The 9th February was the latest in our ‘Lunch With a CHRO’ series. We were hosted by Bloomberg’s CHRO Ken Cooper and Regional Head of HR, Melanie Coate in Hong Kong. It was a thought-provoking session on how to better build Asian leaders for a global playing field. The session was well attended by a number of regional and global HR leaders from companies such as Amgen, Asurion, Avery Dennison, Baker & McKenzie, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Citibank, Cigna, CBRE Group, Gap Inc, Goldman Sachs, G4S, Jebsen, Macquarie Bank, Maersk, Marriott, MetLife, Morgan Stanley, RGA, Schneider Electric and Turner Broadcasting

It is predicted that 45% of FT500 will be emerging market-incorporated companies by 2025, so this subject is a ‘live’ issue that HR leaders must embrace. Asia is a key part of this shift and organisations must look to grow enough relevant leaders in order to capitalize on this pivot to new economies or they may fall behind.

The ‘why’ is clear: there is a fundamental shift to the East. However, HR and business leaders are still grappling with the ‘how’. This conversation has been going on for some time and is multi-layered. The most obvious solution to the central talent issue is to invest in rotating your key talent. By giving them new experiences, they will then become more diverse in their thinking and, therefore, more balanced in their leadership style. This applies to Western based leaders rotating into Asia to understand the culture and vice versa with Asian leaders into HQs to understand how things ‘get done’ at a group level. However, this solution always tends to be viewed through a Western lens: if we rotate enough promising Asian leaders into our global HQ to see how we behave in the US or Europe, they will be able to learn the ‘right’ leadership competencies for our organisations to take them forward. They can then either remain in HQ and be an international leader who understands both Asia and the West or they can return to Asia to lead in a “Western way” on Asian soil.

For global rotations to be successful, investment in mobility is key and creating a ‘mobile mindset’ and culture is where HR can help to drive. That means hiring people who are mobile and who have an openness to work overseas. From an Asia perspective, it might be hiring returnee talent, Chinese educated in the US, for example. Furthermore, it doesn’t need to be built from scratch, the existing workforce can become more ‘internationally minded’ through short term assignments and various leadership development initiatives. Indeed, intra-Asia secondments can be a great way to get someone out of their comfort zone and embrace a new culture before a rotation into head office.

However, perhaps the issue is not that Asians are lacking global leadership capabilities, but perhaps we are just defining leadership through a western lens. The critical factor is deciding what ‘global leadership’ means. If we are to be truly global in the way we lead, we should incorporate what successful leadership looks like in Asia, or indeed any other emerging market, into these competencies. We should be looking for an amalgamation of the best tenets from multiple geographies and, therefore, the right leadership competencies should transcend the geographic norms. We should focus on facets like emotional intelligence and cultural awareness, agility and curiosity. Organisations should look for a few small core areas like the cultural essence that binds the company together and then embed these in how they assess leadership. If you define what those are, then the expression can take different guises in a leader—no matter where they were ‘brought up’ as a leader.

As one regional leader put it, “There is enough Asian leadership talent available. The challenge is that MNCs struggle to find them because they are going after the 10 percent that closely resemble their perspective, values and leadership behaviors based on overseas education and a western view of the world.”

Creating a more diverse and inclusive environment is one strategy that can shift the dial. Putting global roles outside of headquarters is another way to dilute a Euro or US centric leadership culture. We are already seeing this with several of the more progressive organisations. There is a real need to drive inclusiveness: “It’s good to invite people to the party, but let’s ensure they are dancing and enjoying the party as well,” as one leader put it.

Eastern cultural norms encourage humility and top-down decisiveness, but leaders in Western cultures are usually required to command authority and to promote themselves and their ideas. It is, therefore, time to rethink the ‘good leader’ prototype of being outspoken and charismatic. Research shows that employees don’t like to be treated in an aggressive fashion, yet that model persists as a valid expectation for leadership, particularly in the US. As the makeup of the workforce changes, so too should blueprints for leaders. In the meantime, it’s important to start with the competencies needed to fulfil a leadership role and then choose leaders who fit the requirements rather than the leadership stereotypes. If we do this, it is more likely that we will see more diverse and balanced global leaders.

We also need to get past the unconscious bias on Asian talent. As one HR head framed it, “We are the last generation of expats, so it’s about westerners adapting to Asians, not the other way around. We need to engage Asian leaders differently if we want to get a different result. We need to make them feel global, not just a China talent being groomed to lead China, for example.”

Professional communication training to Asian potentials can help in conjunction with giving greater exposure of Asian talent to influencers and decision makers. Likewise intense coaching interventions at the front end of overseas assignments can help equip them in a global context.

One HR leader in the banking sector suggested an interesting counterpoint to look at how local Asian companies approach talent and leadership as they globalise from Asia. She sighted that the most progressive ones like Alibaba and Huawei are already buying in foreign/Western talent. They know they can learn and develop by getting a more holistic perspective, which needs to include the Western way and the Asian way. There is still a long way to go before organisations get this right and as one HR leader summed up, “If senior leadership doesn't buy in, we can just forget it”. It, therefore, needs to be a combination of a top-down strategy as well as a bottom-up organic mindset shift.