Speak Up To Go Global

Speak Up To Go Global

Published 3rd March 2015
Published 3rd March 2015

Shanti L Poesposoetjipto is Chairman of PT Samudera Indonesia Tbk, an Indonesian shipping, logistics and port operations organisation. A proud Indonesian and an active contributor to the management education scene, HQ Asia speaks with her on how the archipelagic nation’s next generation of business leaders can go global.

The Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI) seeks to build Asian leaders who can lead on the global stage. As emerging Indonesian leaders go global, what key challenges are they likely to face?

For Indonesians, it is the ability to speak the language, and master it. While Indonesia has many ethnic languages and we are used to such diversity, the challenge is to speak the language of your audience to a level such that you will not only not offend, but actually win their hearts.

The other challenge is simply to speak up. In a global setting that is predominantly Westernised, it is the norm to discuss, even argue, to try and arrive at the best solution to a problem. However, Indonesians come from a ‘traditional’ culture that is not as forthright, in order to demonstrate their respect for others. The Javanese culture in particular involves a lot of sensitivity.

Indonesians working at multinationals are more exposed to differences between Indonesia and other cultures and are more accustomed to speaking up. But those from Indonesian organisations or from our government will now have to learn that it is fine to discuss, argue and incorporate different opinions to arrive at a productive result.

You are a leader of a global business in your own right. How did you personally learn to speak up?

Well, “speak up” is a phrase that my parents used to say to me in my childhood. During the Dutch colonial period, only privileged indigenous Indonesians had access to higher education. Those young educated indigenous Indonesians in the early 1940s were then the intellectual freedom fighters of Indonesia. My parents happened to be part of the privileged, so they were fluent in Dutch, English as well as in French. In the late 1940s, they were sent by the Indonesian government to the US as some of the earliest Indonesian diplomats. They were then 28 and 24 years of age. When they returned after four years, they came back with the experience of how business and government worked in the West. In addition, they had vision and national pride. Growing up in that ecosystem, I learnt to attain self-confidence and the courage to speak up.

Also, while my father is Javanese, my grandmother and my mother come from the Minangkabau region in Central Sumatra. In this part of Indonesia, the matriarchal system prevails and the woman is the ‘inheritor’ – family wealth and assets pass along the female line – and so the Minangkabau women are used to taking things into their own hands. Hence, it is in our family culture to sit at the dining table and have open discussions. It is the same scene in the office of our family business. But I must point out this is not common in Indonesian culture.

It is likely fair to say that your experience is the exception to the rule. In a work or organisational context, how can emerging Indonesian leaders be trained to speak up?

This is something that most of them are not used to doing, so you really have to give them more courage to speak up. You have to solicit their opinions and create an environment of encouragement. In meetings for instance, I would give my budding leaders an overview of the world’s increasing interest in Indonesia, and ask, “Why should Indonesia react? What are the risks for Indonesia and for our company? What do you see? You are free to say, you are free to speak. Speak your mind.”

Just a couple of days ago, I brought two of my directors to meet with a foreign research company. It had been researching in the field of human resources in Indonesia, and wanted to pick our brains. “What can we do to have quick wins?” they asked. Now, this is not an easy question because many things are long term, but everyone always wants to have a quick win! But because my directors are on the ground, they easily gave our guests two to three quick wins. If you invite your Indonesian emerging leaders to join you in your discussions and encourage them, they will speak up. They will gain confidence with experience. It is an iterative process.

I also give my leaders individual opportunities to travel overseas. There are always offers from the developed countries to go to conferences or programmes. When you think about it, Singapore is just a short flight away from Jakarta, but it is a very different ecosystem. So I would pick these leaders to go, and they usually come back with their eyes opened.

Jakarta is the world’s most active city in terms of number of tweets. Are Indonesians speaking up, albeit in a different way?

Aside from Twitter, Indonesia has 200 million mobile phone users, 80 million smartphone users, and 135 million Internet users. It is number four globally in terms of Facebook users. We are fortunate that we have the PALAPA communication satellites that launched in 1976 – this has enabled our archipelagic nation to communicate. We are still lacking in the physical infrastructure of roads and bridges, but not in technology that enables us to communicate.

