strength is his focus on a specific project and I am playing up to his strength. 

“He is very lethal. I don’t want an all-round fellow. I wanted someone who will cut down the costs and I have seen him in action when the Four Seasons Hotel was being constructed in Langkawi,” said Idris, adding that there were many who questioned his choice. 

Leong, an accountant by training, was the project manager for the Four Seasons project and is credited with having the hotel complex completed within cost. 

Idris said every leader must stay focused and state their personal stand “as this says a lot about their character.”

“To be a leader in a business turnaround one must make it a moral obligation. It is very obsessive and will even consume your life. 

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