Ten reasons why experience in Asia is good for your career

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

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

Our take-aways from 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Career on Side Roads and Scenic Routes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Careers: The End of Expats?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven Goals for Asian Leaders

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

1. Get on top of your job.

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

2. Make your voice heard at Head Office.

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

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

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

4. Build a reputation for innovative solutions.

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

5. Build versatility in decision-making styles.

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

6. Build your empathy.

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

7. Find your purpose.

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

Getting on Top of the Job in Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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