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.

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

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.

Recruiting executives for India? Hire for nature, then nurture.

Hurry up and cultivate. We don’t have all day.

My friend Ravi knows a thing or two about running a business from India. He has led the Indian subsidiaries of two global multinationals, both well over a $1 billion in revenues, led a sizable Indian joint venture, and serves on the board of a multi-billion-dollar India-based global company. Ravi describes ‘character’ as the price of entry, the most critical attribute for all leaders anywhere, anytime. Ravi then adds that in India agility—the ability to “figure things out on the fly”—is another of the most critical keys to success.

What else do Indian leaders need? Ravi says that as long as they are agile, they just need to add seasoning—at breakneck speed. I’ll summarize these critical components to Indian leadership here.

Character. This is the leader’s rudder, their compass. Character drives energy and passion, the desire to make great things happen. It runs deeper than culture, nationality and ethnicity, and yet exists in plain sight for others to see. No country owns “character.” In the context of leadership, there is not an Indian character any more than there is an American or Chinese character.

Agility. Successful Indian companies have an irrepressible quality, essential today, that even many global multinational CEOs lack: learning agility, or the resilience to figure out what to do on the fly.  Working in such a volatile and highly ambiguous environment, successful Indian leaders use street smarts, intuition, people skills, and agility to figure things out fast. They experiment with new solutions at each step along the way. This quality seems to stem naturally from their struggles to break through against almost impossible odds. Consciously or not, the best companies in India use agility as a filter for hiring, coaching, and promoting. Agility is not to be taken for granted: look at the recent experience of such iconic companies as Sony, Kodak, Panasonic, and, more recently, P&G—companies that had it, and are struggling to regain it. Agility is spread evenly, if thinly, around the world. Yet given the context of India’s rapid growth, top leaders in India can’t survive without it.

Nurture. Yet many of these great Indian companies lack another quality, also essential today, that most of the top Western multinationals have in abundance: seasoned leadership. These are the qualities of leadership that take time to develop, to nurture: principles, points of view, insights and behaviors established over the years and passed on. Mature leaders high in learning agility use their self-awareness and energy in combination with well-developed leadership qualities that have been nurtured on the job. This is the focus of all leadership development efforts: accelerating maturity.

Are Indian leaders different? Probably not, but their experience and history is. Their agile nature comes from the context of their challenges. Their success, ultimately, will depend on retaining their agility while accelerating their ability to build and grow talent at each stage along the path. Hire for nature, then nurture. And speed it up.

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)

In the crosshairs: Why multinationals push out their heads of Asia again and again

Searching for a new boss…again?

The top job in Asia is one of the most challenging—and risky—jobs around. It seems all eyes are on Asia, from the Board down, and everyone has a point of view. One multinational’s regional president of Asia told me, “We have too many cooks in the kitchen willing to sharpen their knives. Managing up, in the midst of running my business, is the toughest part of my job.”

Companies also face fast-shifting markets, often relying on very loose business or talent strategies to hold things together. “What strikes me about my role,” another regional executive said, “is that they (corporate bosses) want double-digit growth without taking the time to build an Asian strategy.”

So why do some top executives thrive when leading the Asia offices and others fail? Why do some companies churn through regional heads like so many contestants on the TV show “Survivor”? As usual, the answer boils down to leadership.

To my mind, there are four main reasons why top regional executives fail.

  1. They fail to anticipate the advancing puck. In both good times and bad, a company’s strategies around products, customers, and talent may be based on old or the wrong assumptions. The Asia head needs to stay ahead of changes and evolutions in Asia’s fast-moving marketplace. This cuts both ways. When revenues are rising at rates of 20 to 30 percent, executives often find themselves overwhelmed by new complexities and unprepared for the next cycle. Conversely, as revenues fall, subordinates and bosses lose confidence in their ability to respond with a new approach or strategy. Put another way, the top executive in Asia needs to thrive in the absence of a playbook.
  2. They fail to connect with people. Many regional executives find it difficult to manage the complex cultural differences across the region. Typically, these execs are brought down by their own people who complain about their lack of sensitivity with subordinates, inability to relate to customers, or lack of EQ.
  3. They fail to manage up. This is the most common problem. Of course, it takes two to communicate, but successful executives assume accountability for educating their bosses on Asia and influencing the outcomes of key decisions that affect their customers and employees. They use their organizational skills and savvy to align, realistically, the revenue goals of the region with the resources necessary to achieve success. If more or different resources are needed, they don’t leave a headquarters meeting empty-handed or uneducated on the facts. These mature executives demonstrate a willingness to confront sensitive, often untouchable issues, in support of their mission.
  4. They lack an observable sense of purpose. Many top leaders in Asia are hired or appointed for their contacts, loyalty, knowledge of the business, relationships with customers, and industry reputation. And yet, once in the job, fail to stretch the possibilities. A sense of ‘mission,’ combined with a clear point of view on Asia and the business, is often a source of great tenacity and achievement. Great leaders link their passions to business goals.

