Ten reasons why experience in Asia is good for your career

Asia provides leaders with an ideal testing ground for mastering new ways of thinking and operating. Just ask the current CEOs of Pepsi and P&G, as well as the former CEO of IBM. All developed their leadership skills in Asia. Many executives head to Asia in the hope that the experience they get working in rapidly growing and changing markets will give them a competitive advantage. That’s not a bad plan: Asia is a region that rewards fast learners. Here are 10 takeaways you can expect from experience in Asia:

  1. Navigating both the local and the global. Getting this balance right requires that top executives in Asia win the trust of colleagues up, down, and across the organization. This gets to the heart of global mindset—systemic thinking and global savvy. If you’re leading a team in Asia, a big part of your job is navigating the global system to make it easier for local executives to do business. The Asia team will appreciate your ability to shape the global strategies and products that impact their local operations.
  2. Getting used to speed. Executives quickly learn to get things done on the fly, often without a playbook. This takes energy, resilience, and tenacity.
  3. Listening for understanding. To build a business for the long-term, leaders first need to understand the local market and culture. This is especially important if you’re an expatriate. Experienced leaders in Asia say they’ve learned to tone down their temptation to judge or comment until they fully understand what is being said. Listen first.
  4. Leading with humility. While all of us have it to some degree, Asia helps us appreciate the importance of humility in our everyday actions. Leaders in Asia use their humility to connect with others, find creative solutions, and adapt their styles to meet the needs of other people and situations.
  5. Doing what you say you’re going to do. In high-achievement Asia where personal relationships drive business, executives learn quickly to keep their word.
  6. Inspiring people. Demonstrating charisma is just as important in Asia as it is in the West—and challenging, given the vast geographies, time-zones, and cultures. The soft qualities of charisma are especially important—connecting with others emotionally, demonstrating integrity, and communicating the why of strategy.
  7. Demonstrating cultural awareness. Executives learn how their work relationships are impacted by their own cultural preferences and the cultural preferences of others.
  8. Appreciating uncertainty. Expect the unexpected. Many new executives find global roles in Asia more complex and ambiguous than what they are used to in the West. Let new situations arouse your curiosity.
  9. Building relationships. Because Asians are in it for the long-term, relationships built over time can speed things up, remove uncertainty, and ensure that the needs of many stakeholders are considered.
  10. Building to last. Over the years I’ve seen many expatriate executives win repatriation back to headquarters by delivering short-term results. They’re building castles in the sand. There’s one big problem: their ‘successes’ often fail to survive the first Asian downturn. For sustained success, global executives need to lay the foundation for local leaders to grow and thrive over the long-term.

Charisma is a good thing, right?

Don’t all successful global executives demonstrate charisma? The answer is yes, but let’s be clear about what we mean by charisma. We are not talking about over-the-top, larger-than-life sales-types who ooze charm for better or worse. I know of no follower in any culture who wouldn’t shy away from such a leader. In true charismatic leadership we find the ability to emotionally connect with others and communicate a vision with confidence, integrity, and in a way that puts others first. Leaders do it in a way that meets others where they are, and this requires the ability to adapt their styles to the situation. They attract followers. How a leader projects himself in Japan may be different than how he does it in Sydney or New York.
In Asia, for cultural reasons, these leaders walk a fine line. A leader’s willingness to project charisma strikes many as chameleon-like, a bit disingenuous and risky. Sticking out too much seems overly individualistic, while adapting or changing our leadership style seems inauthentic. Suzuki-san, Japanese general manager, felt uncomfortable adjusting his style in order to connect emotionally with others. He felt like a salesman, a fake. He was not willing to bend his style to elicit an emotional response. He was described as lacking in vision. He felt more comfortable showing himself as solid, predictable, structured and logical, but he didn’t connect with others.
So how might Suzuki alter his approach in different situations? What if he were making a presentation to global executives in the US on the future of the business? The behaviors that feel right to him in one situation may not yield the result he wants in another situation. Creating an attractive vision for others, listening more, explaining less, and connecting with his team emotionally—projecting charisma—does not amount to compromising his values around putting the needs of the business and others first. He decided to move outside of his comfort zone and practice this new leadership skill. He realized that building an emotional connection with others makes himself and others feel good. And it’s good for the business.

Our take-aways from 2014

As we reach the end of 2014, I would like to thank all of CapitaPartners’ friends and clients great success and fulfillment in 2015.

