Letting staff plan their own careers

In his 20 years at British drug giant GSK, senior operations technician Selvaraju Murugayen has never shied away from trying new things.

He started out in 1997 at GSK's utilities site as a technician, working on boilers and incinerators.

That role was more of a one-man show, recalls Mr Selvaraju, 54. Eager for more demanding work, he had his eye on a new post in production, where staff worked in teams.

"Working as a group... you tend to be more alert, your mind keeps on moving. It's even more so in production as we have to be more careful with medicine," he explains.

It took some time, but he finally moved into production in 2007. "I requested it a few times. I was given an opportunity and promoted to senior technician too.

"I had to start from scratch. It was completely different from what I had done before, but we had experienced staff willing to teach me."

Mr Selvaraju and other staff at GSK get to plan their careers under the company's performance and development planning process.

BENEFITING FROM SOLID TEAMWORK

Working as a group... you tend to be more alert, your mind keeps on moving. It's even more so in production as we have to be more careful with medicine.

SENIOR OPERATIONS TECHNICIAN SELVARAJU MURUGAYEN, on why he enjoys being part of a cohesive unit.

Leaving the comfort zone is always hard, but Mr Selvaraju tackles any problems head on.

When GSK announced in 2014 that a new £19 million (S$35 million) continuous manufacturing facility in Jurong, set to make one of the firm's key active pharmaceutical ingredients, would be ready by end-2015, he jumped on board.

He says: "I was given another opportunity when my manager and supervisor nominated me. We had to build the plant from scratch, and I was worried about my age as I was 51 then. I was afraid I couldn't cope.

"But I told myself I had to upgrade. It would be good for me and the firm as I would be more productive, so I took up the challenge."

Besides encouraging its employees to expand their horizons regardless of their age, GSK also offers them substantial support throughout the journey.

Production manager Chong Kai Hau joined GSK in 2003 under what is known as the Economic Development Board-GSK training attachment programme.

Mr Chong, 41, has taken on several roles since then, and gained experience overseas as well.

As a fresh chemical engineering graduate, he was immediately sent to GSK's research and development site in Britain for 18 months to work as a research scientist.

He says he chose an attachment overseas for R&D rather than at a local site because he felt there were fewer opportunities at the time to work in pharmaceutical R&D in Singapore. "Biopolis was still in its infancy," he says.

He has also been involved in technical functions as a chemical engineer, and joined what is called a sustainability centre of excellence group. He has been identified as a future leader at GSK, and now heads a team of about 60.

"My previous roles were very technical. Later on, I was managing indirect teams, but what I lacked was direct management," says Mr Chong, who has been a production manager since 2013. "My current role has helped to bridge that gap in leadership skills, if I ever want to move up to a more senior management role."

Job rotation has opened his eyes to the various aspects and angles of the business.

"If you had asked me 10 years ago whether I could see myself where I am today, I would have said no," he says. "In this multinational company, you work in a matrix environment across functions with different people, which has helped me understand the whole business and its challenges."

Meanwhile, as part of the continuous manufacturing facility team, Mr Selvaraju was sent for training at an R&D unit in Stevenage, Britain. He also trained with pilot plant designer Zeton in Holland for the new equipment that would be used at the Jurong plant.

The stint in Holland took several weeks. On weekdays, Mr Selvaraju left his hotel at 7.30am and returned at 7pm, but he enjoyed "working hard together with everyone".

The group sent to Holland included four other technicians. Even though Mr Selvaraju was the oldest member, he never felt left out.

"At this age, it can definitely feel a bit overwhelming, but our years of experience with the manufacturing process, our knowledge of troubleshooting and working together as a team helped a lot as we shared experiences with one another."

He adds with a laugh: "Staff who are younger might not feel as confident because they are less experienced, so we have a bit of an advantage."

Mr Chong stresses: "You have to manage your own performance and development planning, and understand your own needs.

"The responsibility and the accountability are still personal. The company can rotate you, but you have to identify what you want and tell the firm."

For Mr Selvaraju, he feels that, in such an environment, "you have to continuously upgrade yourself".

"Otherwise, you'll be left behind. You don't want to feel like everyone is ahead except you."

Xin Yun

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline 'Letting staff plan their own careers'. Print Edition | Subscribe