Managing International SOS to Global Success

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Harold Pradal and Cindy Cheng are no strangers to the challenges of doing business in China. After Harold’s success as GM of International SOS in China, he has expanded the scope of his duties and now heads up MedAire, an International SOS company, for the Asia-Pacific region. Similarly, Cindy’s role has grown from GM of Hong Kong International SOS; she is now the CEO of China and Hong Kong for International SOS. As leaders in a company that daily prepares for and responds to unexpected situations, these two have prescient insights into the changing business environment in China, the applications of mobile technology, and the requirements for leading a diverse team to success.

Q: Can you tell me in your own words what International SOS does?

Harold: International SOS covers a large spectrum of services and products, and we have evolved a lot in the last 30 years. We support all types of organizations with medical and security matters before and during their people’s travels. Our mission is to keep people safe at all times, and support them in the event of a medical or security crisis.

Cindy: We don’t just do emergencies; we actually do a lot of preparation for people who are travelling to new locations. We are increasingly focused on preventative strategies – where we start to prepare people before their trip. We have seen success in this, and the data from insurance companies and our clients are showing that by working with us, they have seen their costs reduced.

Q: What challenges have you been the most surprised by during your career so far, and what challenges do you foresee in your new role?

H: The most surprising challenge for me is linked to the management of the diverse skill sets and styles. For example, we might have emergency doctors that have been working for a long time on offshore oil rig platforms working alongside security experts with a background in intelligence. So to move operations forward, it is necessary to bring these different kinds of people together. Similarly, to find the right experts and get the right processes in place to orchestrate a successful team effort for the prevention work we do, but also to deal with crises and emergencies on a daily basis, is a challenge.

C: To add to Harold’s point, we really try to find people who have the same heart to contribute to the company. You know, I joined the company because it helps people – it was created by a doctor and the mission is to help people. That’s why it’s so important to get the right experts on our team.

H: Another important challenge for us, while not necessarily new, is clear communications. This is about finding a way to get people to truly share and listen to each other, and to share our vision. Let me give an example to illustrate this. Despite all the recent and considerable evolutions in technology, our most efficient way of sharing information between our teams is to hold a meeting, twice a day, at 8 AM and 8 PM, for our 27 Assistance Centers around the world. We call these vital meetings “Transmissions” and the team that has been on duty for the last shift, monitoring cases and events, reports the situation and the next steps to the team coming on duty. It’s a simple but extremely effective solution to keeping our medical, security and operations teams running seamlessly.

C: “Transmission” is very specific to the Assistance Center team, from one work shift to another. My role is more focused on management and for my contribution I’ve always focused on leadership and mentorship. Of course we study the market and trends, but the clients, the people,  always come first. We have great staff engagement – bringing them in to discuss issues with us, and managing the escalation process so that everybody knows how to bring ideas and issues to where they can be resolved. If we didn’t have our people, what would we have?

International SOS operates 27 Assistance Centers around the world in many different countries and environments. Source: International SOS

Q: I’d like to ask a difficult question now – if you could go back and do something different in your last position, what would it be?

H: That is a tough question! Well there are many areas where I wish I would have spent more energy. I guess as a typical laowai I wish I would have focused more on my twice-a-week zhongwenke! I want to be able to use my language skills to help connect with our people and especially our Chinese clients.

Our business has been through significant changes over the past five years. Originally, our China operations were focused on taking care of the employees of foreign companies operating in China. Now, we are developing more solutions to help Chinese companies that are going abroad—aligned with projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative – supporting lots of different industries in various geographical areas. So professionally, if I could go back, I would also invest more time with our Chinese clients who are going outside of China.

C: Harold has described the concept or culture of ‘duty of care’ - to take care of people when they are away from home. In my previous position in Hong Kong, I would have liked to have spent more time promoting the duty of care message with the government and local companies, to explain the work we are doing. I will be very focused on that in China, building on the great work that Harold has started, to show how we can help Chinese companies prepare and assist their people when they are abroad. The value in the return on prevention is so important for people to understand. For example, if we prevent a bad medical or security incident, or get treatment to people quickly before a medical issue escalates into a big problem, then we have done something valuable. That’s valuable to the individual, but the return on prevention extends to the business as well, in terms of their business continuity, being able to prevent any damage to their brand, and for a number of additional reasons. It’s important to demonstrate that that we don’t just react to crises, but we are proactive in preventative services, and this is really beneficial.

H: Adding to that, it can be difficult to communicate everything we do to some companies, because they aren’t familiar with the vast scope of our services. What makes the importance of International SOS’s support clear are the simple stories. Say you have an American citizen going to China for the first time for a few weeks. She lands in Guangzhou and gets a toothache. We can find her a dentist, help her with language support, and make sure the quality of care is a level that makes her feel comfortable. It seems simple, but it can really make a difference in her life for the next three weeks, allowing her to uphold the quality of her work, and from the company’s perspective, the return on investment in their own people.

