Tips for New Expat Leaders in Asia

Tips for New Expat Leaders in Asia

Published 28th September 2016

Interim Head of Research & Insights at the Human Capital Leadership Institute

Published 28th September 2016

Are you a foreign leader new to Asia? HCLI’s latest research initiative, Leadership Mosaics Across Asia offers tips that will help you engage your local team in nine Asian markets.

Leading in Asia can be a very different ballgame for the foreign leader who has just arrived in the region. While he or she may have been oriented by HR to the cultural faux pas to avoid, or the rules of business etiquette to observe, the foreign leader in Asia needs to be aware of more fundamental issues. For instance, what is the local workforce’s expectation of him or her as a leader? What attributes or behaviours can he or she demonstrate to win the hearts of the people?

Based on our research, we headline three things that the new foreign leader should watch out for – and the corresponding tips for action. As Asia is an incredibly diverse region – Singapore is not China, China is not Japan, etc. – we will do a “quick regional tour” of Asia’s three top markets here to help you better appreciate the nuanced differences.

So, if you are engaging your local team in:

Mainland China

  • You will still need to use monetary incentives but do not underestimate their sense of achievement as a powerful motivator. Play up this lever, especially when you cannot afford to pay top-notch salaries.
  • Beware of the ‘Big China’ ego - China has transformed radically in economic and political prowess, and coming in as an expat will not automatically accord you respect. Instead, be sure to give respect to others and value add to the local team.
  • Your Chinese workers may not be natural collaborators - there is a strong sense of individualism and self-interest. Hence, introduce collaboration by having them experience the benefits of it themselves.


  • Pay special attention to their need for an emotional connection. Beyond business matters, learn about their family and share about yours. Be personal.
  • You may soon realise that your Indian subordinates are very aspirational, career-wise. An Indian CEO opined that everyone thinks that they are rock stars! Now, it is impossible to promote everyone every year. Do not shy away from open conversations about their developmental areas. Balance the “hard truth” with sincerity in your intent to want what is best for them and their development.
  • In spite of the chaos confronting you every day in India, do not underestimate your team’s ability to accomplish things. Keep track of their progress and follow up, but also be patient and believe in them.


  • You may wonder if your team will ever come to work on time. After all, everyone says that the traffic is atrocious. However, do not let this be an excuse. Start with yourself - role model all behaviours that you desire or expect of your employees.
  • It sounds counterintuitive, but take fun seriously to get serious business done. Don’t be all dry about the KPIs. Introduce elements of fun into the course of work. Can there be friendly inter-departmental competition? One point to note: fun must be experienced together, not individually.
  • Because the sense of togetherness is important, recognise the power of social recognition or social pressure. For instance, when dealing with a wayward employee, do not issue warning letters or openly shame him or her in front of others. Rather, have a team discussion on desirable behaviours and agree on them. One expat leader in Indonesia found that his wayward employee soon changed his behaviour to conform to group expectations.  

Curious to know more? Visit Leadership Mosaics Across Asia to receive access to the nine country reports published under this research. Aside from China, India, and Indonesia, other Asian markets covered include Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Each country report comes with a cheat sheet for foreign leaders new to the country, comprising seven tips for engaging local employees. For each tip, there will be an elaboration of the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’. Get your report now!

Back to top