Can Southeast Asia Develop Its Global Leaders?

HCLI Research
Published 27 July 2017

How ready are Southeast Asia’s emerging leaders to lead across borders? Human Capital Leadership Institute assesses their ability to navigate a volatile and uncertain world, engage across global boundaries and adapt to different cultures. HCLI’s Rebecca Siow draws out key insights from the organisation’s ongoing flagship research initiative, Leadership Mosaics Across Asia.

When HCLI speaks to senior business and HR leaders in Singapore regarding local emerging talent, we often hear that they are superb administrators that deliver execution ‘to a tee’. Singaporean talent are recognised for their structured thinking regarding challenges and solutions, and their rigorous and meticulous approach to process. However, the caveat is that Singapore’s emerging leaders require clarity of direction, and that tasks must be defined, processes and structure set in place and data available for analysis.

In short, Singapore-based leaders believe that the country’s own emerging talent do not thrive in an environment of complexity and ambiguity. Unfortunately, this is the nature of the growth markets in developing Asia, South America and Africa. Through HCLI’s Leadership Mosaics Across Asia research initiative, which interviewed around 30 senior business and human resource executives based in Singapore and Indonesia as of end 2014, it emerged that Singapore’s emerging leaders are viewed as less likely to display creativity and lateral thinking. Both are key assets to surviving and excelling in a volatile and uncertain world.

In contrast, most Indonesian emerging leaders are adept at navigating a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. Although it is more stable than previously, Indonesia continues to have a VUCA business and economic environment. A Jakarta-based Singaporean said, “[Indonesia’s next-gen leaders] can adjust to the flexibility and demands of today’s world, unlike their Singaporean counterparts.” Other Indonesian executives explained that Indonesians’ flexibility has been cultivated in an operating environment where business assumptions continuously change.

Why So Modest? Why So Polite?

According to Leadership Mosaics Across Asia interviewees, the main barrier facing Southeast Asians is communication. They need to better sell themselves and their ideas, and articulate their opinions and challenge the opinions of others. Understated communication styles do not promote visibility, which is critical in building and maintaining relationships beyond the region.

For instance, one interviewee said that the Singaporean emerging leader tends to be too modest and undersells their project or idea. “In the US, people generally market [themselves] a lot,” said the interviewee. “In Singapore, good guys may tell you ‘seven’ when it is actually ‘10’.” Another interviewee felt that Singaporean emerging leaders are ‘intellectually convincing’, but not ‘emotionally appealing’.

Indonesia’s emerging talent face additional challenges when compared to their Singaporean counterparts. English — the language of global business — is not the first language of many Indonesians. Also, Indonesians, especially the Javanese, are used to polite conversations, particularly with those who are senior to them in age and hierarchy. Javanese culture emphasises sensitivity and harmony, and many Indonesians are not used to expressing their opinions in a frank and direct manner.

Moving Beyond Multiculturalism

An essential part of leading across borders is adapting to different cultures. Singapore’s culturally and racially diverse society has given many emerging Singaporean leaders personal and professional experience of a multicultural environment. For instance, during strategic discussions on Asian consumers, they could contribute valued insights on Indian or Chinese culture.

However, HCLI research reveals that Singaporean emerging leaders can appear impatient when operating in developing markets, and tend to lead by giving instructions. One interviewee said Singaporean leaders must be more flexible: “It doesn’t matter what one is rigid at. The fact that one is rigid almost certainly means one is going to be wrong.”

An Indonesia-based Singaporean leader recounted that when Indonesians propose solutions, their Singaporean counterparts’ first instinct is to highlight difficulties. The Singaporean leader argued that his countrymen, rather than being constructive, would examine a suggestion to see if they are being manipulated or taken advantage of. Indonesia is also very multicultural, with approximately 350 ethnic groups and 250 languages across its 17,000 islands. One Indonesian interviewee emphasised, “We have many religions in Indonesia. We have different races. We are used to adapting to each other’s culture.”

However, a Singaporean executive who had spent almost a decade in Indonesia pointed out this cultural adaptability only really works within Indonesia — Indonesians do not mind going from one province to another, as the culture is still broadly familiar. When Indonesians go overseas, however, they face challenges. A senior Indonesian leader shared his experience when, on his first international assignment in the UK, he found that going to the pub was a typical way of celebrating success among his colleagues. Although his religion taught that alcohol is sinful, the executive resolved the issue by seeing the pub as a social gathering place, similar to the teahouse in Indonesia.

With this new perspective, he adapted his behaviour by joining his colleagues at the pub, but stayed true to his values by drinking orange juice instead.

Help Thy Neighbour to Grow

Growing the emerging leaders of Southeast Asia into global leaders requires a multi-prong approach. At the organisational level, senior business and HR leaders often endorse functional and geographical rotations, exercises in confidence building, and mentoring by local senior leaders who are also successful global leaders.

One of the Leadership Mosaics Across Asia interviewees, an Indonesian leader with businesses in both Singapore and Indonesia shared, “Indonesia is a living lab because you still have people living in the Stone Age, and you have Jakarta. One flight, an hour away, there is Singapore with a different ecosystem.”

How can these two different ecosystems come together to develop global leaders?

In many global studies, Singapore is often highly ranked on government effectiveness, political stability and the ease of doing business. In contrast, Indonesia is almost the polar opposite. However, this is precisely what forces the Singaporean emerging leader to hone his skills in navigating a VUCA region and world. How would a Singaporean emerging leader deal with, for example, labour market inflexibility in an environment where firing an employee is constrained by both legal and cultural norms?

Conversely, Singapore’s business environment is more global. It is the regional headquarters for many multinationals. An Indonesian working in Singapore has to speak English and communicate effectively to influence external and internal stakeholders. Moreover, Singapore is still rooted in its Asian heritage. This may offer a more gradual — and hence, comfortable — transition for the Indonesian emerging leader on his first international assignment.

Global Mobility Remains a Challenge

The successful interaction of these two countries’ ecosystems ultimately depends on their emerging leaders’ willingness to move across borders. However, many Singaporean emerging leaders are unwilling to relocate, often citing security and safety concerns, relative standards of living, low levels of taxation and familial commitments. Indonesian emerging leaders face similar issues, and may be even more integrated into their familial and social networks. There are also ample job opportunities in both countries, lessening the incentive to relocate overseas.

Think ROI Instead

To overcome this immobility, it may be constructive for organisations to help their emerging leaders shift their mind-set towards return on investment (ROI). HR functions should help leaders understand the value of going overseas. For instance, one HR executive explained to a Singaporean emerging leader that going overseas would create more career opportunities when they returned to Singapore. “When you come back, whether or not you’re still with our company, you would have gained an outlook and worldliness that differentiates you from many others. Take that opportunity while you can,” argued the HR executive.

At the same time, Singaporean and Indonesian leaders who have successfully gone global could become powerful role models — their stories could help create a vision for other emerging leaders to strive for. Aspiring global leaders must stop calculating the immediate opportunity costs of leaving their home countries. Instead, they must appreciate how global mobility can help them develop global leadership competencies. They — and the mentors, role models and HR supporting them — should start anticipating the future ROI of moving to a host country. In so doing, Southeast Asia may just become a wellspring of effective global leaders in the near future.

This article first appeared in HQ Asia Issue 9 (2015).

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