The difficulty Western companies have identifying managers with leadership potential in East Asia says more about prevailing Western views of leadership than it does about available talent.
Many western multinational corporations (MNCs) operating in East and Southeast Asia bemoan the lack of local leadership talent. Several recent surveys have pointed to the scarcity of regional talent as a growth limiting factor in the Far East. But fast emerging MNCs in Indonesia, South Korea, and Malaysia, as well as companies in China and Japan, don’t seem to have as much trouble finding or growing Asian leaders.
This raises important questions: Is there a shortage of suitable talent and leadership in these regions? Or should we examine the validity of the “global leader” yardstick? Based on our work with Western MNCs with operations in the Far East, these are questions such MNCs need to ask.
We began hearing about the “Asian leadership gap” several years ago when Western MNCs expressed interest in creating development programs for emerging leaders in Asia. We conducted hundreds of interviews with Asian executives, paying particular attention to the challenges of managing across cultures. The perception in Western MNCs was that management talent from East Asia often had difficulty demonstrating the leadership skills and competencies required to be successful MNC leaders.
Understanding the Gap
In this article, we address Western and Far Eastern cultural models broadly. We recognize that these are sweeping generalizations, in that wide cultural disparities exist even within the individual models. Yet we think broad distinctions are warranted by the underlying orientations. (The Far East tends to be more collectivist; the Western orientation is more individualist.)
East Asians pursuing careers in Western MNCs often have to make dramatic adjustments, not just in terms of acquiring linguistic and cultural fluency but also in terms of behavior. The requirements are so ambiguous that many East Asian managers aren’t sure where to begin, and few make it to C-suites of Western MNCs. In fact, the “Asian seats” on leadership teams are often filled by executives from the Indian subcontinent whose early exposure to English makes the adjustment easier for them. Indian-born executives have reached the top levels of technology giants such as Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., as well as nontech companies such as PepsiCo Inc. and Mastercard Inc.
Many of the communication qualities considered “leader-like” in Western businesses — a willingness to speak up, express unpopular views, and dominate conversations — run counter to principles that are widely valued in Far Eastern cultures.