Perspectives of Asian leaders: Interview with Kathy Kang, CHRO of Syngenta Group China
Asia Pacific

Perspectives of Asian leaders: Interview with Kathy Kang, CHRO of Syngenta Group China

Kathy Kang shares her insights on how a successful Asian leader in a global environment operates and what leaders of multinational companies could understand better about running a business in Asia or Asia Pacific.
Heidrick & Struggles

Kathy Kang

Kathy Kang image

Kathy Kang was appointed as CHRO of Syngenta Group China in 2020. She previously held senior leadership positions in companies including Tsinghua Unigroup, China Erdos Investment Holding Corp, and Antonoil. Her early career includes five years as a commercial manager at Inner Mongolia Power Group, and 10 years in different HR roles in Shell.

Heidrick & Struggles: Could you tell us a bit about your journey so far?

Kathy Kang: I was born and raised in Inner Mongolia. I started out in economics but landed in human resources management. I gained two master’s degrees in law and marketing. Multi-disciplinary background helped me learn about systematic thinking and has allowed me to move between different sectors. Throughout my career, I have worked for Mongolia Power Group, Shell, Antonoil, Erdos Group Holding, and Tsinghua Unigroup in China. What is quite remarkable about my career is my time at Shell, not only because I spent the longest part of my career there, but also because I moved into HR function as a senior manager. Since then, I got significant career advancement in this field and served for Antonoil, Erdos, and Tsinghua Unigroup as an executive.

In 2020, I was offered my current role as CHRO of the Syngenta Group China, which was very tempting for me as I am interested in the agricultural technology sector and the company has a very inspiring mission to provide solutions to growers.

It’s a challenging but very exciting role, as we are undergoing the integration of four different companies, both global and Chinese. Each of them has rich heritage. How can we inherit the past and forge ahead to be a unique global agricultural technology leader? It provides me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a role in challenging areas, to facilitate both business growth, integration, and change management, as well as to build the new organizational capability.

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

Kathy Kang: I would start with, “Think global, act local.” If you want to achieve success in your work, you need to have a big vision and a global view, which implies a very good understanding of the global trends and insights. At the same time, because all the customers and talent are local, you need to have a very agile way of thinking, understanding the fast-changing customers’ needs, particularly in today’s work environment which is complex, ambiguous, and requires agility. Your internal processes also need to be fast and effective in order to meet customers’ diversified needs in a dynamic marketplace.

Second, leaders need to champion diversity and inclusiveness. As we are operating in China, in a global setup, with global operations, we have talent coming from different cultures and backgrounds, with different ways of doing things. We currently have people coming from SOEs, and local private companies which have a different setup from the global multinationals, we need to facilitate the learning journey for all to adapt to the new environment. Leaders need to understand how to best utilize all talent and unleash their potential, how to really listen and encourage people to speak up and contribute. To achieve this, we are committing to redefine and build a new corporate culture for Syngenta Group China that is more diverse, more innovative, more inclusive, and more invigorated. To bring everybody on board towards shared goals, we therefore have co-created an inspiring vision, mission, and values.

The third attribute of a successful leader is driving for change. For Syngenta Group China, we have set up very ambitious goals for our business and talent strategy. The success cannot be calculated based on our legacy achievements and history. The only way to accelerate our growth trajectory is to put ourselves in the driving seat and be dedicated to overcoming the challenges, taking risks for innovation, and continuously enhancing synergies and collaboration to explore more opportunities to win. While, on the other hand, change cannot happen overnight. Strategic thinking and focus on priorities are also very important leadership attributes.

The last point to add is to “embrace the unknown.” Today, the only thing unchanged is change itself. Leaders need the desire to learn continuously. If you look at career progression in general, leaders who keep learning tend to progress very quickly in all types of organizations; they make it a habit of learning, not only for themselves but also for their organizations. I was very thrilled to join Syngenta Group China because we are right at a time of continued shifts and profound transformations. With these transformations come challenges and uncertainties as well as opportunities. The choices we make together as leaders in this field will not only determine the development of China’s agricultural industry, but also help to shape the world economy of the future, and eventually make a positive impact on everyone’s livelihood.

Heidrick & Struggles: How would you describe the differences in the organizational culture between where you work right now in Syngenta Group China and one of the local companies you’ve worked for?

Kathy Kang: In general, the difference between cultures at multinationals and local, private Chinese companies, I believe, is the speed of execution when it comes to decision making. Founders can decide almost everything, and they respond to different clients’ needs extremely quickly. Multinationals have more mature internal systems because they view risks in a more comprehensive approach and require internal alignment and engagement to make sensible decisions. In my company, we’re setting up a more agile organization to acquire the right balance between moving faster and making the right decision.

Heidrick & Struggles: Would you say that the organizational cultures in local and multinational companies define and reward success in the same way? Or is it different?

Kathy Kang: Yes and no. No matter what the nature of the companies is, if they are successful, they all value high performance, a results-driven reward system, a culture to accelerate excellence, and top talent who can make a difference. Successful companies always provide a comprehensive recognition and rewards solution based on their business strategy to those who contribute to their success.

