Castles in the sand? Building talent is the way to leave a lasting mark in Asian businesses

Is this your legacy?

“If you want to do business in China, send over your best people to first serve your customers and employees; not the investors. Build the business to last. Alibaba was born in 1999. I want us to last 102 years so that we last across three centuries.”
— Jack Ma
Founder and CEO, Alibaba

 Bart, a regional expatriate head of Asia for a fast-growing, mid-sized consumer technology company based in the US, spent two years trying to recruit a Country Manager for their largest business in Asia. This executive, young and high-potential, churned through more than twenty candidates over this two-year period, never quite satisfied enough to make an appointment. Meanwhile, Bart, always moving from sales pitch to sales pitch, drove the business in Asia until, after two years, he got the promotion he wanted back home and his assignment in Asia came to an end. He eventually left the company after a frustrating repatriation and called me with a request to assist him in his job search. “I love Asia,” he said. “I grew the business in Asia 30 percent during my two years.” I then asked him how the business is doing now. “Not good,” he said. “After I left, the business fell apart. Weak leadership. They don’t have the talent” I wasn’t sure if he was bragging about his successes before the company’s fall, or admitting to a cardinal sin for a multinational expatriate leader in Asia: failure to build talent.

Could this peripatetic executive have achieved more by helping others be successful? Would this business be stronger today if Bart had built a stronger platform of high-potential local leaders? Bart, like many ‘heroic’ expatriate executives in bustling Asia, ended his career with this multinational with nothing to show for it. With his repatriation back to the US, the business was no better off, an also-ran in a sea of local competitors (like Alibaba).

All expats are tempted to demonstrate value immediately, to be the hero they were hired to be. Yet many expats conclude their assignments having erected castles in the sand. It doesn’t take long for waves of change to wash their achievements away, even as they get promoted for their great work.

So what’s the job of the regional multinational leader in Asia? Effective leaders define their value by setting the agenda, creating the space for others to be successful, building for tomorrow. They find ways to tap into the entrepreneurial value system in China described by Jack Ma. For some this may mean spending more time coaching talent, gaining alignment on a bigger vision, building infrastructure, or unlocking the potential of teams. Or defining a more liberating culture and creating opportunity for locals to create new ideas, business models, products or customers. Or making that long-awaited appointment in North Asia,even if not perfect. Great talent doesn’t need more heroic bosses. They need space to grow.

Tomorrow’s regional head of Asia is today’s unpolished gem. The message to Bart: take a risk on talent, give space. Talent is everything. By the time my 30 year-old associate becomes a gray-haired partner like me, two-thirds of the world’s middle class will be buying through Alibaba or through giant malls in the suburbs of Asia. Our businesses in Asia will have grown five to ten times in scale. For most companies, China will be a larger domestic market than the US. On a typical Friday afternoon, more of your suppliers, customers, outsourcers, and consultants will be connecting through Chengdu on their flights home than through Chicago, with fewer delays.

What does this mean for multinationals doing business in Asia? The Chinese consumer doesn’t know or care where your board members meet or on what stock exchange your shares trade. They want products on the shelves to meet their needs at the right price points. Jack Ma’s principles apply: Focus on the customer. Be entrepreneurial. Treat your employees well. Exploit local opportunities. Multinationals need to build talent on an unprecedented scale from the inside out. For you heads of Asia: what’s your legacy?

(This post is a revised version of a prior post)

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