Asian leaders – Why so few in Western MNCs?

Our workshops on effective communication and collaboration across cultures explore the differences between Asia and the West and how these differences impact companies. In a recent article, we discussed different ways for developing gender neutral leadership. This article explores why most Western MNCs lack Asian leaders and how companies can create more diverse and inclusive leadership.

 

  1. The problem – low Asian representation in Asian and Global Leadership teams of Western MNCs

 

Recent studies show that the percentage of Asians in Executive Leadership Teams (“ELTS”) of the top 200 global companies is low. In U.S. companies, only 8% of ELTS are Asian, this number is even lower at 2% in European organisations. It is interesting to note that the single biggest group of Asian leaders are of Indian origin (see graph below)[i].

asian leaders in mnc

Source: CCL Research, 2018

 

The data clearly indicates that more work needs to be done to promote cultural diversity in global MNCs. Let’s consider the reasons for this lack of diversity:

 

Why do we have fewer Asians? Possible reasons

As the CCL research[ii] also suggests, we need to look at different levels: Country, organisational and individual.

Country: Development opportunities for talent may vary significantly. This could mean various levels of education, political environment, government policies or cultural norms that don’t support labour mobility as well as the lack of companies present with adequate resources. 

Organisational: Lack of resources, structural and policy issues can certainly be important factors, but headquarters’ and the senior leadership’s general lack of global mindset and trust in non-native talent may perhaps play an even bigger role.

Individual: The expectations of a ‘Western MNC culture’ and the perceptions/biases on both sides may put an Asian leader at a comparative disadvantage. Asian people in general also have more family obligations (due to cultural expectations as well as at times larger, extended families) which makes international moves that are often a requirement for senior level positions more challenging.

 

Why do we have so many expatriates? Possible reasons

Subconscious (and Conscious) Affinity Bias[iii]: Many Western MNCs employ expatriates in hiring positions and the recruiting firms also often pair up these managers with their expatriate employees.

Affinity bias suggests that we employ and promote people who are similar to us in some way, e.g. having a similar background.

Networks: Expats may have more extensive social networks to get to know about job opportunities or simply to get things done.

Company culture: Many companies’ governance structure, mission and value statements reflect the norms of the headquarters’ country culture. Western expats may ‘fit’ this culture better and you also need expatriates to spread and support the organisational culture’s expectations and norms.

 

  1. Why does this matter?

 

Diversity is good for business. McKinsey’s research[iv] indicates that “companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. In addition, overall, companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnic/ cultural diversity were 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability”. Thus companies do not just benefit from diverse leadership, they are also penalised for the lack of it.

Asia – An area of growth. We cannot and should not underestimate the importance of Asia in terms of economic growth, population and potential workforce size. Companies who do not adapt their strategies to support Asian leaders with their unique knowledge and perspectives are likely to fall behind.

A mix of balanced global and local mindsets is needed. Expatriate assignments, international short-term projects, virtual teams are all providing an opportunity for widening one’s horizon, a more in-depth understanding of the customers, clients, suppliers, etc. in different parts of the world. The development of a global mindset is crucial for individual leaders as well as whole organisations. At the same time companies need localised knowledge to address the markets’ specific needs. It’s safe to assume that an Asian local leader is most likely better equipped to do this than a foreigner.

 

  1. Cultural differences

 

As we consider the clear benefits of having more Asian leaders, it is important to note the cultural nuances and dimensions that differentiate Asians from Westerners and may impact how Westerners view Asian leaders.

In general Asians are usually more indirect with respect to their communication style, have a strong sense of hierarchy, prioritise relationship building over task execution and are more comfortable with silence. This might mean that they do not often speak up in meetings or conversations with more senior colleagues and may be misunderstood by their more direct counterparts.[v] Often, in Western MNCs the definition of leadership is based on the Western model of leadership; a model that may not fit most Asian leaders.

 

 

A comprehensive understanding of these differences is therefore essential for creating inclusive leadership teams, company cultures and a space for Asian leaders.

