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.

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.

Leading in the moment: Creating the performance of a lifetime

It’s easy to imagine the source of  satisfaction for an actor: the applause, the spotlight, the fans. But when I asked a New York film and theater actor—who has had his ups and downs over a 30-year career—about his work, he gave me some surprising answers.

“The only way for me to survive as an actor is to focus on the moment. When I am doing a scene, whether an audition or a performance, I try to bring something extra, something of me to the scene that I haven’t found before,” he told me. What about the audition? Don’t you get depressed when you aren’t selected? “Most of the time I am not selected but I don’t think about that as failure. I only think about bringing something special to the audition. If what I bring isn’t right, and I’m not selected, then I can walk away feeling good about what I did in that moment.”

The actor acts because he must; it is existential. The small feeling of achievement doesn’t stem from the applause, although we all like recognition. It comes from the feeling that, briefly, in the moment that mattered, he delivered something special.

Haven’t we all felt that exhilarating moment when all parties in a drama – be it a meeting, a sales pitch, a job interview – clicked on an intellectual and emotional level? Reflect on times in your life when you achieved this extraordinary result. Something resonated between the actor and the audience, or between two actors on the stage, in a way that resulted in an outcome that was palpable, intimate, elevating, and valuable. There was purpose.

Consider the entrepreneur, the job seeker, athlete, salesman, politician, corporate executive. Being in the moment brings out the artist in us. It forces relevance, focus and humility. It brings other actors into our personal drama in a way that delivers outcomes for everyone.  Says the actor, “Sometimes I fail. When I do, I reflect and hopefully learn.”

Ask successful leaders who, like the veteran actor, have seen their ups and downs. There are no second acts. There is only today’s performance. Again and again.

Conscientiousness: The other CEO competency

The word ‘conscientious’ stimulated my curiosity last week after I came across a bit of research describing successful CEOs as having more execution-oriented skills than interpersonal and team-related skills. The authors, Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov, and Morten Sorensen, in a study entitled Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter, say qualities like ‘steadfastness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ are the best predictors of success (their study focuses on success factors for LBO and VC transactions).
My mind associates the word to public servants and diligent bureaucrats. So I then turned to a series of CEO interviews conducted by Adam Bryant, a writer for the New York Times, who interviews a different CEO each week in his column, The Corner Office, focusing on leadership and management. Different CEOs get the same questions from week to week but of course the answers vary. So I pulled several of these interviews off the internet, trying to get a feel for how these CEO’s lead their companies and the competencies they focus on.

Steve Ballmer is interested in efficiency and results. He’s looking for executives at Microsoft to be integrated with the outside world, especially at the intersection of technology, customer needs and the market. He looks for smarts, passion and results, not style. Conscientious, yes, and not terribly worried about how others see his soft skills. Traditionally, as a purveyor of software, Microsoft needed to be sales-driven, pushy; but as an Internet company, Microsoft needs to adapt to new business models.

Bob Iger, of Disney, comes across as more touchy-feely. He has worked on becoming more patient and a better listener (sounds good). He looks for integrity and energy in others and likes to stay connected to the world (he loves gadgets).

Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines, looks for reliability and adaptability to change in executives. He likes ‘operational awareness,’ not surprising, given his industry where pilots need to be operationally aware of their external environment. He also comes across as more holistic and integrative in his assessment of people, looking for emotional intelligence as a way to become more adaptive to change.

The word ‘conscientious’ would seem to apply to all of these executives.

Kevin Sharer, CEO of Amgen comes across as disciplined, high in learning – he constantly seeks feedback. He comes across as high in humility (different from modesty) which relates to his desire for feedback, authenticity, learning, and change. It would seem that the world of biotechnology is constantly changing. Again, one might sum it up as conscientious.

I like that word, though it doesn’t turn up in the usual list of executive competencies. It can be more holistic than words like ‘diligent,’ combining a number of qualities that, to me, arise out a motivation to put the needs and goals of the business before the needs of any one individual, including the CEO himself. It would be a mistake to conclude that results can be achieved without the need to build teams and relate to others, but let’s remember that teaming and communication is a means to an end and results do matter.

Humility: The higher executives rise, the more they need it

Humility – this is the quality that almost all top executives said they value as most critical to their success when working with an Asian company. You may find it surprising that these executives are Western execs raised in highly competitive multinationals in the US and Europe where survival depends on results. The higher up they go, the greater the need for humility.

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