Of course, a more extreme and dramatic example of our services can be expressed with what we recently faced in South Sudan when we evacuated people, including some of our Chinese clients, when fighting erupted last year. Then the value is very obvious to the individual and the organization.

Q: China is a pretty fast-paced environment and has undergone a lot of changes in a hurry. In what ways has business changed for International SOS?

H: We have seen a massive change in the “profile” of our customers. There has been a relative decrease in the number of large expat families, and a relative increase in locally hired singles, meaning that companies have non-Chinese employees now who have already learnt how to handle their daily medical and travel needs, having lived in China for a while already. But these employees still have needs and issues, because now they are traveling within China, sometimes to quite remote places, rather than to China. So now instead of providing a program to support people who are simply traveling away from their home countries, we now have programs for people who are inside China. Hence, we help people who are traveling within and outside of China, regardless of their country of origin.

C: Also, the demand for health and wellness programs has increased dramatically, not just for expats but for local Chinese employees as well. That started more than three years ago, but it’s really becoming more popular. Businesses are realizing that when you have healthy people, you have fewer absences, and your people are happier and more productive. So now some of our services are for helping companies start health programs and helping human resources professionals develop those.

Q: You mentioned the market trends in China and globally that International SOS observes. Can you describe that in a little more detail?

H: We have more people traveling to China for business, but not necessarily staying. Before it might have been a family and their children moving, and they needed a lot of support, a whole team to take care of their needs. Now we have a lot of coverage for people who travel to China for shorter periods of time – 10 days to 2 months type of travel – and then return home. That’s a segment that is very interesting to us globally. Also we have a lot of new business travelers going to fast growth and new market areas. Those people get less attention than the more established business destinations but we see lots of risk for companies and HR.

C: Of course, for China we also have an increasing number of outbound travelers to other countries. This is an obvious change from the global care perspective. There has been a huge increase in outbound business and leisure travel from China to all parts of the world, including Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and other places.

Q: You mentioned before that changes in technology have affected your business operations in International SOS. Can you elaborate on how relevant technology is to your work?

C: It’s very relevant. We have to be very quick to react and to be efficient with our solutions when we are reacting to issues. It helps our members to have options and solutions that are just as mobile as they are, and we have an app with comprehensive support for all of our members.

Also, one solution we have been working on for a while is ‘telemedicine’, to save time and costs for our clients. If people have medical issues they can connect with our doctors via video and receive an immediate response or recommendation. This is mostly used for clients with remote sites where hospitals or clinics are not easily accessible in a reasonable time. However, with the current technology of smartphones, the same concept can be adopted to normal travels.  I remember one case where a little boy was jumping on the bed and hit his head during a leisure trip with his parents. The mother sent a picture to our doctors, who told her that the injury was not serious enough to need stitches, and told her how to bandage it. This kind of solution can save them a huge amount of time and money in healthcare costs.

H: With MedAire, an International SOS company, we also provide services to airline passengers and crew members, and use various technologies to provide fast responses to them. We are now able, in many cities around the world, to arrange telemedicine services for crew members, during which our doctors identify the medicine they need, and our logistical team have it delivered to their hotel room all within 60 minutes. It is extremely complex for us to set up due to regulatory requirements in different countries, but it demonstrates the great potential that this offers to our members.

Q: Tell me more about this app – how do people use it?

C: When you open the Assistance App it has local alerts for health and safety risks, and is pre-programmed to call the nearest Assistance Center to wherever in the world that person is. It also has a feature that really has made a huge difference already, called TravelTracker. It allows people to voluntarily “check-in” where they are. I can’t discuss the specifics because of case confidentiality, but in at least one instance TravelTracker and the Assistance App have allowed a company to contact their employees and warn them of an imminent danger, which probably saved their lives.

Screenshot of the TravelTracker App with alerts for Turkey. Source: International SOS

Q: What is a good book you’ve read recently that you’d like to recommend?

H: Actually, I have recently starting using Audible and so now I mostly listen to my books! I recently listened to a book by Lee Kuan Yew, the founder and former Prime Minister of Singapore, where I am based now, called One Man’s View of the World. I really enjoyed the straightforward description of his opinions on what are the most powerful forces shaping our world’s future.

C: I’m always trying to improve my understanding of Chinese chengyu, and I’ve lately been reading some historical fiction books in Chinese, where they give an account of some events in China’s history but with a story. They contain many chengyu – four character idiomatic expressions that literally tell an entire story – and I make a point of learning those.

Q: What three adjectives would you choose to describe yourself?

C: I would say workaholic, multi-tasker, and indulgent. My inner joy comes from doing work that I’m proud of.

H: I choose hard-working, hyperactive, and epicurean. I like to do a lot in every day, and really enjoy being around people who are passionate and driven. I like to celebrate victories with friends, a good meal, and a nice glass of wine!