People are using a variety of gadgets to communicate. Not only in the upper levels of society but nationwide, our people are not shy about adopting whatever is put into their hands. They are also able to afford it. Twice, I have seen my helper at the back of my house, speaking via the wireless Internet on her tablet, as she swept the floor and did the dishes. I asked, “Who are you talking with?” She replied, “Oh, it’s my cousin in South Africa. His wife currently is a staff at the Indonesian embassy there.”

The result is a more open society. In the old days, you had to wade through bureaucracy. Now with Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook and SMS, you can direct whatever feedback you feel is right to whomever you want.

On the business front, online and real-time information means you have to be more alert. You have to learn to work with technology and understand how it will affect your business. The Indonesian business community’s biggest client used to be the government, but with the introduction of technology, computer science, the Internet and globalisation, it is now a market-driven environment. Indonesian businesses have to learn about retail markets rather than business-to-business corporate dealings. It is a totally different approach and philosophy, and it is my generation, the incumbents who are being challenged.

As part of this incumbent generation of leaders, how are you learning and adapting?

Well, first of all you have to understand that my educational and professional background is IT, so I follow the trends and its impact toward society. I face the realities, and I talk about it. When I am invited by management schools to share what I am experiencing in my job, I show them what the realities are. I also observe that some of my generation are dependent on their grandchildren to navigate the new world, such as using their smartphones. It is a big change, but the encouraging part is that this adds colour to your family life.

While the incumbent generation of leaders may lean on the younger generation to do the job, we can also assist and guide them. Our younger leaders are technologically savvy and better educated, but they still lack the wisdom that comes with experience and failure. Sometimes, they are dazzled – or confused – by the many opportunities put before them, and they do not know which to pick or how to go about it. The current environment is also one of affluence, and they may not want to step out of their comfort zone.

For my generation, we have to trust the younger generation despite their inexperience. But we should not retire and do our own thing. Based on current mortality rates, if we retire at 65, we still have another decade or two to live! We should listen, guide, be patient (even as the younger generation is impatient), allow them to make mistakes, and give them the comfort that we are there for them. It is actually a nice synergy if we are all willing to go through it together.

Just as HCLI hopes to develop Asian talents into global leaders, we also aim to help global leaders understand and learn from Asia. From your vantage point of a leader deeply rooted in Indonesia and proud of your country, what can Indonesia teach the world?

Indonesia is highly networked, and within that, it is about living with diversity through community. At the micro level, let me give you an example of my extended family. My grandfather had six wives, consecutively. He had 23 children and when he passed away in 1965, there were more than a hundred grandchildren. But we lived in harmony because my grandmother took care of the elder stepchildren since they were little, and we, the grandchildren, now still catch up every month.

At the macro level, Indonesia’s motto is unity in diversity. When he was president, President Sukarno’s mission was the unity of the country. Others may see Indonesia as the ‘biggest Muslim country’ but our culture is not Muslim. We have Christians, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, people who practice Confucianism, even some who still practice animism. Indonesian culture has been, and still is, a blend, and this is respected and accepted as our culture.

I travelled with Indonesian friends of Chinese descent to Tibet and Xinjiang. After that, we visited my mother’s home town Bukittinggi and its surroundings in Central Sumatra, as well as other beautiful parts of our country, such as Belitung island and Ora island in Maluku. When we were first introduced, they knew me as a daughter of a respected businessman and as an executive of a big company. But after we travelled and hung out together, we encountered mutual values and appreciation of the different cultures, the beauty of our own country, and the pride of being Indonesians aside from the meaning of friendship. It is about living together in a society as a member of a community.

In the globalised world of today, where technology enables us to communicate with each other regardless of our geographical presence, I recognise the different individual strengths one can leverage upon – I notice that there is a new form of leadership emerging, which I tend to call ‘shared leadership’. We might have to forgo having just one leader, as there are circumstances where we would need a particular kind of leadership, and the person with the particular trait of leadership should take the helm. As circumstances change, somebody else should take up the lead. A mode of leadership one has to be willing to adopt, this is something I see evolving in the current globalised world of today.

Back to top