So, Where Are The Top Asian MNC Executives?

More Asian leaders need to make an impact in boardrooms of major Western corporations.

As Western multinational corporations (MNCs) turn to Asia for business growth to make up for weak economies in the United States and Europe, their challenge is not just opening up the marketplace but finding and building ranks of ethnic Asians who can lead their organisations.

No one doubts that this is the century of Asia, powered by the twin engines of China and India. Every major global MNC ­- from Pepsi to Pfizer ­- is eyeing the region's middle class and spending power. However, many global CEOs are lamenting how few Asians they have in their ranks to fill top executive positions.

The MNC is an essentially Western phenomenon which emerged nearly 50 years ago. Well into the Asian century, it will likely remain dominated by Western corporations for another 50 years. Their financial strength, brand values, corporate cultures and global reach are far ahead of most Asian companies. Except for a handful of Japanese and Korean global names and some emerging Indian technology majors, few Asian corporations can claim to be global MNCs. In my work among Western MNCs, their human resource leaders consistently - but quietly – complain the lack of leadership talent among non-Caucasians, even in Asia itself. The shortage is coming at a time when these MNCs need Asian leaders most. Asians often top the Deans' Lists of Ivy League colleges. Despite being technically sound and armed with the best degrees, Asians are often perceived to lack the 'X' factor needed for executive roles in MNCs.

Asian cultures emphasise humility, respect for elders, rote learning and academic grades. These appear to have left Asians self-­-effacing and behind in the emotional quotient scale, especially in the MNC environment. Discipline and sense of quiet achievement may have powered Asia's economic growth, but if you aspire to lead in a global MNCs, your boss is looking for something more.

In over 25 years of working in MNCs ­- 14 of them based in the US - I have found that a major missing link is that Asian managers do not develop the leadership, communicative and behavioural skills of their Western counterparts.

They are perceived to stick to their own crowd, unwilling to be relocated and uninterested in activities which are part and parcel of daily Western life - be it Little League baseball or soccer, the Super Bowl in the US, or theatre in Europe.

Asians who are competent - but perhaps not promoted quickly enough - may ask, 'Shouldn't my work ethic and results suffice?' Unfortunately, not.

So what do MNC bosses look for beyond technical competence and hard work? The answer is to be found in this revised adage: 'All roads lead to Rome. But away from Rome, Romans look for Romans'.

By this, I refer to MNC bosses looking for managers from around the world who can be a little gregarious, communicate easily and spontaneously take ownership of challenges while blending socially and professionally in an essentially Western milieu.

They would like their Singapore manager to be willing to relocate to Pittsburgh if needed and to root for the Steelers over a barbecue at the boss's home. Except that many Asians rather spend the weekend cooking and eating Asian food among themselves and watching re-runs of soap operas from back home.

There are Asians who have dispelled this myth, of course. But a much larger cadre of confident and outgoing Asian leaders is needed to make an impact across cultures and in the boardrooms of major US or European corporations as the locus of economic activity shifts more and more to Asia. Many Asians have a built­-in excuse that being an Asian is a disadvantage. I actually think being Asian is an unfair advantage. Why? If an Asian manager communicates as confidently as a Western executive, the effect is more pronounced because it is so unexpected. He or she will almost certainly be marked out as a leader.

So what are MNC bosses looking for apart from competence? The seven key characteristics are:

  1. Instinctively leading and taking ownership of projects or teams.
  2. Making decisions and being able to articulate reasons and viewpoints clearly.
  3. Building trust and influence at all levels.
  4. Communicating clearly, spontaneously and confidently
  5. Delivering direct feedback; the ability to ‘push back’ and with appropriate assertiveness.
  6. Connecting personally at ALL levles – knowing how to develop formal and informal relationships.
  7. Willing to coach and develop teams – sharing knowledge, building, recognising and rewarding efforts of others openly.

In this process, the Asian need not lose his or her identity, which may erode respect among peers. But you can, when needed, be a little more outspoken in interactions with Western colleagues. So, in one­-on­-one situations or conference calls, speak up, ask the hard questions you may have.

Don't back down if you have a valid idea and fade into the background. Silence is not always golden. Break the Asian habit of not responding spontaneously to questions posed by figures of authority.

Go meet the bosses when they fly in. Inject a little more zest when addressing a crowd at corporate headquarters. Asians can develop this global executive mindset the 'Romans' are looking for. All it takes is a little effort to get out of the comfort zone and take the road to Rome and corporate success.


Article by Stephen Krempl, CEO of Krempl Communications International,Creator of the Global Executive Mindset (GEM) Programme. CLICK HERE to find out more about GEM.

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