The Four-Step Guide to Building Global Asian Leaders (Part 2)

The Four-Step Guide to Building Global Asian Leaders (Part 2)

Published 13th October 2017
Published 13th October 2017

In this article, HQ Asia discusses the final two roles that HR executives need to play to effectively develop global Asian leaders.

This is part 2 of the article. Click here to read part 1.

3. Innovative Marketer of global opportunities

If there is one thing that can derail the development of global Asian leaders it is the concern that Asian senior executives – especially in Singapore and China – have about relocating overseas. “As a global leader, you should have global experience, but it’s hard to urge leaders out of their home country. The majority of them aren’t comfortable with moving overseas,” said Phor.

Common concerns that senior executives have centred around missed-opportunities in their home country; potential local roles post global stint; anxiety at being away from the extended family; and adjusting to the new country’s lifestyle. “Due to the one-child policy in China, many leaders there have very strong family ties. Also China can offer multiple professional experiences, and leaders do not feel any urgency to move overseas for career development,” noted Phor.

Executives’ concerns are not always just limited to the physical relocation. There could also be genuine compensation adjustment issues. “There is a push for all executives to join on local compensation terms, and not on expat packages,” said Ahmed. For Singapore executives in particular this creates issues around compensation, as moving abroad would mean adjusting to higher tax rates. “This creates another hurdle for leaders looking for roles outside of Singapore,” said Ahmed.

Regional HR can find itself torn between the ambitious career aspirations of local leaders and its inability to offer multiple experiences within the home country. “It is a scale issue. For example, you could be a great leader in Singapore, but I can’t provide you many opportunities if you are not able to relocate, because of the [relatively small] size of local business, ” explained Monteiro.

3.1 Marketing roles

So what can HR do to ‘market’ global roles more creatively? The options include subtle interventions, such as positioning global roles as career advancements, to more practical approaches, such as creating a clearly defined ‘path’ for leaders to return home after a global rotation, or practically assessing compensation and benefits offered.

Regional HR can also leverage the power of storytelling to motivate their in-country leaders to aspire to take global career paths.

“We create regular roundtables and groups of high-potential employees and expose them to career stories of senior leaders who have had diverse experiences during their global career paths,” said Phor. “As HR leaders we should position these roles as career advancement opportunities in the leaders’ career paths, rather than highlighting the chances to go and work in another country,” said Ahmed.

3.2 Preparing a path home

Perhaps the biggest concern amongst senior executives is ensuring that they will eventually be posted back to their home country after their global rotations. To address this, regional HR needs to work jointly with their organisation’s leadership to realistically project future business scenarios in the country or region and evaluate what leadership opportunities may open up.

Pushp Deep Gupta, Senior Partner at Korn/Ferry International in Singapore, describes the challenge. “Regional HR heads need to do a better job at giving executives a way back to their home market after their international assignments end. Perhaps it’s due to a lack of clarity or a lack of confidence in the business’s future growth, but most HR and business leaders don’t have answers to questions about [an executive’s post-overseas assignments] career,” said Gupta.

3.3 Make relocation easier

Regional HR also needs to get creative around relocation options for a global role. Rather than just offering a three- to five-year relocation, ideally there should be multiple options on the table. These options could include an ‘extended business trip option’, where a leader would remain in their current location and manage the region through frequent business trips; or a short-term expat option, which entails a short-term relocation, often without moving the family.

“Structuring assignments into smaller chunks, breaking long engagements into three or four pieces, and being creative around tenures may be more acceptable to talent,” explained Gupta. “Executives are generally open to short-term engagements, but it needs a shift in the mindset of HR and hiring managers,” he said. In addition, he believes that the organisation must keep in consistent, frequent communication with the executive throughout their relocation to ensure he or she does not feel isolated.

3.4 Where to draw the line?

But is it all worth it? Is there a real need for regional HR to bend backwards to push executives to a global role that entails relocation?  “I wouldn’t try to push leaders over the line,” argued Monteiro. “In my experience, it does not work for expats who don’t want to be expats. They don’t want to be there, and it makes everybody miserable. Besides, there are enough executives who would want to go. I think it is the process of matching professional and personal aspirations.”