 

  1. Next steps

 

For Companies: How can you develop your Asian leadership pipeline

  • Embark on a culture change: Commit to creating more balanced leadership teams, set targets, require succession planning involving local successors, etc.
  • Ensure that locals are key stakeholders in recruitment and promotion decisions.
  • Design and deliver development programs to advance local talent (workshops, mentoring, coaching, etc.).
  • Promote cross cultural competence and awareness for all.
  • Raise awareness and manage subconscious biases amongst diverse groups.

 

For Individuals: How to advance your career

  • Know who you are, be that person but also be able and willing to adapt your behaviour and communication styles depending on the situation and the persons you are interacting with.
  • Tell people what you want, i.e. if you would like to be on a project, get a promotion, etc. – say it explicitly to your manager or the relevant decision maker.
  • Be excellent at what you do, keep learning.
  • Develop communication skills across cultures.
  • Learn how to engage and influence senior leaders.
  • Build your internal and external network with diverse people in it, focus on those who can have an influence on your career.

 

As we mentioned in our previous article on gender, it is now more crucial than ever to build inclusive organisations that are ready to face the challenges in this new, uncertain and increasingly virtual world. Diversity of thought is key to creating resilient organisations and it is time to actively work towards filling the Asian leadership gap.


[i] Centre for Creative Leadership Research, 2018
[ii] CCL, The Global Asian Leader Research Report, 2018
[iii] CNA, Commentary: Why do companies still hire expat staff even though they seem to cost more? 2018
[iv] McKinsey, Delivering through Diversity, 2018
[v] Tungli, Zsuzsanna. The Culture Key: Between Asia and the West. 2020
Inclusive Leadership – The Way Forward

We all perform better when we feel respected and valued for who we are and what we contribute. In other words, we all want to work in an inclusive environment. In these challenging ‘remote times’ it is even more important to practice caring, collaborative and inclusive leadership.

 

Why is Inclusion so Important?

With globalisation, clients, customers, suppliers and employees are all becoming increasingly diverse. We know that diversity has the potential to produce great results but we also know that diversity can only thrive in an inclusive environment. Numerous studies (from Deloitte, PWC, McKinsey and the World Economic Forum to name a few) report the positive impact of embracing diversity and providing an inclusive environment for all employees. These benefits include higher employee engagement, more creativity and innovation, holistic decision making and problem solving, better products and services, more market penetration, access to a wider talent pool and ultimately overall improved performance.

 

How to Create Inclusive Organisations? The Roadmap to Inclusive Organisations

We have developed a roadmap consisting of six practical stages to help organisations create an inclusive culture. We believe following a clear roadmap similar to the one suggested here will help keep things on track and guide organisations. The first five roadmap stages are general steps, while the sixth stage is specific to the needs of each area of diversity.

  1. Building awareness and the business case and commitment for D&I
    Inclusion starts with (and is highly dependent on) the commitment of the senior executive team. Making senior leaders aware of the benefits of inclusion is important for gaining this commitment.
  2. Basics for individuals: Practical “Subconscious Bias”, and “Developing an inclusive leadership style” programs
    Once leaders are onboard, subconscious biases need to be addressed both at an individual and organisational level. Ideally all employees go through very practical and action oriented subconscious bias programs followed by programs supporting leaders developing a more inclusive leadership style. These programs need then to be re-enforced through regular follow-up to ensure sustainable behavioural change.
  3. Basics for organisations: De-biasing organisational policies & practices, considering both internal and external stakeholders
    Inclusive organisations continually re-evaluate their policies and practices to ensure they are bias free and provide opportunities for all employees to thrive. In addition to focusing on their employees, truly inclusive organisations also drive inclusion through their products and services as well as their interactions with external stakeholders.
  4. Involving diverse groups and levels of employees and external stakeholders
    Throughout the process, it is essential to involve and consult diverse groups of stakeholders while setting up new, or modifying existing, policies and procedures.
  5. Flexible work arrangements for all
    Introducing and encouraging flexible work arrangements benefits all employees, regardless of their gender, age and/or nationality, as it provides the opportunity for wider participation of the diverse population in the workforce. This could be especially powerful for female executives who may have left the workforce to start and raise a family.
  6. Specific interventions for diverse groups of employees and external stakeholders: Gender, culture, generations, etc.
    (See examples of specific suggestions below)

 

THE ROADMAP TO GENDER EQUALITY IN ORGANISATIONS

Here are some examples of specific actions organisations can take in the areas of gender and cultural diversity.