For us, this has been a year of unbelievable progress, thanks to the contributions of my associates and partners Ken Brousseau, Armin Pajand, and Steve Fisher. Together, we partnered with and supported clients in Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, across Southern California, Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, Maine, and New York. Thank you all for your commitment to achieving new levels of success; you are an inspiration to me!

Looking back at the outcomes from the past twelve months, some core themes emerge:

First, receiving executive coaching is exhilarating—and challenging. In fact, growing self-awareness and taking the necessary actions to expand various capabilities during the coaching process is hard. Our clients dig deep to uncover all of their behaviors and mindsets, some pleasing, others not, and lay them out on the table for observation and introspection. While this is uncomfortable at times, with dedication, it can be extremely rewarding. One client told me that, while she “re-discovered her love affair with the business,” being coached also was one of the most difficult things she has ever done in her professional life. My take away here is that change doesn’t happen because we want to change or because we are thinking about changing. Change happens because we step outside our comfort zone and take action. There can be no coaching without action.  I am continually moved by my clients’ courage in this regard.

Second, global leaders experience far more complexity and flux than do executives in local roles. We know this from research, our own careers, and our clients. Executives based overseas experience the “tyranny of distance”—the midnight phone calls, bosses 10,000 miles away, and constant travel. As a result, our clients need to summon extra mental energy and resilience and go out of their way to build bridges, demonstrate interpersonal adaptability, and appreciate different cultures. Success for them is a matter of maintaining optimism in the face of these challenges, and a lot of our work revolves around providing extra support so they can do so with more ease.

Third, I am reminded time and again that we author our careers and the contributions we make to organizations and the world at large. Some are surprised to discover that our limitations are determined by ourselves, not by our employers. A career is ours to create, share, and, sometimes, transform. Beyond a resume, a LinkedIn profile, or a value proposition, the best careers are an extension and expression of who we really are. The more we understand ourselves, our purpose, our passions, and our development needs, the sooner we can take control over our careers. I am especially gratified by the work we do with clients to help them gain mastery over their ability to leave an inspiring legacy. Again, I am humbled by my clients’ dedication to re-think their life and career.

As a result of our shared efforts, almost all of our clients successfully navigated some sort of major transition during 2014. One was promoted to CEO, another repatriated to the US after seven years in Japan, a third found his true niche and value proposition after being promoted to CFO. Building on the principles that contributed to these achievements, in 2015, we will be expanding our research and coaching programs that focus specifically on global leadership and facilitating critical career transitions for global executives.

About CapitaPartners. We partner with clients to develop global mindset in executives and build an outstanding cadre of global executive talent. Through coaching, workshops and consulting, we offer programs on Global Leadership, Leading Across Cultures, Global Careers, and Transitions. Our AsiaNext platform ignites the next generation of talent in Asia.

A Career on Side Roads and Scenic Routes

My friends and family laugh at me during road trips. “There you go again,” they say, “always taking the scenic route.” Yes, it’s true. Throughout my life I’ve lived and worked for the experience, zigzagging my way through career steps in nine countries on four continents, serving as an Executive Vice President of a publicly held global firm, as head of Asia Pacific, and as head of Europe before starting my own consultancy a few years ago.

The most common questions I get asked are, “What country do you like the most?” and “How do you deal with jet lag?” The first question is like asking me to choose between the colors of the rainbow. I have a few favorites, but it’s how the colors work together that creates the beauty. The second question has an easier answer: keep hydrated and sleep on the flight. Rarely am I asked what the real take-aways from my global career are. Here are a few of them.

I didn’t start out with the ambition to achieve what I have. Over time, with each new step, I slowly realized what I love to do, what I am good at, and what’s most important in my life. When looking in the rear-view mirror, I see that I got to where I am today by taking the scenic route and making course corrections along the way.

Early on, I learned, sometimes the hard way, to find my value proposition in every job. At 29, my first overseas posting, I relocated to Melbourne, Australia, to support the local team. The Los Angeles headquarters wanted to integrate the far-flung office into the global system and I was sent to Melbourne to accomplish this goal. I made every mistake in the book. After a month, the office head, his face burning, told me to either respect the local ways or ship out. He was right. I realized I still had one foot in headquarters. I needed to adjust and learn how best to support and add real value the local team.

A few years ago I asked an American working as an executive vice president for a global Korean company how he was able to adjust to his role: “For the first two weeks,” he said, “I just watched and listened. For me to understand the local ways, I needed to empty what is already in my head.” He was demonstrating humility in order to find his value proposition. Not surprisingly, he was a high performer. I’ve heard many successful expatriates and executives with a global career track express variations on this theme.