There are some differences as well. For instance, local companies value entrepreneurship in a candidate. Entrepreneurship means more accountability, fewer boundaries, and that the values of an individual and their role are not defined by their job description but by their own drive and commitment to change. At Syngenta Group China, entrepreneurship is one of our corporate values. We are working to attract more young talent who are interested in pursuing a career in agricultural science and technology, to create the future of Chinese agriculture together with an entrepreneurial spirit and action. Syngenta Group China's leadership model of entrepreneurship has been already designed, which will greatly assist in the growth of our talent.

In more recent years, entrepreneurship has become more important in a leader’s skill set for both multinationals and local giant corporations, particularly when we are looking for P&L owners. Of course, we appreciate talent who owns the scene and can develop a strategy, but we need leaders who not only can facilitate change, but also drive change as I shared previously.

Heidrick & Struggles: What different perspectives would you say you bring to the business?

Kathy Kang: I think I bring in a diverse perspective that came from my past inter-trade and trans-regional experiences, and the concept that the chair is not only for a functional leader but a business driver as well. Unlike many well-developed MNCs, this may not yet be a well-established concept and it makes quite a lot of difference in a company where the majority of people have diverse backgrounds. For many, HR as a function was meant to focus on more administrative tasks, such as hiring and training. Jointly with our CEO and country leadership team, I repositioned the role of HR and helped everyone understand more about how a strategic and a business-orientated HR could support business growth and generate bigger influence in reshaping a fast-changing organizational culture.

Heidrick & Struggles: What would you say that a multinational company can do to provide quicker onboarding for local leaders?

Kathy Kang: To start with, companies need a very robust onboarding process in place. They need to have the right process, the right counterpart or focal point, and a global approach. We launched a buddy program to help new leaders to build connections with global leaders and helped global leaders to understand more of the local ones. We pair up new leaders with a global business leader and coach to help them transition smoothly into our company. We have a matrix organization and engagement is critical for newcomers, particularly local leaders, if they are going to be successful in their new role. We also have initiated a cultural sharing program to give the leaders the opportunities to share their ambition, their views, and their understanding of the new organization as well as their frustration to help them to build up their personal influence and echo their needs to settle down.

Heidrick & Struggles: Is there anything you wish you knew before you joined your company, or any company in general, to better prepare you?

Kathy Kang: Generally, I would like to have had more opportunities to understand the business and get to know the decision-makers and key team members. All our HR initiatives should be rooted in the business and talent needs, and so the earlier exposure to the business and closer working relationships with decision-makers I have, the more I could work with the teams to come up with the right solutions to grow our business.

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

Kathy Kang: I would say it’s understanding the different local cultures; countries in Asia such as Korea, China, and Japan are very different, and even more different when compared with European and US cultures. Cultural sensitivity and awareness are must-haves. For example, in the Chinese culture, people may not be very direct in sharing their issues or have the courage to say no and clearly express their views. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a valid opinion. I use quite a lot of one-on-one sessions to understand more of the different types of leaders and their personalities. For Asian leaders, you need to facilitate a process and have the capacity and commitment to nourish the organizational culture to help them speak up and make them feel safe to share their views.

Heidrick & Struggles: What were some of the qualities and leadership behaviors that you think helped you succeed?

Kathy Kang: I would say that I am very open-minded and curious about everything. I like exploring everything and am interested in people and business, and even interested in ambiguity and change. I have the passion to inspire people and work together with teams to fight for success. As leaders, we need to be able to empower and delegate to our teams; we need to be able to inspire our people so that together we can go faster and further. This is critical when there are more and more generation Z talent joining you in the game.

Heidrick & Struggles: Did you find that you had to adapt any of your traits or characteristics in order to step up to a leadership role?

Kathy Kang: I had to teach myself to be more patient because I am naturally focused on acting quickly and I am result-oriented. At the moment, we are integrating four companies at the same time and so there are many considerations in play: different cultures and types of organizations. There are many processes we have to put in place to move forward as one organization. A voice keeps reminding me that even though we have a clear direction, it still takes time to engage more with different stakeholders, that we need to bring more people on board, offering them more opportunities to share and jointly make alignment and co-create for a better solution. It’s not about the task itself, it’s about the vision, the purpose, and the meaning shared by all that could motivate us to commit in the long run. The more people from different organizations can align and share the same vision, the more impactful our growth journey will be.

Heidrick & Struggles: Do you have any advice for someone who has taken on a senior role to be more impactful in their role and, within the context of being an Asian leader, a successful one?

Kathy Kang: I think it’s very important for a leader to be sincere and transparent, and to be open to a new environment, a new organization, and new challenges. Be yourself and sometimes show your vulnerability so that people can easily get closer to you and understand more of you. The core is,  leaders should be authentic.

Stay connected

Stay connected to our expert insights, thought leadership, and event information.

Leadership Podcast

Explore the latest episodes of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast