Lessons from MRT Corp CEO’s surprising resignation

SOMEWHERE in cyberspace, a prominent Malaysian accountant posted this one-line observation on Tuesday: “It takes an accountant to demonstrate what accountability means.”

A passing familiarity with the current news is enough to figure out the reference. Datuk Wira Azhar Abdul Hamid(PIC) stepped down that day as CEO of Mass Rapid Transit Corp Sdn Bhd (MRT Corp) after three men had been killed in a worksite incident the night before.

“As the head of MRT Corp, I am taking personal responsibility for the incident and this is the correct thing to do,” he says in a media release from the company.

He’s best known as head of plantations when he was with Sime Darby Bhd and later as the guy in charge of the massive Klang Valley MRT project, but Azhar is also a fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and a member of the Malaysian Institute of Accountants.

That comment in social media was presumably based on professional pride and wasn’t meant to be a statement of fact, but the person who posted it is definitely part of the chorus of voices that see Azhar’s resignation as an honourable response to the “pointless loss of lives” (as he puts it in the media release).

Most people would agree that it’s rare for the leader of a large Malaysian organisation to openly say he’s quitting because he accepts the blame for serious shortcomings.

There are, of course, others who have cynical views about this development. One uncharitable rumour is that Azhar had already been under pressure to part ways with MRT Corp and the fatal accident became an opportune exit door.

That’s another way of saying the resignation wasn’t really a big deal that merited praise from so many.

But that’s beside the point. It’s not so much why he quit; it’s more about how he did so. This isn’t meant to be a defence of the man or his character. This is a review of his words and actions, which perhaps ought to be in a management case study. Here’s why:

He didn’t try to wait it out

The fatal construction accident happened at 8.30pm on Monday. According to MRT Corp update statements, Azhar was at the location at midnight and at 10.30am the next day. He then met journalists there in the afternoon. After briefing them about the incident, he surprised many people (including his colleagues) by announcing that he had tendered his resignation.

Many times we’ve seen bosses digging in their heels and stonewalling when trouble erupts, hoping that once the dust settles, their jobs will be secure again. Sometimes, this strategy doesn’t work. The criticism and dissatisfaction grow so loud that the CEO has no choice but to go.

This wasn’t at all the case with Azhar. It appears that he took less than 24 hours to decide that he shouldn’t stay on at MRT Corp following the incident.

He acknowledged his failure

Azhar explained to the media and to the MRT Corp staff that safety had been a top priority since joining the company in September 2011. The three deaths meant he couldn’t deliver safety despite the emphasis and efforts.

“I have done my best, but I have evidently failed and therefore will be handing over my duties,” he said in the press conference on Tuesday. He repeated several times during that session with journalists that he had failed in this key mission.

The reasoning here is watertight. To him, ensuring safety is a big component of his job, and he fell short in this area. The logical thing to do then is to make way for somebody else to take the helm.

He has been consistent

It’s not as if Azhar only started talking about safety this week; it has mattered to him since his days as a plantation executive, he told his staff in a farewell note.

At the company’s first press conference in October 2011, when addressing property owners’ anxiety about how the project will affect them, he said: “MRT Corp guarantees that we have no intention to take any land, and we have no intention to demolish any buildings.

“We’re concerned for the safety of the people there and that’s why they need to move out for six months.”

When dealing with journalists and through letters and statements to the media, he has frequently highlighted the importance of safety.

It’s interesting that his letter carried in The Star on July 8 suggested a mix of weariness and optimism about elevating safety standards in the construction business.

“I am aware that what I am trying to do is just a drop in the ocean. My attempt to introduce a culture of safety may be akin to moving mountains!” he wrote.

“However, I will not be discouraged. I know it is not an impossible task because such high standards have been successfully implemented in other sectors, such as the oil and gas industry.”

He’s clear about what matters most

During the Tuesday press conference, Azhar said he would make sure there would be action against those responsible for the incident.

He also promised that the families of the three workers, who were from Bangladesh, would get what’s due to them.

In reality, now that he’s no longer the CEO, it may be difficult for him to fulfil that pledge. However, such assurances from him indicate a focus on what’s truly important – that there’s a proper resolution to the incident.

He’s willing to face the media

The standard procedure for a CEO’s resignation under unpleasant circumstances is to issue a bland or vague press release and to then ignore requests for interviews.

However, Azhar chose to make public his resignation by telling a large group of journalists who were covering the previous night’s incident. In addition, he was willing to explain his decision and to field their questions.

This way, there’s less speculation and intentionally or otherwise, he showed that there’s no shame in admitting failure if it’s indeed the right thing to do.

Like most people, executive editor Errol Oh hopes that Azhar’s resignation signals a turning point in how our leaders look at accountability.

Analyst Reports , Construction , MRT , CEO , resignation