The Four-Step Guide to Building Global Asian Leaders (Part 1)

HCLI Research
Published 23 January 2015

As regional HR teams ramp up talent practices in Asia to match global standards, business heads are increasingly expecting HR to create leadership talent that can both lead in Asia and represent the region in the global arena. In part 1 of this 2-part article, HQ Asia highlights initiatives regional HR teams are undertaking in order to create global Asian leaders, and identifies the roles HR will need to play along the way.

The pendulum of growth has gradually but surely swung away from Western economies and towards Asia over the last few years. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development projects that Asia will grow at almost 7% over the next five years, and predictions that the region could become the world’s largest economy (by GDP contribution) by 2030 do not seem idle speculation. This growth is leading global organisations to anticipate that Asia will drive the top line over the next decade. In fact, most enterprises that do not have an ‘Asia strategy’ in place are already considered to have missed the Asian bandwagon.

Why ‘global Asian leaders’ are important

While most businesses see Asia as a long-term prospect, and are investing in physical infrastructure and economic assets, few are focusing on developing the most critical lever that – according to global consultancies – could make the Asian growth dream a reality: leadership talent. Organisations in Asia need Asian leaders who can both lead businesses and – more importantly – bring the Asian perspective to global teams. This emerging cadre of ‘global Asian leaders’ embodies local knowledge with a global perspective and networks. However, they are in short supply.

According to a 2012 McKinsey survey, just 2% of the top 200 employees in global companies are located in Asian emerging markets. Given that these markets are likely to account for one-third of sales over the next few years, this is a looming issue for multinational corporations. The majority of regional Chief HR Officers (CHROs) are aware of this impending problem, yet they currently face more immediate talent issues that revolve around recruitment, retention, development and engagement. Forward-thinking organisations are, however, investing disproportionate time and effort when compared to their competition to stay ahead of the curve in the global Asian leadership development race.

Four steps to building a global leader

To deliver a global Asian leader, regional HR teams must ensure that they are perceived within the organisation as playing four business-critical roles:

  1. Trusted Advisor: Ensure Asia’s talent agenda remains top-of-mind for their key internal stakeholders
  2. Passionate Advocate: Create opportunities for Asian talent to get the experience required to step into global leadership roles
  3. Innovative Marketer: Position global roles for Asian leaders as both attractive and career advancing
  4. Astute Facilitator: Continuously help talent develop the necessary skill sets – such as being comfortable with discomfort, creating internal and external networks, and being able to adapt authentically to succeed in a global role

The above roles are diverse, and cover multiple functions. Excelling at them all is no easy task. Regional HR teams in Asia therefore need to ensure that they can deliver in each aspect.

1. Trusted Advisor to key stakeholders

Although regional HR needs to drive Asia’s leadership agenda, the mandate to create more global leaders rests with headquarters. “Unless the corporate business plays a big role, local business or regional HR is likely to fail in the pursuit of building the global Asian leadership pipeline,” said Phor Hooi Khoon, senior HR practitioner who has led regional HR at multiple technology companies such as Dell, Intel and Seagate. He added, “Headquarters not only needs to buy into and believe in the business case for developing global Asian leaders, it needs to allocate budgets too. Rotations and training programmes cost money.”

While business leaders may appreciate the long-term benefits of developing the global Asian leadership pipeline, they also have to meet more immediate business targets. This is where regional HR needs to step in.

Regional HR must speak the business language, understand metrics critical to business, be a part of the annual planning, and tie business plans to the leadership agenda

The function needs to make sure that the leadership development agenda remains relevant in all conversations with local and corporate business. “HR needs to advise business on how to build Asian talent, and suggest interventions, experiences and development plans for emerging leaders,” said Phor.

The regional CHRO may need to play the role of a ‘myth-buster’ for global leadership, explains Naomi Monteiro, Regional CHRO at Kimberly-Clark. “There is this myth of a capability gap,” said Monteiro, which she attributes to widely held misconceptions. “While there is undoubtedly a difference in capability between talent in emerging and developed markets, the emerging market talent is operating in emerging markets, not in developed markets where different capabilities are needed.” Monteiro argues that any overseas move has a built-in learning curve. “If a company were to move its Chinese marketing director to North America, he or she would have to relearn the role- as would the American director moving to China.”

