Technology, Leadership and Mobility in Asia
Julian Persaud, Global Head of Operations, Airbnb Experiences, shares his thoughts on Asia’s technology trends, the leadership styles and skills he values most and the underestimated importance of talent mobility.
From a leadership perspective, Julian Persaud believes that the best challenges exist in Asia. Leaders in the region must manage an increasingly international team of employees, while continuing to hold and grow market share in a dynamic, fast-changing environment. He’s speaking from experience. A seasoned global leader, Persaud got his start in London in the dot-com boom before moving to Sydney to head Business Development at Google Australia, then became Director of Sales and Operations for Google Australia, before moving to Singapore to be Managing Director of Google Southeast Asia. He is now Regional Director of Asia-Pacific at Airbnb. Having spent over 11 years in the Asia-Pacific region, his only wish is that he had come sooner.
Tech Trends: Asia’s Mobile Disruptions
Overall, Persaud believes that the Asian marketplace is driven by a combination of huge growth, entrepreneurial spirit, confidence and mobile ingredients. In particular, there are a number of tech and mobile trends occurring in Asia that Persaud believes are shaping how industry players and leaders look at both the region and the world.
“Asia has massive assets,” he says. “From a mobile and tech perspective, Asia adopted technology much more quickly than many Western countries.” Since technology and Internet markets sit within Asia, Persaud believes it’s vitally important for international and aspiring international companies to have a presence within Asia.
Mobile in particular is a megatrend. “People organise their trips on a mobile, and record and share experiences in real time,” says Persaud. “This also plays to the Asian psyche.” He explains that people depend more and more on their mobiles, and as a result, new connections are now possible. “As our world becomes bigger and the population gets larger, people seek out unique, personal experiences,” says Persaud, using Airbnb as an effective example of these patterns.
Another Asian tech trend is the increase in local entrepreneurs and companies developing and innovating digital products and services. Persaud says the Internet has lowered many barriers, including communication and outreach.
This has aided globalisation and provided more opportunities for technology entrepreneurs to enter the shared economy. “Any business serious about e-commerce needs to have an Asia story and to be investing heavily in Asia,” he says, “especially since mobile Internet use yields e-commerce.”
In the ever-evolving spheres of mobile, online and technology, organisations must also take into account that they operate across different regulatory regimes. As both Airbnb and Google operate internationally, Persaud believes it is essential to have positive engagement with authorities. Open lines of communication lead to changes and adaptation of laws. For example, in the UK, the City of London amended its housing legislation to legally allow homeowners to rent out their home on websites such as Airbnb for up to three months a year.
Leadership Styles: Listen Well and Role Model
Six years ago, when Persaud arrived in Singapore from Sydney, he quickly learned to adapt his leadership style by listening first. “It’s easy to think you can import your way of doing things, but it’s a lazy way to think,” he says. He stresses the importance of understanding cultural points of view and making adjustments where necessary. For example, Persaud points out that Google and Airbnb are diverse, international companies, so it’s essential to be flexible around different business cultures and expectations.
“Most of the best ideas don’t come from the leaders, but from the people on the ground who are building the business. Make use of your local team members who have lots of cultural and institutional knowledge. Build that into how you are operating,” says Persaud.
However, Persaud says that while it is important to adapt his leadership style, the tone that a leader sets does matter. He has learned that to influence a company, he must be a role model and lead by example. Persaud has embraced the idea of failing early and failing quickly. So, at a previous company, he introduced an internal training exercise known as ‘Fabulous Failures’, whereby the company’s leadership each shared their failures to demonstrate that risks were valued.
Persaud deliberately shared his own failure first. Then, everyone was encouraged to make a two-minute video showcasing their failures. Prizes and incentives were also created to entice employees to share their own ‘Fabulous Failures’. Initially, Persaud says people were nervous, but they eventually realised they could learn something from the exercise. Equally, it reinforced to him how role modelling is critical for a team.
Leadership Skills: Think Fast, Decide Faster
A critical skill for Western leaders looking to build their online business presence in Asia is the ability to make quick decisions. “In Internet companies, years are dog years. If you’re not failing enough, then you aren’t moving fast enough. Accept that things won’t always go right,” he says.
This speed of response was one of the things that first attracted him to technology. “Businesses can test a product with users in real time,” says Persaud. This allows companies to get almost-instantaneous user feedback and use this information to reinforce the company’s relationship with its community. Persaud advises leaders to protect and support their community and users. Once you do that, growth happens naturally.
Another skill that leaders of global companies should cultivate is how to maintain the company’s culture when the organisation is growing quickly. He argues that leaders should maintain their company’s DNA by listening to the local team, which preserves the local flavour, while also maintaining a global mission. Airbnb has made the company culture a top priority. CEO and cofounder, Brian Chesky, talks about the topic frequently, which contributed to Persaud’s decision to join the fastgrowing hospitality company.
The Importance of Talent Mobility
Talent mobility — the movement of talent within an organisation — is an important facet of both leadership development and building a better company. Persaud compares effective employees to positive DNA within the body of an organisation. “It’s important to be able to move positive DNA from one area to another and to make that movement as easy as possible,” he explains.
“My father used to tell me that it takes two hands to clap,” says Persaud. He argues that successful talent mobility depends on the organisation and its leadership, and the people the organisation hires. As much as there is pressure to have people stay in their original roles in order to limit the need to hire anew, Persaud believes that giving talented emerging leaders the opportunity to become global leaders through relocation requires organisations to be flexible. An aspiring global leader does not need to be an expert in one area, so organisations should facilitate mobility and make it easier for effective employees to move around.
Aspiring global leaders must embrace mobility to ensure they are more rounded. “You must throw yourself out of your comfort zone,” says Persaud. “To stretch professionally, you need to continually leave your comfort zone.”
Those companies that create an environment that facilitates this talent mobility among aspiring global leaders, such as encouraging people to apply for jobs internally, will be rewarded with increased talent mobility. “Where the company is facilitating movement, we see more movement,” he says.
To facilitate this mobility, organisations need to hire the right people. One group that Persaud believes is generally predisposed to moving internally is the Millennial Generation. He argues that this demographic cohort is less risk averse than their predecessors, Generation X. Given how easy it is to travel, Millennials can be an asset to a company because they are willing to move around.
Similarly, Persaud explains that within 21st century companies, a close relationship between the business leader and the head of human resources (HR) is crucial to produce the optimal hiring process. Innovative HR practices help design effective business practices. Though it takes a lot of time to cultivate talent, attention to detail and a clear projection of company culture can positively influence the business’ success.