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Business Journal
Leadership Talent Is Scarce in Southeast Asia
Business Journal

Leadership Talent Is Scarce in Southeast Asia

by Vibhas Ratanjee and Andrzej Pyrka

Story Highlights

  • Southeast Asian companies must capitalize on rapid growth
  • The most effective leaders possess innate talent for the role
  • Gallup uncovered five core leadership development strategies

There's a leadership shortage in Southeast Asia, and the region will have to address it soon to compete on the world stage.

As China's economic 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. But if ASEAN businesses are going to capitalize on this growth, they must contend with a scarcity of available leadership talent in the region.

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 will thrive and create value for their companies.

Finding leaders who are up to the task has proven challenging for many companies. And the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of 2015 will establish free movement of talent across the region, further intensifying competition among ASEAN businesses to attract the best leaders.

To help companies bridge their leadership gap, Gallup and the Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI) interviewed top-level business leaders in six ASEAN countries about developing business executives with effective leadership qualities. We interviewed leaders from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam about leadership practices and developmental experiences that help them navigate the region's unique challenges.

Executives in our study discussed how complexity gives rise to opportunity. Many have operated in areas with highly unpredictable market dynamics and have had to navigate fairly uncharted territory. Though they can learn to do this through trial and error, the most effective leaders Gallup has studied possess innate talent for a leadership role.

Preparing the next generation of ASEAN executives requires unique programs aimed at finding young leaders and helping them achieve their true potential through a specific focus on coaching and development. Though companies can fill some of these gaps with expatriate executives, there is an increasing demand for local talent.

Understanding the ASEAN region's unique challenges provides a basis for tailoring an approach to leadership development that capitalizes on the region's opportunities and potential. Five core leadership development strategies emerged from Gallup and HCLI's interviews with highly successful ASEAN leaders.

Make long-term career plans, but remain open to possibilities. Most leaders we interviewed 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. As an example, a leading bank in Singapore 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 in two months. Emerging leaders typically embrace challenges and look for new ones once they have reached a plateau in their current role. Organizations must help emerging leaders take stock of their progress and, as much as possible, work with them to plan for what's next.

Go global, early. 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 we interviewed emphasized 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 toward 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.

Early cross-functional experiences and risks pay off for executives. The executives we talked to 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 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 behavior. 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.

A head of strategy at one of the region's most successful banks recalls the advice a mentor gave him about taking risks early in his career: "[My mentor] told me, 'During the first 10 years of your career, you shouldn't really worry about the money. You should worry about investing in yourself. Take as many experiences as you can, volunteer as much as you can and take risks.' That advice turned out to be absolutely true."

Develop a deep professional network. 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 leaders we interviewed understand how valuable their relationships are to their success. Companies in ASEAN countries should help emerging leaders cultivate authentic networks in their organizations that can provide guidance and support. As emerging leaders navigate the region's complex -- and sometimes dysfunctional -- business environment and government structures, these relationships can 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 organization 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 environments in which their company operates.

No need to "save face." In Asian societies, it is difficult to overestimate the value of "saving face" or salvaging one's dignity in a potentially humbling situation. Because this value is often at odds with the Western propensity to freely speak one's mind, cross-cultural seminars routinely warn business people to avoid inadvertently embarrassing or confronting their Asian partners and contacts at any cost.

Despite the region's cultural norm of preserving dignity, the leaders we interviewed 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 realize 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. They need to identify the gaps in organizational capacity and assess the effectiveness of how they approach development.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.


Vibhas Ratanjee is a Senior Practice Expert with Gallup, based in Gallup's Singapore office.
Andrzej Pyrka is a former Consultant at Gallup.

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