Smart leadership, in a slower growth Asia

Asia may be the most dynamic region in the world economically but growth is far from easy. And a key inhibiter to achieving success is a lack of understanding of how to actually work effectively in the region.  How to develop the leadership maturity that is particularly appropriate, how to respond to rapid change and innovation. Business in Asia requires a new leadership type.

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What counted for organisational and leadership success in the past two decades in Asia is not a predictor of success for the next two decades. That period of “easy growth” is over in Asia. Instead, growth needs to be sourced in an environment where demand is weaker and change is faster.

When I reflect on my years in Asia where I worked in the leadership and talent consulting field, the most striking attribute of successful leaders is how they operate by practicing what Korn Ferry calls leading from the ‘outside-in’ and the ‘inside-out’.

Put simply, it means evenly balancing your external priorities – markets, consumers, innovation, regulation - and your internal support structure –finding your purpose, defining success for yourself and managing supportive relationships. In Asia, these two aspects of leadership are interdependent.

Why is this so important? And why is it particularly important in Asia? People who lead businesses or teams in Asia will always remind you Asia is not one homogeneous continent and marketplace. The diversity of cultures manifests in business environments that only the most agile can navigate and succeed in.

We know having experience in Asia is a positive experience that builds a candidate’s work history – my years in the region taught me how positive it was for the mind and the spirit. Working in different cultures at a different speed can be challenging but for those who can click into the rhythm of Asian business and Asian cultures the opportunities and rewards are many.

To succeed as a leader in Asia you must lead from the 'outside-in' and the 'inside-out'. There needs to be a fine balance between external focus – markets, consumers, regulation – and internal – a clear purpose, personal goals, building relationships.

The differences between the Asian countries – and within many Asian countries – are found in infrastructure, economic development, consumer behaviour and the regulatory environment. They are also found in the extreme complexity that comes with multiple cultures, languages, experiences and beliefs.

The shifting needs of consumers, the quest for differentiation by companies and rapid product cycles all contribute to a culture of ‘extreme’ innovation which is created and applied at lightning pace. The ability to work with ambiguity is paramount to success.

These particular and subtle challenges are behind Korn Ferry’s decision to host The Asian Leadership Program in Singapore in May and November, a program aimed at building leaders with the performance, potential and readiness, to successfully navigate and lead the “smart growth” opportunities in Asia.

This is the era of smart growth – a period where a combination of leadership maturity and learning agility are critical characteristics for those who aspire to lead in Asia. Korn Ferry’s research reveals that a combination of leadership maturity and learning agility are both critical characteristics for leaders who aspire to lead in the smart growth era in Asia.

Working in Asia, with its richness of diversity in almost all factors of life, can challenge your sense of self and your role in the communities and environments you inhabit. Leaders need to develop the skills to cross borders and cultures and understand that success is just as likely to hinge on intrinsic factors, like self-confidence and purposeful leadership, as on external markers of success, such as market confidence or share price.

They also need to be able to lead across multiple domains that include clients, suppliers, regulators and employees and the broader community. Leaders need to build their “multiplier effect” where their actions create a strong legacy, and impact positively on stakeholders. Companies must develop a strong bench of talented leaders who are equipped with the ability to navigate, build and lead in this ever changing region.

Jacqueline Gillespie is Senior Client Partner, and head of Korn Ferry Australasia’s Asian Desk. She will be participating in The Asian Leadership Programs in Singapore.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.