Gender

  1. Focus on competent and gender-diverse hires and promotions. Set KPIs, targets for recruitment, promotion and succession planning. Use percentage growth goals rather than absolute number goals. This will help measure progress as well as keep leaders accountable.
  2. Use panels for hiring and promotion decisions to minimise the impact of subconscious biases.
  3. Provide extra career support for women by mentoring, sponsorship and gender-specific targeted leadership programs.

Culture

  1. Provide basic cultural awareness courses for all.
  2. Make country- and/or region-specific cultural training mandatory for all employees assigned to a foreign country.
  3. Provide cultural mentoring and coaching opportunities for high potential talent so that they can match headquarters’ and higher level management’s expectations regarding leadership behaviour.
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Tips for Managing a Local Remote Team

I’ve been working remotely on and off for over 20 years; often in virtual teams across the globe, but also running a virtual team locally. Here are some of the things I’ve learnt along the way:

Is the task completed? This was one of the main concerns for me. Not because I didn’t trust my colleagues, I simply wanted to know where we stood on certain projects. When you are sitting next to each other in the office, it’s easy to ask a quick question, and know everything is fine. When you are sitting in front of your computer and want to make an extra call or send a message just to follow up on a certain task, it can come across as a lack of trust, impatience and micro-management. I realised I needed to put a few processes in place. Based on my experience I’d recommend the following:

Managing tasks

Ask everyone to create a task list and share the updated version with you at the end of every week. This helped me keep track all projects and worry less about whether everything is being done and nothing forgotten.

Ask your team members to identify their priorities according to deadlines, importance of projects or other criteria. Ask them to mark these on the task list and review these priorities first thing on Monday morning. This helped me focus on the most important objectives.

Urgent tasks. If something suddenly comes up, as has certainly been the case in recent weeks, make sure to put into the email subject line something along the lines ‘urgent- please do this now’ and/or text as well as call your colleague. Flexibility and agility are crucial in today’s environment. I’ve discussed this with my team members, and they rose to this challenge wonderfully, and supported the seemingly chaotic task distribution extremely well.

Meetings and communication

Regular team meetings. I tried to run my local team almost 100% virtually for a few months, but it became clear to me that we all needed physical contact as well, even those of us who loved working from home. So, we started weekly face-to-face meetings, often followed by a team lunch. Since you may not be able to have any face-to-face meetings currently, make sure to have these regular team meetings, on the same day, at the same time every week – with video camera on!

Regular calls with team members individually. Just to check in. In addition to the regular face-to-face or online team meetings, we also established regular calls. These calls could last one minute or an hour, depending on how much we had to discuss at that point. These calls and the team meetings established a regular rhythm which helped  all of us function as a team.

Emails and any other written communication. I am trying to be much more clear and exact describing what I need compared to how I would verbally. It’s so much easier to misinterpret a casual message, there is no immediate feedback of a frown on the face, a hesitation in the body language or indeed anything at all.

Most of us would probably not get on a call immediately to clarify. This leads me to my next point.

Encourage quick, intermittent phone calls just to clarify emails. Again, the call can be very quick: Do you have any questions about the email I’ve sent you? What will be the first thing you think you’ll need to do? How can I help you do this? If there is already a great amount of trust between you all, the first direct (Do you have questions?) question will work, if the relationship is perhaps newer and the trust/ credibility is still being built, it’s probably better to ask open ended questions.

Establish the rules, and communicate your expectations, and most importantly follow through! Make sure you keep to the rhythm; it will decrease the immense uncertainly so many of us are experiencing now. Be transparent and share the ‘communication schedule’ with your team.

