Asian leaders perspectives: Interview with Sara Cheng, former managing director of Twitter Greater China
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI)

Asian leaders perspectives: Interview with Sara Cheng, former managing director of Twitter Greater China

Sara Cheng, former managing director of Twitter Greater China, shares what she brings to an organization as an Asian leader and companies support local Asian leaders when they first join a global company.
Heidrick & Struggles
Sara Cheng
Sara Cheng image

Sara Cheng was the managing director for Twitter's Greater China region until August 2021. Prior to her work at Twitter, Sara was the CEO of Fuji Xerox Singapore. She has lived and worked across Asia, Europe, and the United States while holding executive positions at Xerox, IBM, Teradata, NCR, and Procter & Gamble.

Heidrick & Struggles: Could you please briefly talk about your background and what you're currently doing?

Sara Cheng: Mine is a 1 to 10 story: Twitter was my first job in the social media industry. I have two MBA degrees. I have worked in three continents, speaking four languages, lived in five countries, and worked for six multinational companies. I exercise seven days a week and spent eight years in data analytics. I have cycled in nine countries and managed ten markets in Asia Pacific.

I am Taiwanese-American and after business school in the United States, I spent the first half of my career in America and Europe building up professional skills from financial analysis to sales, marketing and then consulting. When I came back to Asia, I took up general management roles, managing P&L as the partner for business consulting for Asia Pacific at IBM, the chief operating officer for Xerox’s service in Asia Pacific, the CEO of Fuji Xerox Singapore, and then as the managing director at Twitter Greater China. Three months ago, I left the corporate world and have been able to take a pause and smell the roses.

Heidrick & Struggles: If you had to pick four or five words or short phrases to describe how a successful Asian leader in a global environment operates or behaves, what would they be?

Sara Cheng: Start with having a deep market, industry, and cultural expertise on Asia so that you can build the vision and winning strategies. Then, have the ability to represent and stand up for Asia’s uniqueness and interest within the company. And, third, be able to learn and adapt to the company’s multinational culture—the lingo, the values, and the organizational dynamics—so you can create and steer an effective narrative for decisions and resource allocation for the region.

Combining the three concepts I mentioned, we can add value by bridging the East and the West. When we understand the decision-making process informally and formally and we know how to influence and maneuver the Asian agenda in the company, from its unique customer requirements to product adaption, to headcount budget and talent development, the Asian voice begins to shape headquarters’ decisions in policies and development plans. That is the ultimate sign of the success of an Asian leader.

Heidrick & Struggles: Do you think it’s important that an Asian leader has lived in Europe or America in order to truly understand that culture? Or do you think they could just absorb the culture through living it?

Sara Cheng: I see different models and many effective Asian leaders with all kinds of backgrounds. It really depends on the person and the company. Personally, I lived in Europe and the United States, and it enabled me to understand not only the behavior and language of a specific country or company but, more importantly, the context and thinking framework. I enjoyed the multifaceted perspectives gained from living in a foreign country, but it is difficult to quantify its impact to my career.

Heidrick & Struggles: In your view, what are the most effective ways in which the organizational cultures of the companies you have worked for defined and rewarded success?

Sara Cheng: When I think of what makes an organizational culture effective at rewarding success, the number one thing is clarity of the goals and measurements. And those measurements are not only quantitative, it’s not only looking at metrics such as revenue, customer satisfaction scores, or profitability. The qualitative—the “how”—is equally or even more important, and you must make that clear to your organization.

The second thing to get right, which is very difficult, is nurturing a direct-feedback culture in which everyone in the organization develops the habit of giving each other direct, constructive feedback in real-time, with courage and graciousness. That will allow people to improve immediately, if so chosen, rather than waiting for performance reviews to get critical information about their performance and behaviors. Directness is a stretch for everyone, but for Asian cultures such as Greater China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore that adopt the Confucian philosophy, giving direct feedback is rarely practiced.

This is really important to enabling the organization to learn together. When we talk about rewards, we celebrate both small and big successes in an inclusive manner. Often, in companies with sales-driven cultures, only “heroes” (those who closed orders) are celebrated. In the best teams I have seen, all members make an effort to promote the one-team concept and include both the frontline, quota-bearing sales force as well as the pre-sales, and backend support, and administrative team members.

