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.

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.

It doesn’t take Superman: Marketing leaders in China don’t need x-ray vision, just consumer focus

Who owns the brand?

How does a mainstream global multinational set about turning a somewhat tired consumer brand in China, growing in the single digits in 2005, into a market-leading, powerhouse brand, growing in the double digits five years later, culminating in a four-fold growth in revenues?

DDG (not the real name) created a culture of deep consumer centricity and ruthless focus, supported by a globally aligned leadership team, to take full advantage of China’s emerging opportunities. In turbo-charging growth, acquisitions help, as they did for DDG, by building scale, multifaceted talent, and broader and deeper capabilities. But acquisitions didn’t account for the success of this Turbo brand, which saw organic growth far surpassing competition and even DDG’s own past successes. Over these five years, DDG drove a huge shift in the organization’s commitment to innovation, local decision-making, and talent.

Our first instinct is to attribute this success to one game-changer, in this case, to Tom Ringer (not his real name), the agile head of marketing. Much credit is due. His impressive communication skills, humility, and strategic sensibilities pop out. He’s the un-superman. I’m tempted to doom Tom with the ‘effective manager’ moniker, which isn’t how we describe game-changers in this day and age. Most impressively, this leader, based in Asia and armed with natural charm, savvy, and empathy, altered the organization’s orientation from a headquarters’ sense of true north to an entirely new bearing, a place deep inside the Chinese consumer. The result was a fresh and open mindset and willingness to dismantle all that was understood about the brand. A new organizational culture took root in China and grew in lock-step with Corporate’s willingness to cultivate local autonomy, accountability and pride. Along with all the other good stuff, DDG’s growth recipe has resulted in a senior leadership team in Asia that is now 90 percent Asian, up from just 75 percent two years ago. The team takes pride in, and celebrates, the results. This personalized, globally aligned leadership team, led by Tom, is not the stuff of super-heroes; it is, however, game-changing.

China will emerge as the world’s largest economy during the career-span of Tom’s high-potential young managers. Two-thirds of the world’s middle class will reside in Asia by the year 2030, if not earlier, creating enormous opportunities for both Asian-based and Western-based multinationals – and pressure on these same global competitors to develop talent fast enough to exploit these opportunities. Given the shifting footprint of their customers and workforce, companies like DDG are fast re-thinking their management structures and centers of gravity in an effort to support local decision-making, speed, greater autonomy, and, just as importantly, the mission-critical leadership competencies of their high-potential young leaders. Hardest to alter is the corporate culture underlying most of today’s successful, highly centralized, globally integrated organizations. And yet change they must, especially around the talent that will drive their double-digit growth in Asia.

DDG drove a seismic shift in their approach to marketing, moving from a headquarters-determined brand strategy to a China-centric approach based on deep customer understanding and local innovation. This doesn’t happen without leaders who listen and learn. DDG transformed the way they grew leaders across the talent platform in Asia. It doesn’t take superman.

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.

Talent assessment is how search consultants can get ahead of the curve

Despite the recession—in part because of it—the best executives can still move to new companies. And the best companies still open their doors to the best talent.

But companies are becoming increasingly nuanced and uncompromising in their assessments. The economic stakes are higher than ever and, as a result, companies have come to own the candidate tracking, market mapping, relationship-management and assessment processes.

So why has the executive search industry taken such a hit during this recession? Because most of them are transactors who don’t provide the value-added talent consulting to their clients. At a time when they should be considered mission-critical, many executive search firms are bystanders, asking for the order and competing on price. Meanwhile, their corporate clients have improved their own talent assessment skills, know their markets for talent, and gravitate to the few consultants who truly understand their needs.

The executive search industry will continue to fall behind unless they become true partners on talent. This recession marks a time when companies can leap ahead of their competition. The search consultants and their clients should be joined at the hip. It’s time for the search industry to get ahead of the curve.

In the flow: Getting connected to something bigger than the individual cubicle

Do aspiring employees need to be from California to tap into the cosmos to find a more satisfying job or career? During a conversation with a colleague who seemed disconnected from the flow – she was succeeding in her narrow role but felt isolated from the broader direction or strategy of her business unit – I said, to my utter amazement, “you’ve got to tap into the universe. You need to feel part of the natural flow of a system, like the planets or stars in the solar system or the Milky Way.”

Honestly, I’ve never said this before to anyone or even to myself, and I’m from California. But I had this image of the Milky Way in my head, this cloudy system of stars and planets, all interdependent and yet moving about in some natural pattern.

Now, that’s as far as I want to take this metaphor. My message had do with our desire to be, or feel, a part of something bigger than ourselves, our need to feel less isolated, to be independent yet somehow aligned.

It’s a manager’s job to drive the alignment of each individual’s role to the broader direction and goal of the business. It’s the employee’s job to understand the role they play and push for greater clarity if there’s any doubt – and to find a way to connect their jobs to the pursuit of career or life goals.

This is not just an intellectual exercise. Ultimately, it’s about experiencing a satisfying career, building efficiency into the system, and unlocking the force of an organization. Talk about disconnects. I can still see the quizzical look on the face of my colleague when I started to talk about the cosmos.

For more on the subject, try re-reading William H. Whyte (The Organization Man), watching the old movie, The Apartment, by Billy Wilder, and reading anything by the Japanese novelist, Haraku Murakami, who taps into our feelings of isolation from the larger world.

Leadership: Mr. Yanai’s DNA

I’m struck by the simple clarity of one Japanese CEO. Read these comments, in his own words, from Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Fast Retailing. If you’ve been watching Japan, you’ve seen his company, the freshness of his approach, the attitude that touches every part of his business, including his people. This is the essence of his recent interview in the Wall Street Journal. Fast Retailing Co. (you might know it as Uniqlo) operates 1,974 stores around the world, an impressive footprint, given that it opened up its first Uniqlo store just 8 years ago. By comparison, The Gap operates 3,100 stores and Inditex Group (Zara) operates 4,264 stores. Here’s his ambitious tag line: Changing clothes. Changing conventional wisdom. Change the world.

Clarity of goal: He aims to make his company Asia’s leading fashion retailer within 5 years and “the worlds No. 1 fashion retailer by 2020.”

Hierarchy: “Store managers are our most important employees. If the head office disappeared, the business could still go on while we rebuilt headquarters.”

Global thinking: “How much we leave up to the local staff varies [during expansion] but the basic ideas and operations have to be the same everywhere.”

Global integration of operations and culture: “If we bought a company based in New York, we would even consider moving all of the top management, including myself, to New York. We would have to be ready to go that far if we were to become a truly global company.” Asked about how he manages brands in different regions around the world: “Differences in culture and fashion trends from region to region aren’t so crucial. Far more important is communicating substantial information on what kind of company we are and how we run our business. As long as we get this part right, we can succeed anywhere.”

And this powerful message: “We can’t escape our DNA. It’s both our strength and weakness. Our Japanese origins are necessary and useful if we want to differentiate ourselves. But what we want to emphasize is not the old, traditional Japan, rather the new Japan, what Japan is becoming.” To cap it off, here is his approach to adaptation and risk-taking, so uncharacteristic of Japan: To seek growth in a changing environment, companies have to repeatedly reinvent themselves, and this process involves far more failures than successes.


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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