Coaching and executive development can help, but the best way to ensure success is to hire or appoint the right executives in the first place, addressing first and foremost, the executive’s learning agility, EQ, self-awareness, executive maturity, and character. For most executives in the top job, these qualities must be covered in the price of entry. Companies doing this well will build the pipeline and avoid a succession of leadership misfires. In other words, when considering succession, hire for agility and develop for executive maturity.

For both the company and the executive, the top job in Asia is a high-risk and high-reward proposition. As Asia roller-coasters its way to becoming an economic powerhouse, making the right leadership choice is critical — and challenging. But executives will make better decisions by removing the guesswork, making informed assessments, and, yes, learning from experience why some top executives fail.

The end of the expat assignment: Westerners ‘go local’ in Asia rather than return to headquarters

Take the plunge

Take the plunge

We all know that multinationals have cut back on expatriate assignments. So what are the expats doing? Also going local.

Expats and their employers—each for different reasons—are converging on a similar outcome: an end to the expat commitment. We’re witnessing the rise of the un-expat.

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 to headquarters. “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 just now coming to terms with the realization that he is happier in Asia than in headquarters. “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 after being exposed to the opportunities in Asia, this is where the action is.” Like Bonnie, he is open to giving up the lucrative expat deal for a local-hire package with a great organization.

There are many reasons multinationals continue to send their high-potential executives to Asia as expats, even as the emphasis has shifted to hiring local talent. Once these executives arrive in Asia, from what I see, all bets are off. For many expats, the traditional three-to-five-year expatriate assignment is a thing of the past. Over time, some willingly bail out of their expat status, recognizing these benefits as symbols of a colonial mindset or as visible and costly burdens for their employers. Others, like those I mentioned, look to stay on with their new expertise as “local” hires. At any rate, good people want to manage their careers on their own terms, while good companies are taking steps to hire and develop local talent.

For a multinational corporation trying to manage the shift, though, it’s not so easy. Building a pipeline of mature, agile, and ready local leaders is both strategic and cost-effective. But apprenticing local talent takes time. So even as they reduce their expat employees, most companies still need a blend of expatriate mentors and high-potential local talent. That’s why, the top, at the most strategic and regional levels, fully-loaded expatriate packages are still the norm. Getting this balance right, and keeping it, is tough. Especially now that the talent—whether local nationals, localized expats or strategic assignees—hold all the cards.

Indeed, few self-respecting executives would describe themselves as expats today. All talent, local or non-local, recognize the need to blend into the local melting pot to make a meaningful contribution. There’s also more eagerness to gain experience over immediate reward—a bold shift in mindset borne partly out of expats’ survival instincts and partly out of a desire to shape their own careers.

These un-expats understand that with success and the right attitude, career opportunities exist internally and externally, locally and overseas, all the time, regardless of a current employer’s repatriation plan, especially in fast-evolving Asia. 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. These executives are in it for the journey, not just the job; they own their careers and take things as they come. Being “an expat” is a thing of the past. They’re now local.

A multinational will win the loyalty of an assignee not with a binding expat deal, but by ensuring that the he or she receives immediate and tangible career benefits here and now (and that these benefits outweigh sexy opportunities on the outside). At the same time, let the expats “go local.” Don’t fear losing them and don’t talk in vague notions about three to five years.

All career paths don’t lead back to headquarters, after all. They lead to where the customers are.

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