In today’s global economy, many high functioning executives – often from global headquarters – are called upon to move into less developed countries with the aim of helping the organisations evolve in these regions. Last month the World Development Bank indicated that Asia Pacific is predicted to account for one-third of global growth, which is twice the combined contribution of all other developing regions.
In some cases, successful leaders from New York, London, Sydney or another established Western hubs have parachuted into a regional Asia Pacific role and failed spectacularly. Have you ever wondered why this is? Equally within Asia, it’s regularly the case that a high performing in-country executive is unable make the transition to a regional APAC role. This raises a number of questions around the issues of whether the same competencies are needed for an executive to succeed in any context. Does a manager lead the same way in both the Western and the Eastern hemispheres? Are the requirements for success the same in all parts of the world?
Most companies today use some form of leadership competency framework to evaluate potential employees, in order to manage the risk associated with hiring and investing in leaders. What they don’t often take into account is the fact that a great leader in one region may not have the competencies needed to be a great leader somewhere else. Until now, none of the assessment tools on the market has been developed specifically for use in Asia. Aperio Behavioural Preferences Insight (BPI) originated in Asia to fit the sensibilities of an Eastern regional business context. This new tool will be launched in August 2015 to help provide a globally informed and balanced view of the behaviours that are most pertinent in leaders across Asia Pacific.
Market Context: Is Leadership in Asia Really that Different?
Some might argue that a good leader should be able to lead effectively anywhere in the world, but our experience and research says something very different. To understand this, it is important to first examine the market context and look at how this is developing. Asia is a region which is defined by cultural, social, political and economic diversity. The development of more open trading systems, improved commercial infrastructure and reduced transport costs have driven increased regional integration and interdependence, resulting in astonishing growth across Asia in recent years.
The nature of this growth has also changed dramatically over the last decade. While Asia has traditionally been an export-led economy, driven by cost-effective manufacturing for Western consumers, this is changing. Domestic consumption, domestic investment, and intra-regional exports are now the key drivers for growth, according to the Asian Development Bank. This has led to a directional shift for the region from low-cost manufacturing which services Western markets, to one of innovation and entrepreneurialism in order to capitalise on these growing Asian markets.
The Need for Aperio – a Case Study
Dr. Giles Hirst, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Chair of Leadership for the Australian National University and Managing Director of Aperio, and Simon Bell identified a gap in Asia Pacific and decided to develop a solution. A particular incident that occurred in Simon’s work with a global pharmaceutical company clearly illustrates the need for a tool that is suited to the Asian market. The MNC had utilised a well-known leadership competency test, which was developed in the West, with their senior management team and the results astonished business leaders and presented a very real problem. Three of the organisation’s top performing executives received results indicating the need for redeployment or even to be exited, despite the fact that they were very successful in their current roles. Acting on these results would have had a hugely negative impact on the business, but how could they be ignored?
After a thorough analysis of the test and the business context, it was found that the definition of the constructs being measured, while useful in the West, were not applicable, or else were at odds with effectiveness in Asia. One key example is in the area of conflict resolution, where in the Western construct it was defined based on a very direct, competitive and transparent approach. In contrast in the Asian market, it is more crucial to allow everyone involved in negotiations and decision making to save face, so that there is no ‘loser,’ but rather a consensus-driven resolution or outcome. It is critical in Asia to find compromise and to achieve agreement so that the group, rather than the individual, drives the decision. This requires an awareness of the importance of group harmony and solidarity, as well as a distinct set of skills much less evident in the more adversarial defintion of conflict resolution in the western framework.
Through the qualitative research that took place in the development of Aperio, Hirst and Bell interviewed over 100 Leaders in Asia Pacific across geographies, industries and business functions. Some of the answers received highlight the different requirements when it comes to East vs. West leadership. When leaders were asked what competencies they had learned or acquired that contributed most significantly to their effectiveness as leaders in Asia Pacific, many identified ‘humility’ and ‘curiosity for cultures’ as valuable traits. In the words of one senior leader, “Humility entering new environments is important, so we can first learn from people how and where to add value.” Another key competency mentioned was “cross-cultural empathy and the ability to appreciate and leverage the diversity into delivery.” While these may be critical to success as a leader in Asia, ‘humility’ and ‘cross-cultural empathy’ would not necessarily be prioritised for success as a leader in the West.
