Leadership Mosaics Across Asia

HCLI Research
Published 27 June 2017

HCLI continues to help organisations accelerate human capital and leadership development in Asia, for a globalised Asia. One of its ways of doing so is to drive pan-Asian research – for Asia, from Asia. What can HCLI’s study of leadership in the region teach global leaders operating in Asia, and Asian talent keen to go global? Rebecca Siow picks our key insights from its flagship research platform, Leadership Mosaics Across Asia.

Insight #1: There is No Single Asian Way of Leadership

First, remember that Asia is incredibly diverse and that there is no one particular style of business leadership for the region. Diversity exists due to differences across economies and their institutions, and societies and their cultures.

A tale of two northeast Asian neighbours 

Take China and Japan. While both embrace Confucianism, differing economic fates have resulted in contrasting leadership and management styles. As Milko van Duijl, formerly President of Asia Pacific and Latin America at Lenovo, noted, “The DNA of Chinese management thinking is all about growth. How can we continue to grow and what must we do to continue grow?” Such thinking is understandable when one considers the rapid economic rise of China during the last few decades, where high growth rates have been the norm.

Moreover, a 2012 study by Chinese academics suggested that Chinese business leaders have taken quickly to modern management philosophies. The concept of business leadership only began in China upon the advent of economic reform, which started around 30 years ago.

Prior to this, business leaders merely fulfilled the production quotas set by the government and there was not much else to management and leadership. Following the arrival of nation’s open-door policy, business leaders needed to adapt quickly to the pressures of the global economy – importing foreign and typically Western management practices and philosophies helped to accelerate the process of modernisation.

However, the best Chinese business leaders do not just borrow from modern management; they infuse it with Chinese wisdom. In blending the best of East and West, Chinese business leaders have advanced global management practices. Take the example of strategy practice, which typically involves conceptual frameworks and box matrixes – while these are useful, Lenovo’s former chairman, Liu Chuanzhi also promoted fu pan, otherwise known as ‘replaying the chessboard’. In China, it is common to see on television a replay of a chess game, complete with a commentator analysing each move.

Aligning with this analogy, Lenovo frequently reflects on its moves from different angles, learning from both success and failure. In fact, Lenovo has institutionalised such reflection as an organisation, going beyond an individual’s ability to do so. Contrast this with leadership practices in Japan – an economy that has been stagnating for years. As Japan’s home market continues to decline, its leaders are increasingly pushed to go global in order to seek growth. This means moving away from homogeneity towards diversity – not only in values, but in management practices and HR processes and systems.

However, challenges such as language barriers and the inability to shake off the old ways of success exist. Perhaps more critically, the reluctance of Japanese top management to change – thus setting an unhelpful tone from the top – is a huge stumbling block. A Japanese academic once observed in jest, “Japanese companies will probably make the change in five years, longest 10 years. Most of the senior executives in Japan waiting for official retirement will be gone by then.”

Tips for action

What does Asia’s diversity mean for global leaders in the region? A key takeaway is to not apply the same approach within all countries – sometimes, not even across regions of a single country! Start with listening, to understand the diversity in Asia’s business leadership – why and how it was shaped due to the different economic, political and cultural influences. What styles may the local teams be used to, and what leadership qualities may they value?

Listen, observe and then adapt to successfully lead across borders. Be intentional even in your language use. For instance, HCLI deliberately named its research platform “Leadership Mosaics Across Asia”to indicate the diversity in the region. Like a mosaic, each leadership story and anecdote shared is a colourful piece on its own. However, when assembled together, they also create a compelling pattern of a country, and Asia.

Insight #2: Different Country Mosaics Can Reframe Asia’s Picture of Talent Scarcity

Despite teeming with bodies, Asia is also a picture of talent and leadership scarcity, especially to the beleaguered hiring or HR manager. Case in point: INSEAD’s 2013 Global Talent Competitiveness Index only has one Asian country – Singapore – in its top 20. When examining Asia’s human capital challenges, one approach is to problem-solve country by country. Given the diversity across Asia, this is a wise move.

However, the picture of talent scarcity in Asia may be reframed if the region’s diversity can be channeled differently.

Samples of Asia’s Mosaics

Let’s start with Singaporean talent, for instance. It is commonplace to hear senior executives say this talent is generally multicultural. Inheriting the legacy of a British colony, the talent is educated in Western thought and practices, and speaks English. These qualities, layered on their ethnic roots and the multiculturalism oft-promoted in national discourse, primes Singaporean talent to be a valued bridge between East and West. Yet, Singaporean talent also has one major flaw. Some have likened life in Singapore to that in a golden cage, and these talents may not deal well with volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) conditions, which are increasingly the norm.

Indian talent will likely not have this shortcoming. As Ajay Banga, CEO of MasterCard, once explained, “When I was growing up in India, electricity blackouts were common, so we learnt to have a power generator as backup, and have another backup for the backup. This instinctive ability to have a plan B, plan C and plan D is really useful when you take on a global role in today’s volatile world.” However, Indian talent may face claims of speaking excessively around the business table. They may also come across as overly assertive, argumentative and aggressive (possibly a by-product of survival in competitive India).

Indonesian talent too deserves mention. Influenced by Javanese beliefs that stem from the ideology of a peaceful and harmonious life, the Indonesian talent is observed to be calm and polite to others, regardless of their social position or the situation at hand. Yet, the Javanese concept of nrima may be detrimental. Broadly defined as an acceptance of present circumstances, some may interpret nrima to be a lack of ambition, and associate it with tolerance for failure and satisfaction with mediocrity.

Conveniently, Japanese talent offers a complementary advantage to this. Shaped by Japan’s traditions in technological excellence, methodical problem-solving and continuous improvement, Japanese talent can hardly be accused of being satisfied with mediocrity.

Tips for action

When measured against the requirements of business leadership, it is evident that talent in different Asian countries have their strengths and shortcomings. And amidst the diversity, complementariness can arise. In tackling the region’s talent scarcity challenge, line and HR managers should consider assembling balanced teams of Asia’s talent. They may be pleasantly surprised that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

For this to work however, the onus is also on Asia’s talent. They need to be self-aware, open-minded, willing to learn from – and work with – their neighbours. Simple steps include jotting down their current assumptions of different cultures, having a coffee chat with someone from these cultures to refine (even debunk) their assumptions, and reflecting on their learnings to develop a multidimensional view of their regional counterparts. Working together, the picture of talent scarcity in Asia may just be reframed to one of abundance.

This article first appeared in HQ Asia Issue 8 (2014).

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