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.

Working with search consultants: think fit, be focused, and get familiar

Even though the U.S. economy has technically pulled out of recession, my inbox doesn’t know it. I’m still getting scores of unsolicited emails and CVs from job-seekers around the world hoping to get a new position. Conditions are still tough.

So here are a few pointers for working with executive search consultants:

  • When evaluating your fit for an opportunity, minimize aspects of the job that are new: new company, new geographic responsibility, new function, new industry. If you’re evaluating a new job, three “news” is too many and would be seen by an executive recruiter as risky. If you’re out of work, getting a job is urgent, I know, but it is more important to get the right job.
  • Don’t get into the position of being one candidate, out of many, to fill a vacancy. The odds will be against you. Work to develop relationships directly with the CEO or line manager of your target companies and try to create a role for yourself that addresses a real business need facing the CEO. You’ll have no competition for the role.
  • Never rely on search consultants to find your next job. They work for companies, not for individuals.
  • If you can get a meeting with a search consultant, you’re lucky. Most simply don’t have the time to meet job-seekers, even as a courtesy. Their time is being paid for by clients.
  • The time to develop a relationships with a search consultant is before you need them. Be forthcoming with tips; help them before you ask them to help you.
  • Keep your cover letter brief and focused, addressing the consultant by name. If your cover letter and CV hits one of our hot buttons, then we’ll respond. If it begins “Dear Sir or Madam,” we’ll delete it immediately.
  • If you can get an introduction to a search consultant from one of his or her clients, then the consultant is very likely to pursue your case.
  • Most search consultants don’t have the time, desire, or expertise to guide you through a major transformation, such as changing industries. They would prefer to put you in a box and consider you for a position when the client needs candidates in your box. To get around this focus on competencies that transcend job title.

You can check out some of my past posts on related subjects, like finding your value proposition, zig-zagging your way, and job hunting from the inside-out. What is your experience? What am I missing? Do you have any other advice to job seekers?

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