Bridging the Divide: The Role of Regional Head

HCLI Research
Published 16 February 2015

The role of the regional president is a tough one. If done well, however, this role has the opportunity to develop local talent, drive business growth and shape the way global headquarters views and interacts with the region. HQ Asia spoke with Kimberly-Clark’s Achal Agarwal, President of Asia Pacific, about his role and views on this crucial post.

Achal Agarwal, Kimberly-Clark’s President of Asia Pacific, believes he developed a flexible leadership style early in his career. After spending the initial 17 years of his career in India, he took his first overseas assignment with PepsiCo in Guangzhou, China in 1997. “At that point, I knew very little about China,” he said. “I even went to look at guidebooks to figure out what China was about.”

Through sheer boldness of youth, Agarwal accepted the position and moved to China with his family – without ever having visited the country.

At the time, PepsiCo China was largely run by expatriates, who were trying to determine a model that would work in China but who were finding it difficult to reconcile the differences between the North American and Asian environment. Given his Indian background, which fused Asian values with the ability to communicate well in English with his Western counterparts, Agarwal was able to act as a bridge between expatriates and locals. In addition, growing up in a country with poor infrastructure enabled him to be highly adaptable and flexible.

Today Agarwal, who is now responsible for Kimberly- Clark’s entire Asia Pacific operations, still exemplifies this versatile and flexible perspective. He considers himself a situational leader, moulding his style to the needs of the individual. “This is essential given the diversity of Asia. The way I lead in North Asia is very different from say how I lead in Australia, in both style and business strategy.” He explains that in East Asian countries like South Korea, where the collectivist spirit necessitates a focus on the group, he should respect that and focus on that level when setting direction. In Australia, where individual contribution and accomplishments have greater acceptance, he places equal emphasis on key individuals and the team while articulating the vision.

Although his role requires him to understand and react to the cultural nuances across his jurisdiction, he is also clear that Kimberly-Clark is a global organisation with its own values and culture. To this end, he believes that some values and goals – such as innovation, authenticity, accountability and caring for others – must cut across all cultures and boundaries, and must be implemented. In addition, he sees it as his role to keep the parent company – based in the US – in sync with the diverse and rapidly developing business climate in Asia. “To resolve this, I am completely transparent and use a lot of communication to get everyone at headquarters on board with what we are doing. If we do not communicate constantly, we will run into problems sooner or later because of misunderstandings,” said Agarwal.

Developing Global Leadership

In the war for talent in Asia, where turnover is around twice that of the West (15.2% in Asia Pacific, compared to 7% in the US according to PricewaterhouseCoopers), to win you have to offer unique value. Agarwal believes that a model of real empowerment is a unique selling proposition for employee recruitment. Given Kimberly- Clark’s relatively flat organizational nature, there are few levels between Agarwal and the lower members of his team. The ability to have decision-making power even at lower levels of the organisation is attractive to prospective employees.

Secondly, Agarwal believes that by being highly selective, the company creates a cycle whereby more top talents want to work at Kimberly- Clark. “This means you develop a reputation in the marketplace. This is attractive to top talent to be seen as meeting a high bar – they want to work for a company like that.”

Agarwal believes the best way to develop someone to handle tough challenges is to put them in a difficult environment. He often takes leaders from more developed parts of the region – for instance, South Korea, Singapore and Australia – and moves them to developing markets. “Rotating people into these markets makes them more well-rounded leaders. Those who are successful both in the ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ environments will go all the way to the top.”

In his opinion, being mobile is important for talent with leadership aspirations, adding that most of the young leaders he meets today are hungry for these opportunities, especially those who grew up with difficult circumstances. “This is why lots of leaders from emerging markets become good leaders,” he said.

To further develop a global mindset, Agarwal notes they have started to export young Asian leaders back to the headquarters in the US. He explained, “We do this because as we groom young leaders, I want to expose them to our US leaders and get their buy-in. Then, when vacancies arise at headquarters, they are asked to fill those roles.” For example, two leadership positions recently opened in the US and two of Agarwal’s Chinese leaders were sought to fill them, because the people back at headquarters were familiar with them.

While such international experience is beneficial to employees, there is also a huge benefit to the global headquarters. According to Agarwal, Asian leaders tend to be entrepreneurial, nimble and have learned to make decisions on very little information. These traits bring fresh and unique perspectives to the developed markets in the West, where growth rates are slow in some categories of consumer products. “I have seen emerging market leaders who went abroad breaking functional silos, and making quick decisions without perfect information. The biggest impact they had was to influence the organisational culture for the better.” The key for this to happen is to have senior leaders in headquarters that embrace changes and seek progress.

Seizing the Opportunity

Being in charge of the Asia-Pacific region for a global company, Agarwal is expected to juggle multiple roles. The regional head often needs to balance between the demands on the ground and the expectations of headquarters. To succeed in this tug of war, one must be both culturally aware and flexible. These are skills that are developed at an early age and honed early in one’s career.

When asked to offer tips, Agarwal encourages aspiring leaders to grab every opportunity that comes their way. “I was advised not to go to PepsiCo in China because people at the time said it was a career graveyard, but I went anyway and it was the best decision of my life.”

Agarwal says he did not always plan for the long term, but he took opportunities when they came along, even when they were difficult. He argues that crises happen; that is when you learn the most. “People who stick to too safe a path are missing out on those experiences.

Asian Talent Myths

Agarwal’s role as a bridge between Western headquarters and Asian operations is perfect for dispelling some prevalent myths about Asian leaders. He offers three such myths (while recognising the stereotypes for both the West and the East):

Myth 1: Asian Leaders are Not Very Strategic

Being able to communicate in an articulate manner is key to success and more so in the Western business culture. This can sometimes be difficult for Asians, especially because English proficiency is not as high. Some Asians can be perceived as not bright or strategic simply due to that language barrier.

Myth 2: Asian Leaders Lack Enthusiasm

Western cultures can be more expressive in their demonstration of passion, while Asian cultures tend to be somewhat understated. That does not mean that the Asians are any less passionate or committed. The difference in expression can lead to misunderstandings at times as leaders from the West are used to much greater vocal expression or endorsement.

Myth 3: Asians are Not Innovative

Some say that there is lack of innovation in Asia – that they are simply copycats. But, for example, Korean product innovation is top-notch and our Chinese and Korean teams are best-in-class for e-commerce and digital innovation. Over time this perception will change and, Agarwal said, “I think you are going to see more and more innovation originating from our region.”

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