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.

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