Frontline Intelligence: Instep - success in regional roles

by 02 Nov 2011

The Australian HR community is in two minds when it comes to taking on roles in the Asia Pacific region. For some, it represents an unparalleled opportunity to further their career and to experience HR and business in general on a new level. For others, working in a regional role and for a global company is shrouded in mystery and uncertainty, and they fear they will lose autonomy and the ability to implement their own agenda. In The Next Step's inaugural HR survey of 2010, only 2.1% of HR professionals were attracted to work in a globally driven environment and it was this perception of lost autonomy that was regularly cited as a reason.

In this month's InStep, we spoke with three top HR leaders working in regional roles based in Australia to ask what advice they would offer to their peers seeking to take on an Asia Pacific role and what they felt it had added to their HR 'tool-kit' as a result.

Choosing the right organisation in which to forge an international career is a key to solving the dilemma cited above, says John Francois, HR Director, Asia Pacific for McAfee.

"The route I personally took was to secure a local role with a reputable multinational company that had a strong growth outlook in the AsiaPac region," says Francois. "This gives you very good exposure to the initiatives being driven and challenges that are being addressed across other AsiaPac countries."

Tony Lehner, HR Director, Asia Pacific for Unisys, agrees that research is key to making an informed decision. He cites the internet, including company blogs, as an important investigatory tool - "do they offer the right culture and tools to support working across different time zones and geographies?"

An appreciation of the organisation's culture and an understanding of the cultural norms across each country in the region is also one of the keys to success in performing a regional HR role. This can take on both a formal and an informal aspect, says Lehner. "I was lucky enough to study cross- cultural management as part of my MBA," he says. "This prepared me with a better understanding that not all cultures are the same."

By the same token, says Lehner, the best cultural advice he receives is from his local HR teams on the ground across Asia. Trusting your team, he says, is the key to success.

Tracy Staines, Executive Director HR, Media, Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa for Nielsen, agrees that building relationships at a local level is crucial in gaining an understanding of the cultural nuances across the region. She cites "the ability to listen and ask lots of questions to make sure that you understand and that you have been understood. Never assume!"

Diplomacy is important, says Staines, as is being flexible and generous with your time to help break down the tyranny of distance. "You need to build relationships and trust and that's harder then you're not seeing people face to face on a regular basis. Have regular calls with your stakeholders and get to know your talent at all levels."

The assumption that one size fits all when it comes to regional HR roles is a common source of un-doing. "Appreciate the cultural and social norms and nuances associated with each country," says Francois. "The same initiative will likely require various approaches in each country to ensure it is successful."

With effort comes reward though, and our experts agree that taking on and succeeding in a regional HR role has given them significant career benefits, from both a professional and a personal perspective. "We have two of the biggest emerging and growth economies (China and India) in our AsiaPac region," says Francois. "This provides great opportunities to be innovative with our HR policies and practices as these countries develop and the business and its people grow."

Staines agrees and says that taking on a regional role has broadened her commercial and business outlook. "I've learnt a lot about different markets, cultures and employment practices, which has helped me broaden my knowledge and ask better questions to help solicit better solutions," she says. "It's broadened my experience and I think I've learned to listen more, be more flexible and truly appreciate diversity. It's also taught me that high talent stands out wherever it is."

About the author
Adam Wilson is a senior consultant in our permanent recruitment team in the Sydney office. For more information call (02) 8256 2500 or email