And what is even more important is to have a culture of encouraging, accepting, and celebrating failures. We talk so much about successes, but we actually learn more from failures, and I believe that if we have a reward system that encourages people to take calculated risks and then share lessons from failures, that puts us one step ahead of anyone else.

Heidrick & Struggles: What was the most challenging difference in leadership or culture you had to understand and overcome in a multinational corporation?

Sara Cheng: I will share with you two stories. The first story was from my first job after my MBA, working for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio. Procter has a long-standing reputation as one of the best training grounds for new graduates. While I was working really hard, I didn't feel that I was progressing, and I couldn’t tell why. One day, I attended an hour-long meeting with my manager, Victoria, and four people from other departments. Immediately after the meeting, Victoria pulled me aside and asked me why I didn’t say a single word during the meeting. I told her that my expectation was that, she being my boss, would represent us, while my job was to take notes. Victoria’s response totally shocked me: “No, Sara, I want you to have an opinion independent of mine, and I want you to speak up for yourself.” That was the first "aha moment" for me. I realized that simply taking orders and doing a perfect job according to the job description would not make me a high performer. To be outstanding, I had to take initiative, think outside the box, and take risks. I had to change from saying “yes” to asking “why” and “why not.” I am forever grateful to have had Victoria as my mentor, someone who took the time and was interested to learn about my perspectives and to guide me accordingly.

The interesting thing is that, even now, in multinational companies, Western managers often do not understand how Asian staff think and why they behave in certain ways. It is common to assume that Asians are shy, quiet, and hardworking, but leaders often miss the opportunity to understand their staff's perspectives and to help them learn and adjust to the expectations of a multinational corporation.

Another deep learning was when I was at Twitter. Social media is an incredibly young industry. The degree of awareness and expectation of transparency, inclusion, and clear communication is very impressive. While, conceptually, this is easy to understand, the implementation and application in daily interactions and business processes can sometimes be counterintuitive, especially for senior executives who come from other industries with a more top-down structure and communication style.

Heidrick & Struggles: Could you give an example of what you learned?

Sara Cheng: An example would be organizational change. In most other industries, like high-tech manufacturing or consulting, organizational change is designed top-down, usually kept very tightly on a need-to-know basis. Once finalized, it gets announced by email and followed by a town hall meeting for Q&A. People and organizations accept the decision and move on to the new structure.

I learned at Twitter how to better address the expectation of higher transparency and inclusion during a reorganization. At the planning stage, besides working with key stakeholders and business partners to strategize the business objectives and rationale of the new organization, it is as important to engage HR to build the people strategy of the reorganization. During the change period, a thoughtful communication plan with details on whom to talk to and when, how that will cascade, and what the key messages are that explain all the background and the inspiration behind the change. After the formal announcement, there are a series of group meetings and town halls to address questions openly and timely. In parallel, education is also provided to the team on change management as well as additional coaching sessions and HR support. My learning is to listen to the voice of the employees and to practice two-way communications at all times.

Heidrick & Struggles: What different perspectives do you feel you bring to the organization as an Asian leader?

Sara Cheng: Besides delivering outstanding business performance, there are different levels of how Asian leaders contribute. One is the local market knowledge that we need in order to represent our region and help our headquarters understand the region better. We help the company make more thoughtful and more holistic, value-based decisions. The next level is that we start to create a narrative for the region, proactively voicing and influencing HQs to include Asian interests and to integrate them into the natural flow of the decision-making processes of the company. And, of course, we talk about Asians as a group, but Asia is vast and diverse with many rich, deep, and different cultures and subcultures, each with unique values and norms.

Heidrick & Struggles: What is the best support you feel a company can provide for a quick yet thorough onboarding for local leaders when they first join a global company?

Sara Cheng: I think it would help for headquarters to have a more nuanced understanding of the Asian cultures we talked about to better support local leaders. My time working in the United States and Europe really gave me great insight into the contrast between the East and the West and helped me to effectively bridge that. We need to educate our new leaders about the expectations of an American company or a German company, for example, about what would make them successful in these organizations—for instance, the expectation that you will need to speak up and have a point of view, and to engage in general. The second part is behavior: how do we become more assertive without being overly aggressive or not too passive? What is the right tone to strike when operating in a Western multinational?

