A few weeks ago, I was in a teleconference with the HR team of a global drinks giant. They spoke of succession planning and the challenge of finding the “right” Asian talent to step into senior roles at their Asian operations. The above is not an isolated case. Many multinational corporations (MNCs) — admittedly, mostly those headquartered in Anglo-Saxon countries — have underscored a similar challenge.
The question then, is: what kind of senior leaders are these MNCs seeking? What leadership qualities or competencies do they deem necessary for their top roles? And why are Asian emerging leaders perceived to fall short?
The Ideal Leader
Having interviewed hundreds of senior business and HR leaders in the last few years, the Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI) discovered that the “ideal” leader at the corporate zenith of MNCs must possess four critical qualities. Firstly, he or she must be comfortable with navigating a discomfiting business environment. Geopolitical risk, disruptive technology, societal inequality, discontentment and terrorism are just some macro contributors to our volatile and uncertain environment. Moreover, a globally connected world is susceptible to jolts originating locally. As part of a global business, leaders need to appreciate, predict and plan for many eventualities. Yet, the links between causes and outcomes are complex (even ambiguous).
How many emerging leaders are truly able to embrace a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous operating environment?
Secondly, the “ideal” leader must build good relationships across organisational boundaries. Externally, boundaries exist between a business and its stakeholders (think of government and society, for example). In global MNCs, a critical boundary also exists internally, between global headquarters (HQ) and the local offices. Often, decisions are made at the HQ but lack alignment to local context and challenges. In such a scenario, executives based in the local offices need to sell up their ideas and solutions, and influence their counterparts in HQ. To do this effectively, a relationship of trust needs to exist between the parties on either side of the boundary. However, do differences in language fluency, communication styles and behavioural norms impede relationship building?
Thirdly, the “ideal” senior leader in a MNC must be very adaptable. Possibly covering a few countries, an entire region or even the globe in geographical scope, he or she will come across cross-culturally ambiguous encounters. He or she will need to deploy different approaches to solving problems, depending on what is feasible in a particular regulatory, market and business landscape. Yet, while adaptability is key, leaders should not veer into becoming complete chameleons who lose their authenticity as they react. Completely assimilating to a host environment robs leaders of their unique differentiator and value, and can even trigger personal dissonance. Hence, authentic adaptation requires a high degree of self-awareness, maturity and wisdom. Are these in abundance in emerging leaders?
Finally, senior leaders in MNCs must want to take on the role. Undoubtedly, the average person will desire career progression and promotion. However, do emerging leaders want this badly enough to make some “sacrifices”? Are they hungry enough to move out of their comfortable home environment, challenge themselves and stay in a foreign (even hostile) host country for a few years? After all, it is through such international assignments that talent is stretched. It is through such crucibles that an emerging leader really learns to be comfortable with discomfort, build trust and relationships across boundaries, and adapt authentically across cultures.
Under Examination: Asian Talent
Against the above dimensions, how does Asian talent fare in particular? After 165 in-depth interviews with C-suite executives based in nine Asian countries, common consensus suggests that:
1. Dealing with volatility and uncertainty is quite inherent in the Asian DNA
Unless “Asian” means Singaporean or Japanese, of course. This is because in most Asian countries (such as India and developing Southeast Asia), uncertainty exists. It stems from poor infrastructure, whether physical or regulatory. The traffic chaos in Mumbai, Jakarta and Bangkok speaks for itself. In Vietnam, an interviewee pointed out, “The political system is communist but the market is capitalist. That in itself is an uncertain world, right?” Thus, Asian talent has grown up assuming that things will go wrong, and not that they will go right. Consequently, it becomes second nature to seek multiple options and then adapt. However, it is also interesting to note that some interviewees questioned if the ability of Asian talent to deal with uncertainty can be easily transferred from one country to another. For instance, a leader in Indonesia highlighted that Indonesian talent will lean on their networks to resolve issues. These networks tend to be local, and based on friendship, family ties or social strata. They are less defined by common goals or purpose. So what happens if the Indonesian talent is posted to China where he has no network as yet? Can he be just as effective at problem-solving?
2. Asian talent is often perceived as too quiet, too indirect or too non-transparent
English is the language of global business but many overlook the fact that it is not the first (or even second) language of most Asians. The Indians, Filipinos, Singaporeans and Malaysians may have the edge here, and the Chinese and Vietnamese hungry to learn and closing the gap. But the Japanese, Thais and Indonesians may quietly struggle. In general, the Asian communication style is also indirect.
