Anyone stepping into a regional or divisional leadership role in Asia for the first time is going to experience a mixture of excitement and no small amount of trepidation. However, provided you keep a few basic principles in mind, there’s no reason why you can’t be successful.
First and foremost, you need to put assumptions aside, listen to what you’re being told and remain open to ideas. Bala Swaminathan, Asia Advisory Board Member at Westpac Banking Corporation and a Criticaleye Board Mentor, comments: “You’ve got people of different nationalities, languages and cultural backgrounds. Just making sure that you understand what their motivations are, what they are trying to get out of leadership and the organisation, is absolutely important.”
David Comeau, Venture Partner at KEEN Growth Capital and another Board Mentor at Criticaleye, agrees: “If you’re walking into a situation where you’ve got these diverse cultures, you’re going to have to be empathetic… in your leadership style to those individual cultures, while being true to... your leadership instincts.”
Certainly, ex-pats coming into a top role really need to keep this front of mind. Kris Webb, Chief People Officer at Coles, notes: “One of the key challenges is actually navigating the diversity of the region because people talk about Asia as Asia, but actually it’s not all ‘one Asia’ and there are many, many differences.”
A new regional or divisional leader will also have to understand the structure of the organisation and how decisions are made. Anika Grant, HR Senior Director for Global Core Business at Uber, explains: “There’s a really important part of being the connective tissue between the centre – HQ – and the local operations.
“[You need] to translate the global strategy and make it meaningful for the local markets that you are operating in, but there’s also something about educating the global leaders about how things work in the region and why certain things may have to be done in a different way.”
Duncan Hewett, SVP & GM for Asia Pacific and Japan at VMware, comments: “I have a team across 50 countries, so it goes everywhere from large countries that transform quickly, like India, China, Japan, Australia, and then you’ve got countries like Pakistan and Myanmar.
“So, one of the biggest challenges is actually to understand where each country is at and then what help do they need to grow and what investment you need to make in each one...”
Michael Crompton, General Manager for Criticaleye Asia, says: “Competitive agility is the key to success in Asia. This means being clear on strategy but having the ability to respond to the nuances and changes within local markets. A one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work.”
There is an enormous amount of complexity to navigate, but you also need to remain authentic and true to yourself if you’re going to be successful. As Till Vestring, NED at Inchcape and a Board Mentor at Criticaleye, puts it: “Probably the best regional leaders pick some themes that they drive as opposed to trying to improve every single market or every single operation.
“Secondly, they are very focused on leadership development. So, if they spend a lot of their time working to put the right leaders in place [and are] working on succession… [to make] the leadership team as a whole get stronger, then I think they can have a lasting impact on their organisations.”