Aperio Fills the Gap
Although many think of Asia in a regional context, it is important to appreciate that the relationships between Asians from neighbouring countries can be extremely complex. As the geographic and economic barriers in the region reduce, these cultural barriers have started to present more varied challenges for business leaders. These challenges require some very specific capabilities. Often the skillset required to lead in a developing market will contrast with what is needed to lead in more established countries. It is not difficult to understand why the tools to measure these leadership competencies in the West are not always effective in Asia. Personality itself transcends culture, but the behaviours that are relevant for leadership effectiveness vary greatly between countries and cultures.
Does the Early Bird Catch the Worm or Get Shot?
Hirst and Bell’s extensive research have helped them to further understand the motivations, perceptions, beliefs, experiences and drivers of professionals in the Asian market. This research revealed another clear cultural difference in the attitudes around and approaches to risk taking. In Western markets, and the U.S. in particular, taking calculated risks and trying new things, in order to make potentially significant gains, is often celebrated. A saying that is often heard is ‘The early bird catches the worm’ – in other words, getting there first pays off. When discussing attitudes to risk with one Chinese executive, he revealed a contrasting saying that is commonly touted in China, ‘Qiang da chu tou niao,’ which means that in a flock of birds, the first to stick its head out of the woods will get shot. These differences clearly demonstrate a cultural attitude toward risk, which is ingrained and goes right to the core of our perceptions and resulting behaviours. However, if organisations in Asia are going to facilitate the kind of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurism to capitalise on the intra-regional market, they require leaders who can facilitate a ‘psychologically safe’ environment to draw the best ideas to the fore.
It is clear that the skillset required to achieve leadership success in Asia is often in direct contrast to that which is valued in the West. According to Giles Hirst, “Most successful multinationals recognise that doing one thing in one country does not always translate to the same outcome in another.” For example in a multinational study of manufacturing companies, Hirst and colleagues found that empowerment practices which are embraced in the West may actually lead to great stress in Collectivist cultures where the group takes priority over the individual. Despite strong awareness of these issues amongst expatriates and indigenous cultures, it seems surprising and somewhat naive that when measuring personality and values at work, the status quo is to assume that everyone in every part of the world behaves the same. The reality is that cultural values and the resulting behaviours are exactly why cultures differ, yet tools in the market by and large overlook this fundamental observation. Aperio BPI – developed in Asia for Asia – aims to help businesses understand the behaviours that lead to successful performance in Asia, which leads to business success.
Aperio Behavioural Preferences Insight (BPI) is an assessment tool for behavioural preferences in the workplace, developed in collaboration with more than 100 senior business leaders in Asia Pacific. ‘Aperio’ is the Latin word for uncover, open or reveal, and this tool aims to identify the behaviours that are necessary for successful leadership in Asia. Based on the comprehensively accepted Five Factor Model of personality, Aperio has been scientifically validated through extensive research conducted in Asia Pacific. Dr. Hirst and Simon Bell have developed the tool in consultation with executives from a select and representative group of companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, GE, Deloitte, Nokia, Microsoft, ANZ Bank, ATM Terminals, Thomson Reuters, Ecolab, Abbott Laboratories and Astra-Zeneca, Phillips, Standard Chartered Bank among others. This new tool will be launched to the market in Singapore in August 2015. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
Dr. Giles Hirst
Giles Hirst is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Chair of Leadership for the Australian National University. He is an internationally renowned and published scholar, in addition to sitting on several editorial boards. With particular expertise in the fields of creativity, innovation and leadership, Dr. Hirst has worked extensively with teams in Asia and his research has been published on topics such as creativity and innovation in China. Giles has PhD in Organsational Psychology.
Simon has over 17 years’ corporate experience across Asia Pacific, with 12 years focused on talent solutions. He worked previously as a senior executive for a leading global recruitment and talent management company, pioneering the organisation’s RPO and Assessment and Development businesses for Asia, based out of Singapore. Simon has a Master’s degree in Industrial Organisation Psychology.