1.1 The role of regional HR

As a trusted advisor, regional HR needs to be the ear on the ground for global HR. Regional HR must therefore set the expectations for global HR on the rate at which Asian leadership can be built. Saudi Khaneng, Director of HR at JW Marriott in Thailand explained, “Organizations should design their Asian leadership development blueprint keeping the target talent pool in mind. They must localise HR processes, tools and selection templates to suit in-country talent, for locals to do well at those competencies.”

Khaneng clarifies, however, that the onus to play the trusted advisor rests with regional HR. “We need to explain to global HR what will and won’t work in the region. In-country HR needs to update their global counterparts on the performance of local initiatives and their success rates in achieving results. As long as there is a business case, headquarters is likely to listen,” he added.

2. Passionate Advocate of Asian Talent

Regional HR needs to passionately pursue Asia leadership agenda. Monteiro highlights that the best way for regional HR to create a business case for Asian talent is to highlight success stories. “For example, Kimberly Clark’s China team and Yuhan-Kimberly’s South Korean teams are pioneering new approaches in the e-commerce channel, she said. “Now the global team are taking notice and everybody is interested in the Asian talent in that business.”

Regional CHROs should use their one-on-one check-ins with global leaders to highlight the emerging talent in their country or region. “The regional CHRO needs to put his talent on the global business and HR radar screen,” explained Phor. The creation of talent committees of Asian business and HR leaders may therefore help overcome the lack of awareness over today’s pressing need to create Asian leaders.

2.1 Global roles, Asia-based

To get around the problem of relocation, regional HR needs to aggressively push the option of certain global roles being based in Asia. “We have an instance of an individual in a regional role based in India, because the person could not move, and it has been a success,” shared Sehr Ahmed, Senior HR Director at McDonald’s. “Why can’t we have global roles in Asia, filled by Asians?” argued Monteiro, “Asians will be more successful in such roles, as they will be in their own context. It is more about shifting the business and talent centre of gravity from headquarters to Asia.”

However, if an organisation decides to run global roles out of Asia, regional HR needs to guard against instances of such roles being filled by expats. This is where the CHRO needs to act as a passionate advocate, by advancing the advantages of employing Asian talent in Asia-based global roles.

2.2 Patience is key

Regional HR needs to understand that – despite its advocacy – change will take time.

Toyohiro Matsuda, who heads the Regional Human Resource Development-AsiaOceania at Mitsubishi Corporation, shared his experience: “During the initial days of growing Mitsubishi’s business in Asia [outside of Japan], I had to almost shout for attention. I was trying to tell businesses that they should think about building Asian talent. They eventually came around, but at their own pace,” he said. Matsuda learnt to be patient and allow for gradual change. “Inform business leaders, tell them compelling stories about talent in Asia, and then just hope they will partner on talent development initiatives,” he said. In his opinion, it can take up to 10 years for people in the organization to witness tangible results of key leadership-level interventions.

Matsuda relates a recent example of his patience paying off. He was trying to get two south Asian leaders to rotate into broader global roles. However, rather than try to persuade them, he waited for the businesses to reach out to him seeking an opportunity. His patience paid off, and the two executives are now on a global career trajectory.

2.3 The organisation must come first

While regional CHROs have to be passionate about driving the Asian leadership development mandate, they also need to balance this against organisational needs. In a meritocratic organisation, Phor cautions against ‘over-selling’ local talent. Business leaders often base their decisions on revenue metrics, and it is hard to make a case for an Asian leader who is not hitting the numbers, even though it may be because of relatively smaller size of opportunity in the local market. “We need to try and create opportunities, but do not want to create pressure,” said Phor. “We understand that in a purely meritocratic set-up only the best person should be selected for the role. So we sensitise the global leads, tell them about the local talent, and entice them to visit the region.”

Click here for part 2, where we discuss the final two critical roles that HR must play: Innovative Marketer and Astute Facilitator.

This article was first published in HQ Asia (Print) Issue 08 (2014). 

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