Communication shouldn’t always be about work

Don’t forget to bring fun to work, even if it’s more challenging than it would be in a face-to-face work environment. Fun should be part of our every-day work anyway. Yet, so many (most?) workplaces feel so ‘serious’ with their white walls and cubicles. A growing number of companies have finally introduced more colours, ergonomically designed and also fun looking furniture to their offices. You cannot bring fun easily to people by using colours in the office now but try something virtually. Ask your team members what funny or just personal stories they would like to share. Make this a regular activity. Every Tuesday morning, or every Tuesday and Thursday morning, or every morning at 10am or 4pm we will have a 15-minute fun meeting. People can share video links, cartoons, stories, pieces of advice, etc. during this time. Introduce themes to make it more structured if necessary: Remote working – fun moments, the virtual holiday – I’ve just been to Paris (saw the film An American in Paris), and so on. It may feel forced at first, but it’ll help with the everyday monotony, plus it may also bring all of you together. Try to make sure everybody shares something. Give a call to those who are shy, introverted, etc., and encourage them perhaps to submit something in writing, or just share a link of what they’ve read.

Virtual team lunch and tea break. Also try to arrange virtual team lunches, or if this is too big a stretch, virtual tea breaks. Everyone brings their cup of tea, coffee, water, etc. to the computer, and you have a chat. Ask your colleagues to share one thing that is positive about being at home, then also have a conversation about the associated challenges. Be the first to admit something is less than ideal. Have a toolkit of suggestions about what people can do to manage some of the negatives of working from home.

Create a team space online where all this can be shared. IT companies are currently offering a number of solutions even free of charge. Make sure you utilise technology to keep your team motivated. But make sure everyone has access! If someone doesn’t, reach out to that individual separately and make sure other colleagues reach out too.

Agree on which technology to use for different types of communication. We for example agreed that the general business communication is going through emails. When there is something urgent, then it’s time to use WhatsApp or give a call to each other. You may also want to split the channels for ‘serious’ and ‘fun’ messages and dedicate a place where everyone can post the fun pictures, videos, etc.

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Summing it up: Set up a clear and transparent structure for workflow and communication, clarify understanding regularly and be patient. Most importantly, communicate, clarify and communicate more!

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Top Tips for Effective Multi-Cultural Virtual Team Meetings

In the globalised business environment, virtual teams are a common organisational structure. This is even more so in today’s crisis-led world.

Virtual team meetings are becoming more commonplace than ever.

As long as you choose a capable set of underpinning technology, provide your employees with appropriate equipment and access, as well as apply more rigid disciplines than you expect in face-to-face gatherings, virtual meetings can be just as effective as the real thing.

Read on for our top tips on running effective virtual team meetings.

 

Tip 1. Pre-meeting

  • Ask for input for the agenda by sending out a group email. Call those who are less likely to respond on group emails.
  • Send out the agenda at least 48 hours in advance (when you have participants from different time zones).
  • Agree on the role of facilitator with responsibility for time keeping, agenda and ensuring everyone participates. Make sure the role is rotated among different team members.

 

Tip 2. During the meeting: Cultural Awareness

Every participant needs an understanding of the different cultures present; their cultural norms, their communication style, their behaviours and values. Basic cultural intelligence is essential to determine what aspects of an interaction are simply a result of personality and which are a result of differences in cultural perspective.

  • Learn about each other’s cultures by sharing tips on business behaviour expectations of your culture. Make this a recurring meeting agenda topic.

 

Tip 3. During the meeting: Understanding & Participation

  • Check for understanding by repeating, summarising and paraphrasing.
  • Unless the number of participants exceeds 7, ask each person for comments to ensure everyone has an opportunity to participate.
  • At the end, summarise and confirm next steps, including tasks, deadlines and ownership.

 

Tip 4. During the meeting: Your Behaviour

  • Be courteous & polite.
  • Speak clearly & potentially a little slower than usual, especially for international teams. Don’t be loud and/ or patronising though.
  • Maintain eye contact by looking straight into the camera – don’t be vain & watch yourself.
  • Share the mic. Let others talk without interruption.
  • Limit side conversations at your location. Others will see your lips moving even if you have muted your mic.
  • Avoid the urge to multi-task. Don’t read emails, text, eat lunch.
  • Avoid pushing too hard if someone doesn’t want to share. Follow up individually afterwards.

 

Tip 5. Post meeting

  • Send a written summary of the meeting including: decisions made, follow-up actions, people responsible for these actions, agreed deadlines.
  • Ask for feedback on the meeting and the summary. This gives another chance for people to contribute if they didn’t feel comfortable doing so during the meeting.
  • Follow-up informally to check understanding and agreement by individual email/phone.

 

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