If ASEAN businesses are going to capitalise on the new scale, they must contend with a scarcity of available leadership talent in the region.
As China’s growth slows, countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are poised to gain a greater share of global trade. Combined, the 10 ASEAN member states — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — are projected to be the fourth-largest global economy by 2050.
With more than 600 million people who speak multiple languages and dialects and represent a multitude of cultures, the ASEAN region is a complex place to do business. Leaders must grapple with a host of societal, cultural, and religious differences among each country’s distinct ethnic groups. Executives who can manage effectively while respecting employees’ and customers’ multifaceted diversity are the ones who thrive and create value for their companies.
Finding leaders who are up to the task has proven challenging for many companies. And more complexity will come with the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of 2015. It will establish free movement of talent across the region — and further intensify competition among ASEAN businesses to attract the best leaders.
Though companies can fill some of these gaps with expatriate executives, ultimately the leaders must be drawn from local talent. Tailoring an approach to leadership development that capitalises on the region’s opportunities and potential will require understanding the ASEAN region’s special challenges.
To help companies bridge their leadership gap, Gallup and the Human Capital Leadership Institute interviewed top-level business leaders in six ASEAN countries about developing business executives with effective leadership qualities. They talked with leaders from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam about leadership practices and developmental experiences that have helped them overcome the region’s unique challenges.
All of the executives in their study have succeeded in highly unpredictable market dynamics and had to navigate fairly uncharted territory. Though it is possible to learn to do this better with experience, the most effective leaders Gallup has studied possess innate talents that prepare them to lead in such environments.
Cultivating the next generation of ASEAN executives will require programs aimed at finding young leaders with similar talents, and helping them reach their true potential through a specific focus on coaching and development.
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Based on interviews with highly successful ASEAN leaders, there are five leadership development strategies that should be core to that coaching.
Most interviewed ASEAN leaders said that early in their careers they established a long-term vision of what they wanted to achieve. But given the ASEAN region’s chaotic business climate, even the best-laid plans can go awry. Companies should encourage emerging leaders in the region to assess their progress roughly every three years and refocus or revise their goals as necessary.
To make this happen, HR and business leaders could require emerging leaders to rotate to new assignments after serving a given number of years in the same role. A leading bank in Singapore, for instance, has a “2+2 program” that enables employees who have been in a job for two years to apply for a new assignment — and if the fit is good, their supervisors must release them within two years.
Emerging leaders typically embrace challenges and will look for new ones once they have reached a plateau in their current role. Organisations must help emerging leaders take stock of their progress and, as much as possible, work together with them to plan for what’s next.
Given the cultural and linguistic complexity of the ASEAN region, it is virtually impossible to conduct business in the region without crossing national or language borders. The executives emphasised that early international assignments played a large role in their success. They advised companies to send leaders abroad at different stages of their careers to equip them with a global perspective. Emerging leaders, for their part, should make the most of each cross-cultural opportunity by learning the customs, practicing the language and networking with locals instead of seeking out expat enclaves.
As the ASEAN community moves towards greater integration, the war for talent will intensify, but it will also create greater opportunities for talented employees to take assignments across borders — with their current company or with a new one. Though companies might be tempted to push high potential leaders into assignments abroad, a better approach might be to ask emerging leaders about their motivations and listen for clues to the developmental opportunities that would best help them grow.
If companies ask high potential leaders to take on international assignments, they should ensure that emerging leaders’ family needs are met. This will help ease these leaders’ transition and eliminate potential distractions that would prevent them from excelling at their job.
The ASEAN executives said that leaders need a holistic understanding of how a company operates beyond their narrow area of expertise. Companies should ensure that emerging leaders gain a working knowledge of several aspects of the business and have the opportunity to test their strength in each area. Emerging leaders should feel empowered to take risks and move out of their comfort zone.
An aversion to risk in several of ASEAN cultures, for example, can hinder innovation and entrepreneurial thinking. The Hokkien or Singlish word kiasu, which means “fear of losing” or “fear of missing out,” typifies this behaviour. Allowing high-potential leaders to try diverse roles and activities and to take risks — and even to fail — will accelerate their learning and can result in unexpected business successes.
Professional networks are vital for career paths in the ASEAN region, where getting together outside work can be more important than meetings in the office. The interviewed leaders understand how valuable their relationships are to their success.
Companies in ASEAN countries should help emerging leaders cultivate authentic networks within their organisations that can provide them with guidance and support. As emerging leaders navigate the region’s complex — and sometimes-dysfunctional — business environment and government structures, these relationships can serve give them a safe place to seek answers and test ideas.
Companies also should introduce their emerging leaders to key individuals and networks outside the organisation who are important to the business. Including high potential leaders in external business meetings or introducing them to important networks could offer them greater external exposure and give them a better view of the larger ASEAN macro, political and social environment that their company operates in.
In Asian societies, it is difficult to overestimate the value of “saving face” or salvaging one’s dignity in a potentially humbling situation. Despite the region’s cultural norm of preserving dignity, the leaders maintained that showing vulnerability was instrumental to their success.
Companies that encourage this brand of authenticity will build a culture of transparency and objectivity. Emerging leaders must realise that openness about their own strengths and weaknesses will ultimately help them grow.
Communication habits and hierarchical thinking in Southeast Asia can be a major barrier to open exchanges. Companies must build cultures that encourage all employees to exchange their views openly and freely. This kind of culture would allow leaders and their employees to fail — and then to admit to failure — without fearing harsh consequences.
These five strategies — culled from top executives’ reflections — offer insights for developing the next generation of ASEAN leaders. Companies operating in Southeast Asia must do their part to find the most promising emerging leaders and prepare them to make the most of their potential.
Given the current environment, businesses cannot afford to leave leadership development to chance. ASEAN leaders need to identify the gaps in organisational capacity and assess the effectiveness of their development approach.
See also: Tips for HR Leaders aiming for Business Leadership