Care is taken to respect the other party by not vocally disagreeing with their views, but to preserve their “face” and harmony. This is especially so when Asians address their seniors in hierarchy or age. Hence, where Western MNCs may value independent views, debates and charismatic executive presence, Asian talent is perceived to lack all these. Worse, when they quietly work at getting the job done, their silence can be perceived as a lack of transparency, which is detrimental to building trust. On the other hand, these Asians are probably thinking these thoughts of their more vociferous counterparts: “Why are they talking so much and repeating the same things? Why are they showing off? Let’s just get to work.”
3. The awareness to adapt depends on exposure; the willingness to do so depends on mind-set
Make no mistake: Asia is an incredibly diverse region. Each country has its own political history and significant economic development milestones. This determines the global exposure of its people. For example, as Singapore has positioned itself as an open economy and cosmopolitan city-state, attracting MNCs to use it as base for their regional operations, its people are not short on inter-cultural exposure. On the other hand, in Vietnam where economic development really only picked up steam after it signed the bilateral trade agreement with the US in 2001, the global exposure of its talent is just blossoming. Consequently, awareness that different countries and cultures are different, the underlying reasons for such differences, and how the talent can respond, needs more development.
Yet, awareness by itself is not sucient. There must also be a willingness to adapt. This takes an inclusive mindset — to listen (and not make snap judgements) and consider alternative ways to a problem (instead of insisting on one’s way). This is then a true measure of adaptability. And often, this rests on an individual’s journey, and the humbling lessons gained along the way.
4. Most Asian talent does not want to move away from home
With the exception of the Indians and Filipinos — possibly due to a lack of economic opportunities back home — most MNCs find it a frustrating experience convincing their Asian talent to take on an international assignment of a few years. The latter deem the costs too high, and offer a gamut of reasons. These include plentiful job opportunities at home (in fact, they may fall behind their local peers upon their return), a comfortable lifestyle (complete with domestic help and drivers), rootedness to the family and community, and more. For those who do eventually move, it is because they have arrived at a rational and emotional understanding that an international posting will reap a promising career or personal dividend. Hence, their “return on investment” will trump any short-term “sacrifice”.
Getting Ready for Global Roles
Now, perhaps you are an Asian talent reading this. Perhaps you recognise yourself (or some parts of you) in the above paragraphs. What can you do to develop further? How can you prepare to take on regional, even global responsibilities in the near future? After all, as much as employers should invest in developing their people and do the best by you, your career is your own. So how would you like to drive it? The C-suite executives we spoke to offer several suggestions. Here, we distil it down to three important “to-dos”.
1. Honestly ask yourself if you want to take on regional and global roles
A global career in business need not be for everyone. Some are perfectly happy to have local careers. Some wish to pursue other passions in life. So speak to different people and learn from their experiences. Then set time aside, sit down, and honestly examine the nature and depth of your career vision and aspirations. Knowing this will help anchor you to make certain sacrifices — and there will definitely be some ahead.
2. Plan and pursue an international assignment
You need to immerse yourself in a foreign environment for a few years Aside from cultivating cross-border skills, it helps you gain credibility with others. How can you say you are a global leader if you have only lived and worked in one market your whole life? So take a deep breath, and make that psychological switch to move. Then plan for it. Understandably, there will be certain periods in your life that best suit this. Talk to your managers and HR (and family members!) to map out a path, and make it a reality.
3. Speak up — in your own authentic way — and truly listen
If you are working for an organisation that prizes a more vocal form of communication, speak up. But do so authentically. Learn from a Japanese executive who, while born and bred in Japan (a country synonymous with indirect communication), rose to become the Asia president of a US MNC. He said, “Even today, my English level is not that perfect. I don’t speak that much in meetings compared to the Westerners. So, I need to hit the point when it comes to the decision-making that I know is important for my business and my team. So, I really prepare before the meeting and put the scenario in my mind. During the meeting, I watch very carefully how the conversation is going. When I see my time, I interrupt: ‘Hey, I have an opinion’. When there is no decision-making, let them talk. But when it comes to the point, I step up and say here is my perspective. I propose this and that [and say] therefore I need your investment and support. So, as long as I understand that and I hit that point during the meeting, even though I speak only five minutes out of two hours, it is okay.”
Note how this Japanese executive’s method involves careful watching and listening. Challenge yourself to go one step further. Beyond waiting for the opportunity to pounce with your own opinion, truly listen to the views of others. On a meta-level, this requires humility. And while often underestimated, research suggests that humility is an essential quality of all effective global leaders. It may seem like a paradox but when you start with humility, you finish with greatness.
To learn more about Leadership Mosaics Across Asia, visit here.