Are Asian leaders ‘not good enough’ for global roles?

There are prevailing myths that leaders here lack the necessary skills – HRD finds out

Are Asian leaders ‘not good enough’ for global roles?

According to one study, about two in three HR leaders across Asia hold on to this dubious myth: Asian leaders are harder to develop to take on senior global leadership roles.

This ties in with findings from a separate study that half of bosses in Singapore have denied promotions because of a perceived ‘lack of leadership potential’ in their employees. This is concerning as a third of Singaporeans were denied a promotion in the last three years.

Other reasons cited included lack of experience, soft skills, and the presence of better-qualified internal candidates.

Read more: Global firms lacking Asian leaders

However, the myth is unfounded, said Elisa Mallis, managing director and vice president of Asia Pacific at Center for Creative Leadership (CCL).

“In reality, based on CCL’s research, the organisation is often the biggest stumbling block, much bigger than the individual capability gap issue,” Mallis told HRD. “There is more to global leadership than cultural fluency.”

There are three factors that may be holding Asian leaders back, she said: the country’s cultural context, organisational practice or perception, or the individual themselves.

To become capable global leaders, she believes professionals need to be exposed to opportunities for development, such as cross-border rotations, ‘non-obvious’ career moves and stretch roles.

Read more: 5 roles to evolve beyond your leadership comfort zone

Can HR help?
Mallis suggested HR help elevate Asian leaders and accelerate their development. This is especially crucial after 2020, which has proven that developing capable, forward-thinking, strong leaders is central to keep the business going in times of crisis.

Some steps HR can take include:

  • Put in effort to find the root cause and ‘real’ reason for the lack of a global Asian leadership pipeline
  • Identify key capabilities required by leaders to succeed in regional and global roles and create feasible career development pathways
  • Curate appropriate experiences for potential executives to hone their global leadership development skills
  • Engineer the right career moves to help them take up opportunities for global opportunities
  • Refrain from ‘exporting’ leadership development programs to Asia wholesale
  • Focus on understanding the business context and culture in Asia and tweak leadership development programs accordingly
  • Be deliberate to pick countries within Asia where your organisation will place talent ‘bets’ 

Read more: HR leaders a 'mirror' for the organization

She highlighted another myth about leadership development – that you should only put in effort to build the top-level executive team.

“Leadership skills are needed much earlier on for young leaders to successfully navigate a more turbulent and agile, less predictable environment,” she said. “Organisations do recognise this, but the constraint has typically been budgets."

Also there’s less opportunity to "offer more" with leadership development being quite traditional, she said, as many continue to rely predominantly on face-to-face classroom learning, coaching and traditional assessments.

“In this case, I believe that we need to democratise leadership development, so more leaders can benefit," she said.

“HR leaders [should] sensitise the senior leadership team and get a buy-in on driving leadership development across multiple levels in the organisation.”

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