A study by The Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI), in partnership with Tata Communications, affirmed the nuances of Asian leadership, through conversations with 165 C-level executives across nine countries in Asia.

The study found Singapore’s business leaders are forward planners, driven by data and processes, while their Indian counterparts succeed on quick improvisations and emotional connections with their people. Confucianism forms the cultural core of many Chinese senior business leaders. As a result, they lean towards a hierarchical leadership style.

Su-Yen Wong, CEO of HCLI, said: "“Succession planning and the challenge of finding the ‘right’ Asian talent to step into senior roles for Asian operations has always been one of the top issues that keeps CEOs awake at night, for both Asian conglomerates and multinational corporations (MNC’s) operating in Asia.

"The question then is: what kind of senior leaders are these MNCs seeking and expecting? What leadership qualities or competencies do they deem necessary for their top roles? And, why are Asian emerging leaders perceived to fall short? The HCLI’s Leadership Mosaics study delivers the very answers to these perpetual questions."

To answer the question, the researchers put together a cheat sheet for foreign leaders new to Singapore:

1. A local culture under the cosmopolitan sheen: Several foreign business leaders commend the Singaporean workforce for being open and used to working with foreign talent. This raises a potential risk: "When people manage in all the other Asian countries, we’re very considerate of local culture. In Singapore, we forget about that because Singapore is ‘easier’, and that’s often a mistake made because Singapore does have a culture."

Tip: There are no shortcuts. Singapore's nuances can exist across social stratas and organisational types (for e.g. one that is a regional office and another that is focused on providing local services). Singaporeans who have limited international (Western) exposure are more influenced by the culture of their Chinese, Malay or Indian ethnicity.

The older generation also grew up during a time when the government practised a more paternalistic leadership style. Hence, such Singaporeans look to their leaders for instruction. They are more risk averse and less outspoken.

2. Thoughts left unspoken: In a large-group setting such as a company town hall, Singaporeans tend to be quiet. As a foreign leader who has had stints elsewhere before coming to Singapore said, “In India, Mexico or Holland, we are not short on response, yes? Here, that’s an issue, whether we like it or not, and as much as I tell myself not to generalise  and not to fuel the perception.”

Tip: The earlier-mentioned foreign leader felt that Singaporean employees prefer a safety zone in which they can express themselves. Hence, he created this via small groups. Taking the example of a town hall, he did away with giving a presentation and taking questions directly. Instead, he gave a five-minute presentation of about five slides, and then had everyone break  out into groups of ten. With the help of an appointed group leader, each group then discussed a couple of open-ended questions, and subsequently had a representative present.

3. The downside of a low unemployment rate: A few interviewees mentioned Singapore’s “virtually zero unemployment rate” in the context that this has caused Singaporeans to be not as driven as they could be. This lack of “drive” may manifest itself in the preference for incremental growth over radical growth, or in striving to progress but not to be the CEO.

A Singaporean leader admitted, “When I go to Poland, Turkey, Brazil – let’s not even talk about India and China, you can see the fire in the belly, right? We do see that occasionally in the Singaporean workforce, but not as much”.

Tip: In a publicly-listed US MNC where growth is a key priority, the director of its Singapore operations first made it explicit that Singapore’s performance must contribute to the group’s earnings per share. He highlighted how Singapore’s employees would benefit if they delivered: higher compensation, more developmental opportunities and even funding for fun  events.

Subsequently, he agitated the status quo. Business units and individuals were all ranked on their ability to grow year on year and contribute towards company performance. Rankings were made public so that “there is no room for anyone to hide behind the success of others”.

Yet, he was careful to make everyone feel that they have nothing to lose. Those ranked at the bottom were coached to find their unique strengths and areas of interest. They were then provided opportunities, this time to perform to their strengths and interests.

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