The other thing companies can do is to provide mentorship and coaching to help new leaders to learn, adapt, and maximize their impact within the organization. I would also encourage the direct managers of new Asian leaders to make a conscious effort to provide timely and direct feedback to accelerate the assimilation process.

Heidrick & Struggles: Is there anything you wish you knew before you joined your last company?

Sara Cheng: I wish I had been a more diligent social media user before I joined Twitter. It would have enabled me to relate to the challenges and context of policymaking and user behavior sooner.

Heidrick & Struggles: Could you please share a story or an anecdote about a cultural leadership difference that made you smile recently?

Sara Cheng: Smile or cry?

Heidrick & Struggles: Either.

Sara Cheng: I used to get comments or questions from Western colleagues referring to the fact that the Chinese and Japanese teams are very quiet during meetings. When I responded, “Yes, do you know why?” the assumption was usually that people from these teams were shy.

I think there are multiple layers to this simple question. At the baseline, it is the language challenge. For people who grew up in Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and Hong Kong, English is their second language. Many of us find it difficult to express ourselves and speaking up in public takes a lot of nerve and courage. Sometimes we need to translate the questions in our heads and by the time we are ready to say something, the meeting has moved on. In some other countries, such as India, Malaysia, or Singapore, people are educated in English and have that advantage in expressing themselves.

The next layer is a cultural element; when we were in school, we were not encouraged to ask questions, because students were supposed to have prepared for the classes beforehand. Asking questions meant one was ill-prepared. This creates a psychological barrier that makes it harder for the Asian members to raise questions or make comments in public. In my experience, coaching and mentoring with team members can create behavior shifts and build confidence to help people move beyond it.

Heidrick & Struggles: If there was one thing that you wished leaders of global companies would understand better about running a business in Asia Pacific, what would that be?

Sara Cheng: I would really love to see an increased sense of curiosity, for global companies to ask why and really learn about the subtleties and subcultures of Asia, about the complexity and the deep differences—the huge variations of cultures and the sometimes opposite ways of thinking and approaching. I’ve always believed that leadership comes from people and that we can be successful when we have a strong team. There is a lot of talent in this region, but we’re very often underutilized, misunderstood, or underdeveloped. Very few leaders I have met, rather than saying, “Please ask a question,” really try to understand the real motivations or fears that prevent the Asian members from speaking up.

Heidrick & Struggles: If you could pick some of the qualities and leadership behaviors that you believe have helped you succeed, what would they be? And what, if any, did you have to adapt in those behaviors to be even more effective?

Sara Cheng: Looking back on my own path, there are a few things, the first one being curiosity. I am curious, especially about what I don't know. I left my family when I was 14 to go to a different city to study, and after I graduated from the university, I gave up a job offer from Citibank to pursue an MBA in the United States because I wanted to know what was happening outside of Taiwan. My sense of curiosity keeps me moving, changing, and thriving. This sense of curiosity is also reflected in my career choices—I started in financial analysis, moved to sales and consulting, and then to general management. The diverse exposure gave me a great edge in understanding different viewpoints and in formulating problem resolutions.

I also have a compelling desire to change—I like trying to anticipate and initiate change, and I have a blind confidence and optimism in myself that makes me think nothing is impossible. This can and did work against me at times, of course. But, from a leadership perspective, I want to continue to learn about people and to create an environment where they can be at their best. I’m interested in people—their inspiration, drive, and limitations. I see talent in everyone. I am always passionate in developing my team and the next generation of Asian leaders.

Heidrick & Struggles: What advice would you give to somebody who’s taken on a senior role to be most impactful?

Sara Cheng: I would say start with yourself and build your personal brand with purpose, consciousness, and authenticity. Your personal brand is reflected in every little and big thing you do—from what you say in a meeting to how quickly you respond to an email to how you articulate your point of view to how you handle objections. Once you have that as a core, learn the organizational code, the culture, and the decision web, both formally and informally, because there’s always a formal reporting structure and an informal influencing circle. When you can exercise your influence within both, you can get things done.

Another important thing to do is to invest in and commit to your people and to build trust with your team because your success depends on your team’s success.

And last, build your personal network—whether it is inside a company or outside in a community— across industries, and pay it forward: coach people and donate whatever talent and time you have to develop the next generations. That is also part of your leadership brand.

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