I also learned that executives aren’t meant to rocket to the top. Most, like me, zigzag a fair bit on their way up the ladder. This allows time to reflect on the quality of their trajectory, become more self-aware, and integrate the learnings of any hard lessons along the way. A senior executive who worked for Jack Welch once said to me that GE regretted moving their fast-track executives every two years. The practice encouraged action, but not necessarily deep learning.

In any great career there will be high-impact roles—hopefully lots of them—and other roles meant for reflection, learning, and growth. A career can become a colorful body of work; it doesn’t have to always look like a masterpiece.

My purpose didn’t just come to me. At my best, I was an innovator. I could see the big picture. My focus was on achieving results. Not a bad goal. But I wasn’t conscious of my purpose and knew that something was missing. I was not bringing my values to my leadership roles.

This became especially clear when I moved into a global position and learned that to succeed as a leader, I had to put my focus on the success of others. Through executive coaching, I began to reflect on my purpose and decided to hit the pause button, choosing to stop playing someone else’s game and transitioning into an entrepreneurial career that reflects my values to this day.

With these insights, I am hitting the road again and taking another scenic route with my firm. Today, CapitaPartners helps executives grow as effective global leaders. What I really do is to connect people to their passions, which drives bottom line performance and creates careers that matter.

All of us own our careers. We drive into the great landscape before us, take some scenic detours, add value wherever possible, and learn from the journey. In the process, I’ve learned to continually let go and leave something behind in order to expand and refine my purpose to create a brighter future.

Careers: The End of Expats?

Over the course of my career, I’ve packed my bags and moved countries eleven times. Along the way, I also held several short-term assignments lasting about a year for which I chose to live in hotels and serviced apartments instead. For most of those moves, I had my company’s commitment that as long as I performed, opportunities would await me when it was time to return home.

Back then, it was common for repatriation to be the underlying goal of both organizations and the executives they sent overseas. That has fundamentally changed, with high-potential talent managing their careers on their own terms while the best companies are investing more in developing local talent. As a result, the traditional three-to-five-year expatriate assignment is truly a thing of the past.

At the same time, while multinationals have cut back on expatriate packages, expats are more willing to give up those privileges in order to stay where the action is. Many voluntarily bail out of their expat status, recognizing it as a symbol of an outdated colonial mindset, and a costly burden for their employer. Others proactively look for opportunities to stay in Asia and apply their new expertise as “local” hires in new organizations once their initial expat assignment is over.

In fact, few self-respecting, globally minded executives would describe themselves first and foremost as “expats” today. The best recognize that to make a meaningful contribution, they need to blend into the international melting pot. They also value gaining experience over receiving immediate financial rewards— these executives are in it for the journey, not just “the job.”

Bonnie, an American citizen, has shuttled between the U.S., Singapore, and Australia for most of her work life, always as an assignee from headquarters. Now a regional executive in Asia with a top-tier U.S.-based company, she was almost speechless when I asked her if she has any plans to return “home.” “Why would I do that? The opportunities are in Asia.”

Another American, a top regional executive with a U.S. multinational who has been in Singapore less than a year, is coming to terms with the realization that he is happier in Asia than in headquarters, just as his assignment there is coming to an end. “It’s emotionally tough to consider the possibility of leaving after spending my entire life with this company. But I’ve got to look to where the opportunities are, here or on the outside. And this is where the action is.”

For organizations, building a pipeline of mature and agile local leaders is a strategic and cost-effective move for the long-term that will take time to achieve. While more and more programs like Capita Partners’ AsiaNext platform are being offered to prepare high-potential local talent for global roles, for the foreseeable future, most companies still need expatriate mentors to help groom them.

Getting and maintaining an appropriate balance between expat and local executives will remain the challenge for HR teams, especially in fast-evolving markets, where “un-expats” with the right experience and attitude are presented with new opportunities all the time, regardless of a their current employer’s repatriation plan. Their future is determined by the cut and thrust of the market for talent, not by some executive sponsor in headquarters. Recruiters call every day, and they know they have choices.

Smart organizations will win their loyalty not with a binding expat deal of “three to five years,” but by ensuring that they provide immediate and tangible career benefits that outweigh tempting opportunities at other companies. It is time to let these expats “go local,” recognizing that all career paths do not lead back to headquarters. They lead to where the action is.

