Thriving as head of Asia: a case study


It’s hard to survive, much less thrive, in a Western multinational’s top job in Asia. These roles—Head of Asia, President-China, or something similar—are high risk leadership opportunities. There are lots of reasons: failure to grow fast enough, failure to connect with local teams, inability to adapt to the ambiguity of emerging markets, failure to build the right products for local customers.

But because of the attention Asia gets from Boards and shareholders, none of those beats the biggest derailer of all: failure to drive an Asia agenda and enlist crucial support from key stakeholders. This takes a global mindset and great communication.

Figuring out how to influence the agenda at headquarters isn’t easy for anybody—and it wasn’t easy for KC, the newly promoted Chinese Head of Asia for a US multinational.

KC’s struggle was not out of lack of desire, smarts, education, tenacity, or ability to execute. He was promoted into a job for which no training exists. And as the business in Asia continued to grow in complexity and size, all eyes were on him. Like many Asians newly promoted into the top job in Asia, KC had never even sat down with the CEO.

KC put it this way: “I’m an entrepreneur. I love running a business. But I suddenly found myself head of a matrix and there was no accountability. The headquarters wanted me to run the P&L of a region and I lacked control of anything.” Here’s what KC’s bosses in the US said: “KC grew up in the sales force and was comfortable leading the sales team and driving the local P&L. But he was then promoted into a regional leadership role where success in executing across the global matrix is more important. KC didn’t engage the matrix. He didn’t speak up on conference calls. He didn’t take the time to influence peers.”

Both the headquarters leaders and KC agreed that the skills that got him to where he is today were not the same skills that will carry him forward. What happened next? Three big events, all involving better engagement with his senior colleagues:

1. KC got an executive coach.

Rather than put KC through a battery of training programs, the head of HR asked KC a simple and smart question: What’s the one skill you know you need to master in order to succeed? His reply: “managing the matrix and influencing my peers at a global level.”

This was a bold step outside his comfort zone. KC had never liked working in a matrix. A natural entrepreneur, he was comfortable calling the shots and making fast decisions. With the help of a coach, he learned that he needed to paint a picture of what the business needs to look like in a year or two and communicate this story to everyone, even the CEO. Because of the stakes, he knew he needed to get this story right, achieve buy-in, find and fix its weaknesses, and ensure accountability on the part of everyone, even those who don’t report to him.

KC found his point of view. He listened for resistance and asked for support. Asia is a kaleidoscope of changing patterns and complexities; no one person can discern the best way forward alone. Leaders engage with others to find a better way, to validate their point of view, to hear the reality checks. Rather than complain about the matrix, he used it. KC put into place specific practices that forced regular communication. He scheduled regular check-ins, probed for the points of views of others during meetings, and walked down the hall to ask his peer in manufacturing what might be missing from the picture. Even now he is experimenting with new practices, while summoning the entrepreneurial instincts that he knows works for him.

Then during one of his regular conversations with the CEO, KC had another idea:

2. KC invited the top five operating executives in the company to each spend a week with him visiting customers. He spaced these meetings a few weeks apart.

Over the course of the next few months, KC developed deeper relationships with the top executives. The corporate culture became less a mystery. These operating executives took KC’s and the customer’s messages back to headquarters. These insights led to better strategies around products, faster decision-making, and better customer support.

The third big thing came from KC’s counterpart in Europe who, like KC, was at heart an entrepreneur.

3. The company hired the best Business and Financial Planning executive they could find to join KC in Shanghai.

KC knew he needed to become a better planner. But now he had the support of someone who was an expert. The planner became a business partner and mentor. Together they ran scenarios and tested growth plans. KC became better at operations. Other leaders began to trust KC’s point of view.

It would be a mistake to assume that KC needed to be someone he was not in order to succeed in his new role. That was KC’s fear. Yes, he built new skills related to business practices, the matrix, and better communication. At the same time, he continued to do what he was good at. Through coaching, he figured out how to use his strengths while learning new skills. And notice that the entire executive team rallied to support K.C.’s development.

The CEO took a chance on KC. And KC, for his part, stepped up. He decided he was accountable for his own success. It’s taken a year for him to tackle these leadership development issues. It’s probably too soon to say he’s thriving. But he’s increased his chances for success.

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1 Comment

  1. Steve

     /  April 24, 2013

    Mike – great story, a very informative concrete example. Thanks. -Steve

    Reply

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