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An expat in SEA: What I've learnt about leadership
Recently, I wrote a piece highlighting some of the lessons I have learned as an expat living in South East Asia (SEA). Since I moved to the region from England in 2011, I have gradually become more attuned to the cultural nuances that shape working practices and relationships in the region.
One area where these differences are most apparent is in the approach to leadership. The aim of this article is to share some key learns from the last five years about being a business leader in South East Asia.
No blame attached
One of the weakest things I witness as a leader is blame. Whether it is directed at your leader, subordinate, client or customer, it is often simply an excuse to avoid self analysis. This is particularly evident in the area of staff retention.
Due to the speed with which markets in SEA are developing, changing and/or growing, there is a lot of impatience and we are seeing people willing to move roles and companies on a whim. It is never easy to lose people, and as a leader, it can be easy to direct blame at the market, the impatience of Asia, a focus on material gains versus perseverance, a lack of loyalty. However, is the answer always external?
I am not suggesting talent loss is always the leader's fault, but as a leader it is your responsibility to seek feedback and reflect on what can be done better going forward. If a leader is quick to blame everyone and everything for talent loss, poor performance or other ills, you perpetuate a blame culture which is counter-productive and fosters resentment rather than a solutions-driven mindset.
Likewise I would not suggest that talent in this part of the world is simply not good enough which I hear often. Different values, priorities and attitudes around how one should conduct business however, do need accounting for with management styles to be adapted as a result.
Leave the vindictiveness at home
This is closely related to the points above. In a market where competition for talent and market share is intense, protective outlooks and defensive behaviors can emerge.
In the UK, criticizing former employees or competitors was as natural as breathing to foster a team culture or build a siege mentality. But I've found that here, where friendships and personal relationships generally outweigh business relationships, this kind of behavior is viewed as overly aggressive and has a negative impact on internal brand equity.
We've observed many instances where feedback regarding how an organization handled an employee's departure has gotten back to their former colleagues and has led to a number of employees questioning the values of the business. Considering friendships are built quickly in this region these relationships are valued more than loyalty to a business or corporation so pose a significant threat if not handled sensitively.
I imagine like most leaders, I hate losing people. We invest a significant amount of time and resource into training, coaching and development but I have learned that we need to exemplify the values that are important to our employees (current and future) with respect and humility even when there is competition for talent or tough market conditions.
From a personal and anecdotal experience, perception in this region is vitally important so having a positive perception is vital.
Use your words wisely
Do not scold or embarrass your employees in public. Seems like common sense, right? Yet I am still amazed at how often I hear from candidates that this is one of the reasons they want to leave their current role.
While colleagues back home may not look twice if an impatient, grumpy Northerner (me) loses their temper occasionally, this kind of overt display of anger or frustration can be more detrimental for our South East Asian counterparts. Something I have really noticed in my time here is that the strongest leaders display a lot of patience and approach all interactions with respect, garnering loyalty as a result. Also, one must remember that the concept of “face” (how one is perceived by others) is extremely important and public discord means one “loses face”.
If you do lose your patience, an apology goes a long way! In my experience, people in this region are remarkably forgiving if they believe you are genuine and don't repeat the same behaviors - too often, at least! Explain why you lost your temper - stress, disappointment, lack of sleep - and your team will not see you as an unreasonable boss but a human being. In South East Asia, humility and humbleness are highly valued character traits.
Everybody wants to rule the world.... or so I thought
One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first moved here was assuming everyone wanted the same things in life as me. Autonomy, more responsibility, a better salary package and, eventually, their boss' job!
In reality, I could not have been more wrong. Whilst 99% of the people I know will not turn down pay-rises, there are many that will turn down promotions, which was unfathomable to me a few years ago.
Particularly as I age (painfully...) the difference between my outlook and those of the people I work with stretches further apart. In SEA, family commitments, work-life balance, respect, pride, the image you project, salary and social well-being are far more important factors than perhaps I was used to previously. The key lesson was to stop viewing individuals and their motivations through my own lens, and judging their decisions according to my values. Instead, I've learnt to empathise with different viewpoints and perspectives, and respect what others choose to value in their own lives.
Failure and defeat are actually blessings
This is the hardest lesson I have had to learn over the years and I credit my time in SEA for helping me understand this.
A competitive, self-described 'winner' (yes, I've been that guy), I always found defeat and failure to be a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Having been a very demanding manager during my early career, it was in SEA that I learnt the importance of celebrating my team, and to recognise their efforts and perseverance even when we do not meet our threshold of what is considered success. In a region as dynamic as SEA, if you are going to chase the big rewards you have to be prepared to accept risk and acknowledge that risk leaves you exposed to failure. Embracing opportunity is only possible when you are prepared for the idea you may fail.
As an avid sports and movie fan, the man who best represents this mindset to me is the one and only Rocky Balboa, with his line "it ain't about how hard you hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward." We will all face challenges, and we won't always be successful first try. The key is how we conduct ourselves through failure and our determination to move forward, much like the missteps and misunderstandings you face as an expat!
Want more advice on how to be the best leader you can be? Read our article on top leadership qualities.