Technology businesses in Asia Pacific are experiencing the same battle for great leadership that took place during earlier periods of growth in the region. The difference is that experienced leaders are now homegrown.
Executive leadership has evolved in three major phases in the Asia Pacific region:
- Expatriates who serve as the conduit for corporate head office outside the region
- Western-educated Asians, primarily from Singapore and Hong Kong, expanding to include China, India and ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations) countries – often promoted into more senior roles than they might have attained in their country of origin
- Local executives starting to run major enterprises
Where the strength is
Asian executives with overseas experience, often returning for personal or cultural reasons, provide significant strength. Typically, these executives are American, Canadian or British-educated and some who left China in the Cultural Revolution of 1980-87.
But this source of quality leadership is not sustainable because of constraints in their supply (they are hard to attract) or their attitude (they feel uncomfortable in the West but are seen as outsiders back home). What is emerging as a more sustainable longer-term solution is developing leadership capability within each home market.
According to Geraldine McBride, SAP President and CEO for Asia Pacific Japan, there are enough great people in the Asian Region to break free of the conventional wisdom that saw only expatriates and executives returning to the region as suitable leaders.
McBride says: “We have developed some smart next-level leaders. Could they be senior executives today? Not right away. Could they be leaders in three years’ time? Yes, without a doubt.
While a prevailing cultural norm within many Asian countries is respect for senior members of society, McBride says that cycling potential leaders through different operating divisions and using leadership development programs, creates a new class of “leaders”.
“Key executives who manage by integrating company and traditional societal values and then focus on “passion”, “integrity” and “putting the customer first”, very quickly find they are moving beyond buzz words to create their own high-performance culture.”
The perfect Lleader
McBride says the “perfect leader” is a blend of west and east. The combination of western heavy-hitting business savvy with the business smarts to teach the local talent, together with Asian skills and context, coupled with the desire to learn to “fish in a new way” and be market-makers, rather than market-followers, is a very potent blend.
Qualities of successful leaders in the Asia Region are:
- Intelligence combined with drive and passion
- Good communication skills
- “Soft skills” including the ability to persuade and influence.
McBride says she looks for leaders who are strategically smart and capable of flawless tactical execution. “Executives who are true leaders build their organization in a sustainable way, by growing the bench-strength of their team. They need great tactical and implementation skills. There is no long-term value in having great thinking and team building skills, if you can’t execute.” McBride also thinks leaders need “the ability to be ambassadorial – to be able to win hearts and minds; to connect with people and not rule through fear or other less-motivating behaviors.”
Use development metric, not geography
Former Oracle Asia Pacific Vice-President Brian Mitchell agrees that the time for Asian executives has arrived. He cites the example of Oracle’s China Managing Director being a native of Beijing. “Asian companies have been better at moving talent around within the company – at least in Asia – than the Western corporations operating in this part of the world,” he says.
“The Japanese and Koreans have been doing this for years, partly because they did not have a high level of confidence in executives who were not part of their culture and so put their own people in place to run their businesses offshore. The net result was that you had people in the executive office gaining experience, seeing what was going on and learning about the business.”
Mitchell believes Western corporations are making a mistake if they try to manage the region in terms of geographies as managing markets in terms of their economic development makes more sense. One of the major issues, he says, is that despite being designated a “region”, there is little homogeneity across an arbitrary grouping of countries, which together account for almost half the world’s population. He questions why India, with 1.1 billion people, and China, with 1.3 billion, are still administered as a part of the region.
China is distinctly different
Mark Doll, Managing Partner, business advisory services, Ernst & Young, in China, agrees. He says that while blended western and eastern business values work in countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong, China is distinctly different. Doll adds that while some Chinese companies have successfully embraced western values, the vast majority are still state-owned with a command-and-control management style. The Communist party has huge influence over these companies. “Saving face, which has been engineered out of the Hong Kong or Singapore market, still exists in China,” says Doll.
In recruitment, Doll says, relationships and loyalty are valued highly. “If you take a manager, almost all his lieutenants come with him.” This respect for leadership has been reinforced by four generations of only children, who play no team sports and have individual programs of education. When you talk about a western-educated person, you are talking about a person who can develop a business plan and fight for it; and work in teams to build consensus.” Doll believes a new style of leadership will emerge as the Chinese economy is driven by the world market rather than the Chinese market. “Although the Chinese have cash and can buy up world assets, the lack of leadership skills is the number one limiting factor of business in Asia.” Whatever structures are finally determined in the region and whatever the pace of future development, one thing is certain: the day of Asian leaders has arrived.