For those expats whose time has come to return home, a strategy for repatriation will help them make a smoother, more successful transition. Capita Partners offers game-changing workshops and one-on-one intensive coaching as part of its Xroads Career Engagement offerings. Contact info@capitapartners.com for more information.

CapitaPartners is a leader in global mindset and careers. The firm consults to multinational organizations on global leadership, expatriate assessment and selection, and repatriation

Seven Goals for Asian Leaders

Leading others has mostly to do with how we manage ourselves. Here are some concrete ideas for succeeding in global roles.

1. Get on top of your job.

Why? When we enjoy our jobs, it shows. Getting on top of our jobs allows us to focus on strategic thinking, building critical relationships for the future, and influencing up. But here’s the rub: Studies show that cross-border, cross-cultural, and multi-functional global roles in Asia are different. They are high in complexity and uncertainty as Asia grows in size and importance. And often there is no playbook. Our challenge is to manage this surge in complexity by becoming more versatile in the way we manage data and interpersonal relationships. Listen for feedback. By becoming more self-aware of your strengths and limitations, how you make decisions, and how you relate to people, you can more effectively manage through others. (See Getting on top of the job in Asia)

2. Make your voice heard at Head Office.

Why? As the global center of gravity shifts to Asia, Asian leaders need to demonstrate greater influence on global strategy. There is a vacuum to fill and CEO’s expect you to fill it. But it’s hard, especially for Asian leaders with no experience in headquarters. One Head of Asia described her mindset shift to me. “Before I was promoted into this job, I used to think that “Corporate” decides the strategy and Asia’s job is to execute. Today I understand that there is no Corporate. Corporate is us.” Many of today’s CEOs want Asia to take the lead in strategy formulation, given the growing impact of Asia on growth and earnings. But winning a seat at the table is hard for Asian leaders. By learning influencing skills, thinking systemically across the organization, and building key global relationships, executives in Asia can begin to speak up and make their voices heard.

3. Become the go-to person across the company.

Why? Being the go-to person is a visible sign of influence. Think about it. To whom do you ask for ideas and why? By demonstrating value in everyday conversations and contributing to the effectiveness of others, you are demonstrating soft leadership. These are the leaders who get promoted.

4. Build a reputation for innovative solutions.

Why? Creating innovative third-way solutions require us collaborate with others without regard to status or who owns the ideas. At CapitaPartners, we use the term, “win-win-win solutions: I win, you win, we win.” Yong Nam, the big-thinking former CEO of LG Electronics, cultivates this enlarged definition of “we.” He once said to me, “I look for leaders who win in collaboration with customers and suppliers. The entire value chain wins.” Another friend, the CEO of a large Asian telecommunications company, says his company built their leading market share in China by ensuring that Chinese consumers won. And they did this by helping the Chinese government build the necessary infrastructure. So what does it take to create innovative solutions? My friends would say hard work, lots of humility, and an enlarged definition of “we.”

5. Build versatility in decision-making styles.

Why? Managing effectively is mostly about making good decisions. We make decisions all the time, big and small—from where to go to lunch, to how best to manage a critical meeting, to whom to hire. Minor decisions can be made on the fly. Bigger decisions, involving multiple stakeholders require an aptitude for integrative thinking—the ability to source others for data, consider multiple solutions, and connect seemingly unrelated dots. Savvy executives use multiple decision-making styles, depending on a decision’s urgency and complexity. Versatility in our decision-making styles allows us to consciously use the decision style that best suits the situation. This takes practice.

6. Build your empathy.

Why? Research shows that effective senior executives demonstrate higher levels of empathy, cultural self-awareness, and interpersonal adaptability than their less effective counterparts. Empathy allows us to step into another’s shoes. Another former colleague uses the word “executive maturity” to describe these qualities. We can grow our ability to empathize with others, starting with active listening, becoming culturally self-aware, and demonstrating respect for others. But it’s hard. The Asian virtues of humility and respect provide good starting points.

7. Find your purpose.

Why? Your purpose is your compass, your true north. Purpose puts meaning and potency into your everyday actions as a leader. It is said of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, that his success as a leader has much to do with his relentless search for truth. This in turn has shaped the Amazon culture. President Obama said of Nelson Mandela that he moved South Africa toward justice and in so doing moved billions around the world. Leaders with purpose embrace their strengths and limitations, convictions and doubts in their entirety. They speak to what is best inside us. For these leaders, promotions, security, and reputation are the not the goals but rather the results of purposeful leadership. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.” We may not all achieve this. It’s the journey that counts.

