At a projected growth rate of 5.6% in 2023, Asia is growing at a more rapid pace compared to the rest of the world (estimated to grow at 3.6%), offers the largest market through its huge middle-class population, is a potential catchment area for talent with more young people in the region than anywhere else, and is a hotbed for innovation and entrepreneurship.
Any organisation that does not have a mature Asia strategy has perhaps already ‘missed’ the Asia bandwagon! Global organisations therefore need Asian leaders to not only grow their operations in Asia, but to inform the headquarters how to win business in a culturally different region. Besides, Asian leaders bring unique strengths of empathy and humility to the table, two attributes that are in unprecedented demand in the post-pandemic world.
“Asian leaders bring unique strengths of empathy and humility to the table, two attributes that are in unprecedented demand in the post-pandemic world.” – Sunil Puri, Senior Director and Head of Research, APAC, Center for Creative Leadership (CCL).
According to The Center for Creative Leadership’s (CCL) Global Asian Leader: From Asia, For the World research study, despite a slew of favourable attributes Asian leaders bring to the table and a strong business case to groom talent in Asia, there is a very limited representation of ethnic Asian talent in global C-suite and executive roles.
In top 200 organisations headquartered in Americas or Europe, leaders of Asian ethnicity (and/or nationality) represent only about 4% and 3% of the executives respectively. As compared to 2017, when CCL estimated the same data, Asian representation in executive teams has fallen marginally, possibly due to the tighter work visa norms or the growing sentiment of nationalism that may translate into having more local leaders at the helm in organisations headquartered in North America or Europe.
The Global Asian Leader research refers to this phenomenon as Asian leaders hitting a “bamboo ceiling” at some stage in their career, often as they are at the cusp of graduating from country roles to regional/ global positions.
As we reflect on the year gone by and as we prepare for 2023, what can global organisations do differently to move the dial on their global Asian leader development initiatives? CCL research suggests three actions organisations must kick-start or re-energise.
To be able to make it to the C-suite in a global organisation, Asian leaders need to get the “right” breaks at appropriate stages in their careers, and then they need to be prepared well enough to be successful in those roles. In a way, Asian leaders need better “access” to global roles and need to be set up for “success” as they transition into such roles.
Further, some experiences, attributes, and situations could enhance Asian leaders’ access to global career paths. These “enablers” could be a supportive manager, a global secondment programme, leadership team having a global mindset, demonstrating global leadership attributes, or attending global leadership development programmes. In contrast, some situations, experiences, or manager/senior leadership mindsets may make leaders’ access to global roles harder or set them up for failure. These “blockers” may be the lack of leader mobility or lack of global aspirations of the employer organisation, or absence of a learning mindset.
Although enablers can mainly be attributed to nature or nurture elements, CCL research attributed the “blockers” to obstacles created due to the country environment in which the leader grows up and operates, or the organisation culture, policies, leadership, or individual skill and will issues.
To succeed in global roles, Asian leaders must develop key attributes and mindsets, get global experience, and initiate appropriate actions. Global Asian Leader research identifies 5 critical traits and capabilities that an Asian leader must demonstrate to be successful in global roles.
Courage to overcome the fear of facing unknown or unfamiliar situations and having the ability to express one’s opinions freely; Curiosity or hunger to learn something new, seek different experiences, ask questions, and genuinely wanting to know more about different people and cultures; Trust (trusting people and being trustworthy) to establish and develop deep credibility of one’s authenticity and capability within and outside of the global enterprise; ability to influence decisions via compelling communication, managing the “political” landscape in the enterprise, negotiating skills; and finally, strategic thinking, or thinking global, thinking long-term, and looking at situations with a CEO lens.
Research also highlighted a hygiene element – aspiration to embrace a global career.
Asian leaders must also work on inculcating an increased learning agile or growth mindset, which may appear as a constant hunger to learn, even from challenging situations.
Research also suggests that some experiences are invaluable or must-have to prepare talent for global roles. Multi-cultural, -country, -function, -business roles often lead to increased “comfort with discomfort.” Even unpleasant experiences serve as great “teachers” in shaping leaders’ ability to deal with adversity and complexity. There are four must-have experiences in particular – global rotations or cross-border assignments, multi-function exposure, crucible or stretch assignments, and non-obvious jobs or career roles make leaders more learning agile and make them comfortable with discomfort.
It takes several stakeholders to build a strong pipeline of global Asian leaders. Key initiatives to break the “bamboo ceiling” must be headquarter-sponsored. If organisations try to solve for the global Asian leader challenge in Asia (only) through local initiatives, it may be a very long journey. Six different stakeholder groups need to work in tandem.
Global executive leaders must be executive sponsors of the Asian leadership agenda, set clear accountability around talent development in Asia, drive the diversity agenda, and even personally mentor Asian talent.
Global HR must partner with the leadership team to implement the diversity agenda, while also tag-teaming with regional HR to structure developmental rotations.
Regional MDs must be local sponsors for Asian talent, liaising with the headquarters to ensure a constant spotlight on Asian leadership development.
The regional HR function needs to work with the regional president and global HR to ensure that the Asian leadership development agenda is top of-the-mind for the enterprise.
The managers of Asian talent must create stretch opportunities to push Asian talent out of their comfort zone, helping them overcome cultural constraints.
Finally, Asian leaders themselves must aspire to get into global roles, verbalise their aspiration(s) to their managers, and work toward overcoming global leadership gaps, if any.
By Sunil Puri, Senior Director and Head of Research, APAC, Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). This article was first published in HRM Magazine Asia Nov/Dec 2022 issue.