4. Astute Facilitator of global skills development

According to research by the Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI), there are three qualities that separate a great global leader from a successful in-country leader. These three qualities are the ability to:

  • Be comfortable with discomfort
  • Build relationships – both within and outside the organisation
  • Adapt authentically

Regional HR can either make the above attributes a prerequisite and build them into the selection process, or take steps to plug these gaps in an Asian leader’s experience or skill set.

4.1 Overcoming discomfort

HCLI research also indicates that, while Asian leaders are generally adept at adapting to different work conditions, they often lack the ability to influence stakeholders in a complex organisational structure. “Asian organisations are all about hierarchy, job titles, and working through those layers,” explained Monteiro. “But in a global organisation you need to influence and work your way through the matrix of multiple managers and other such executives.”

In addition to organisational complexity, Asian executives’ discomfort may also stem from working alongside executives from different cultures, the need to quickly develop networks and partners, and finding a balance between immersing in a foreign culture while also holding onto one’s own values and beliefs. One of the most popular ways to expose leaders to unfamiliar environments is through rotations and stretch roles. “Getting leaders to rotate is an almost mandatory requirement for global career paths at Mitsubishi. They need to experience multiple working environments, cultures and stakeholders as they move up in their career,” commented Matsuda.

Similarly, Ahmed highlights the importance of exposing leaders to challenging, ‘crucible’ roles early in their career. “In a competitive environment, where you are expected to get results, it is critical to create stretch opportunities early in the career,” she noted.

While most organisations have pre-posting immersion programmes – usually crash courses covering the history, culture and business – few invest in experts who partner with the incoming executive on the country’s business cultural nuances. This is a practice used at Kimberly-Clark for senior executives or critical roles.

‘Culture coaches’ may be in-company talent or outside experts who understand both the culture and the organisation. “When I moved to Kimberly-Clark’s China office, I had a culture coach who I could reach out to and say, ‘I’m not sure what happened in that meeting.’ He would help me dissect the situation and explain what I should have done in the cultural context,” said Monteiro.

4.2 Energising networks

The value of networks comes to the fore as executives move out of their home country and into a regional role. Different organisations use different routes to help executives build networks. These range from cross-country or regional roundtables, to fostering deep mentor-mentee relationships. “At McDonald’s it is impossible to work effectively if you’re not networked within the organisation as our’s is a deep knowledge, deep relationship business,” said Ahmed. “We ensure deep immersion in the organisation’s culture and network via mandatory on-boarding of all new employees. They go into the restaurants and run crew stations, shake the world famous fries and really see how our brand touches the customer.”  

Common network-building practices include regional leadership meetings in different locations. Khaneng explained, “JW Marriott conducts executive programmes where emerging leaders from different locations come together. These leaders build knowledge about JW Marriot’s global operations, and also develop their internal networks.”

Mentor-mentee programmes also go a long way towards building cross-region or cross-country relationships. Most global organisations have well-structured programmes for senior executives to guide and mentor emerging leaders. However, Phor cautions against having too much structure around such interventions, arguing that they seldom yield results if participants do not make personal connections.

4.3 Adapting honestly

In a globalised world the need to connect, adapt and tune-in to different cultures creates a real risk that executives may begin to feel or appear unauthentic. Ahmed cautions against Asians striving to adapt too much. “It is important to note who you are and how you will adapt,” she said. “Leaders need to draw a fine, but firm, line between what is acceptable in terms of value shifts and what is not.” However, Monteiro argues that international assignments have helped her understand herself better, reinforced her value system and shaped her leadership style.

A word of caution for HR

Regional HR heads have the global Asian leadership agenda to pursue. However, they need to tread a fine line between ‘pushing’ Asian talent into the global leadership pipeline and infringing upon the important value of meritocracy within an organisation. Therefore, even though most HR heads would like to track and benchmark the global Asian leader metric, they are cautious about the potential downside of doing so. It may result in instances of elevating Asian leaders even though they may not be ready and thereby setting them up for failure. All CHROs agree that irrespective of the origin, the best candidate should take up the role at the end of the day. 

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