Getting on Top of the Job in Asia

Sonny got a coach and got on top of his job.

Sonny, based in China, was recently promoted to lead a 40,000-person organization across China and neighboring countries. And yet, for the first time in his career, he felt like quitting.

His company, one of the largest and most successful manufacturing services firms, had been growing at breakneck speed for ten years, riding a global boom in manufacturing outsourcing. Prior to Sonny’s promotion, he led Operations — the core growth engine for the company. Sonny ran Operations with the skill and efficiency of a highly experienced battlefield commander — calling critical shots and tending to the needs of the delivery team. Sonny loved the job. He knew the business better than anyone and was respected in local circles for his no-nonsense style. He had reported to the company’s head of Southeast Asia, who reported to the EVP, based in the company’s head office.

Two months after Sonny’s promotion to Regional General Manager-Asia, things began to unravel for him. He now led all functions within the region, including HR, Finance, Operations, and Global Account Management. Because of a re-organization, he reported directly to the global EVP of the company, based in headquarters.

Things became far more complex. Sonny was now expected to be the architect for the company’s growth strategy while leading the P&L across a diverse geography and continuing to grow at record rates. Sonny had never reported directly to a top executive at headquarters. As Sonny commented to us, “I can’t get on top of it. I have no balance. I’m spending my time fighting HR and Finance, people who have no feel for Operations. I am expected to present a strategy for growth — everyone looks to me and I’m getting no support.” Sonny also knew that his direct reports were frustrated, and one—his key HR executive—was about to resign.

Studies show that cross-functional global roles are different. Global executives experience far more complexity, flux, and ambiguity in their jobs than domestic executives, and they deal with a multiplicity of stakeholders across diverse cultures and boundaries. Intelligence alone doesn’t lead to success.

Through coaching, Sonny began a journey of change, beginning with a heightened awareness of his own leadership style. He then learned how to lead others within the team and across the organization in a global context. All successful global executives take this journey sooner or later, some more consciously than others. Executives who don’t evolve, don’t get promoted—we know this from evidence. Sonny learned how his style impacted others, including his team, and how to better influence across borders and cultures.

1. Leading Self: Sonny learned that others, especially those across the matrix, considered him “a bully, overly demanding, not strategic.” Executives at headquarters felt Sonny needed to step into the Regional General Manager role with more of a strategic impact. His decision style assessment report revealed a task-orientation style that leaned heavily on speed and action over planning, active listening, inquiring, and systems thinking. In short, the skills and behaviors that got Sonny promoted were no longer enough.

2. Leading Others: Sonny began to understand how his own style was negatively impacting himself and others. Worse, as the pressure grew, Sonny’s style became even more controlling. As a result, he became more alienated from his team and decision-making became dysfunctional.

The turning point came when Sonny decided to change. “Through coaching, I realized that my job was to create purpose and opportunity for thousands of people in this organization. My focus ceased to be ‘operations versus everyone else.’ We need to become one organization.”

Over the next six months, Sonny learned how to become more versatile as a leader and decision-maker, but it was hard. The new behaviors — more listening, probing for information, and pausing before judging others — didn’t seem natural to him and he almost gave up. Over time, however, he realized that the new behaviors were essential for success and consistent with his purpose. He couldn’t possibly succeed in his new role without the expertise and ideas of others. In addition to understanding his own style, he learned how to adapt to the style of others, a critical first step in influencing teams. In other words, he developed his ‘empathy muscles’ and used his new skills to read people and situations.

He later observed, almost by surprise, that there was no more fighting within his team. People felt heard. As he leaned on others for ideas, others provided solutions. Through greater self-awareness, Sonny began to adapt his style to each situation.

3. Leading the Organization: Although his job required constant influence — up, down, and across — Sonny lacked the skills to influence across cultures and borders. “I was impatient,” he says. “If someone disagreed with me, I wrote them off.” Through practice, Sonny became more aware of the needs of executives across the matrix. He built relationships and communicated in ways that allowed him to be heard.

4. Impact: Because others on his team were contributing more, Sonny had more time to think strategically. He began to use his influencing skills to engage executives in headquarters to shape the global strategies and policies that impacted his business and teams. He built alliances with global executives across the matrix. He showed more confidence and initiative in his communications with his boss and, as a result, demonstrated more impact at a global level. By managing himself with greater self-awareness, Sonny learned to adapt his style to meet the needs of each situation. Sonny said to us, “the business is becoming more complex, but I’m enjoying it more.”

