Asian leaders often struggle when moving between countries

Author: Justin Harper | Date: 23 Mar 2016

Strong regional leadership just as important as global, says human capital think-tank at the Future Ready Forum

Asian leaders often struggle when they move from country to country within the region, according to the latest research from a human capital think tank.
While the focus has always been on grooming Asian CEOs to become more global, there is a more obvious hurdle in getting them to become more regional. This was one of the main points from the Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI), which recently analysed leaders in countries across Asia. Its findings were presented last week at the Future Ready Forum, hosted by the Singapore Management University (SMU).
“We were hearing stories of executives moving around Asia and were beginning to struggle. And I’m talking about your rockstar executives who told us they had to tweak their leadership paradigm to be successful in other countries,” said Sunil Puri, the head of research and insights at HCLI, a strategic partnership set up by the Singapore government.
As a result of the research, HCLI invested resources into finding out how leaders in one Asian country differ from those in another country. HCLI has so far looked at nine countries in the region including the big three of China, Japan and India, along with ASEAN members such as Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Its research found that there were many different leadership styles across the region, and even within the same country. For example, management styles in northern China vary from those in the south of the country.
For a Singaporean business leader, their defining attributes are multiculturalism, good governance, operational excellence and working within an open economy. A Singaporean leader is comfortable working with colleagues from other cultures, particularly Malay, Chinese and Indian. They are also likely to have a strong work ethic, will deliver on time and within budget.
However, HCLI found that it is difficult for a Singaporean leader to move within the region and further afield. “There is a lack of global aspiration. Singapore is a comfortable and secure way of life which executives don’t easily want to give up. Their careers tend to stagnate at a certain level,” added Puri.
Part of the institute’s remit is to help leaders here become more global. One avenue is through the thousands of Western multinational corporations (MNCs) ased in Singapore which offer global roles. However, Western MNCs complain they don’t have enough local leaders that they can export, according to HCLI’s research.
To help overcome this, Puri advised HR heads: “Let them go out and experience a different culture and work environment. Send executives [out] when they are younger. The younger they are, the fewer constraints they will have. [There are] also lower risks and costs for the organisation”.
At the other end of the scale, India provides a significant share of global companies’ CEOs. Examples include Google CEO Sundar Pichai and MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga.
The potent combination of poor infrastructure, lack of opportunities and obstructive bureaucracy in such a populous country forces people to be competitive from an early age. “There is competition for everything in India so as an executive growing up, this competitive nature is all around,” said Puri. “This sort of competitive environment creates tough, global leaders.
“You can’t rely on the government to get things done so you need to be creative at the grassroots level and take things into your own hands,” he added.