Sonny did all the work. Our job was to show him the thread by which he could knit through the personal, relational and organizational layers of culture, complexity and chaos.

Building your leadership brand in Asia

The lifeblood of every organization in Asia is talent, especially high-potential Asians. There, more than the West, top companies are reliant on strong individual leaders—as opposed to a company’s brand—to be the magnet that attracts and holds high-potentials to a company.

I was in Singapore recently discussing this with my friend Nick, who works for a top Asian multinational. Talented Asians have plenty of choices for jobs, he told me. They are more likely to join his company and stay because of him and the leadership he provides, not because of his company’s reputation for growing talent.

The idea stuck with me for two reasons. First, I think that the concept resonates with executives all across Asia who must lure talent away from the top multinationals. Who doesn’t want to be recognized as a great leader, especially in the toughest of battlegrounds? Second, it shows how success is so personal. Great leaders do it their way, after years of trial and error.

So what kind of leader attracts talent in Asia? And how do CEOs spot leaders of that caliber?

Over lunch recently in Korea, I asked the former CEO of one of Asia’s largest multinationals ($40 billion in revenues), whom I’ve known and admired for fifteen years, what he looks for. His eyes lit up. He looks for leaders who attract followers. He wants to know that subordinates love working for their leader.

This experienced Asian CEO wants to see his leaders to engage with others, eye to eye, with unyielding will and focus, to achieve big things. Moreover, he wants to see success across the entire value chain, from supplier to customer—win-win solutions. How, I asked, does he identify these qualities in others? He leaned forward, smiled with knowledge, and brought his forefinger to his nose. “I can smell it,” he said. In conversation with others he can sense these qualities. “I know when a leader engages with others to achieve great results. I look for great capacity and aspiration.” And also humility and tenacity. When they fail or hit a wall, they fix what didn’t work, and try again to accomplish the mission.

Those at the top of Asia’s best companies directly engage with others through nuts-and-bolts conversation. They operate at ground level, where their counterparts are—without bias, wishful thinking or game playing—in an effort to achieve great results. They work fast, minimize academic thinking, and tolerate ambiguity. There is no playbook.

People often talk about the “ready, fire, aim” quality to building businesses in Asia. To operate that way, these leaders need the humility to listen and find their aim as they go. Arrogance fails. And this process isn’t about perfection. These leaders who build followers and earn their trust that eventually they will get it right.

Leadership is visceral. It requires interaction and reaction, trial and error. Leaders touch their teams and push them forward. They engage when it’s easier not to, when the team needs it. And they develop in their people the capacity to thrive in this new volatile and ambiguous world.

Nick knows that the strong connection he has with his team is likely what keeps them from walking out the door. What does he do to keep the team engaged? “The team knows very clearly my expectations,” he says. “We are attacking the market every single day. We don’t wait for headquarters to tell us what to do. It’s not about me. I want our team to love winning.” Nick is building followers. And his leadership brand.

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.

Filling the talent pipeline, even as it is under construction

Over the last 30 years, I’ve worked in nine different countries, most of them in Asia. And in that time, I’ve learned a great deal about what kind of leaders thrive when the going gets messy.

I still remember when the enormity of the talent challenge facing Asian businesses in particular hit home for me. It was 2005 and I was in Shanghai leading a workshop for human resources leaders at 10 of the largest multinationals operating in China. Recruitment, employee value proposition, compensation, retention, development—these were only a few of the jigsaw puzzle pieces of their talent issue. The big picture was this: they needed to build a sustainable pipeline of leaders—and all of them admitted falling short.

Building a sustainable pipeline doesn’t just entail recruiting, training, and giving raises so your executives don’t jump ship. Rather, it touches on building a strong culture of talent across the entire company which requires inspired leadership from the top.

And it starts with hiring and promoting the right talent. The best way to fill this executive pipeline, even as it is under construction, is to find good people who get up to speed fast, listen to them, and give them running room. A company can accelerate leadership development if it has first selected people who embrace learning and change. Then, with the right support, including mentoring and coaching, organizations turn these individuals into the  innovative, inspiring and impactful leaders they need.

Our talent pipelines will always be a work in progress, just as we, as leaders, are always “under construction.” By focusing on the important things, which includes having the right people on the team, organizations will move faster to build a sustainable pipeline and win in the marketplace with the best talent.

%d bloggers like this: