TAFEP Hero 2023 Oct
human resources online

It's lonely at the top: How to prevent isolation for your senior executives

Senior executives leading MNCs in Singapore can feel left out professionally due to the lack of support from peers and their HQ. When looking for a solution to executive loneliness, skip the short-term fix and prioritise a support structure instead, Nick Jonsson, Managing Director of Executive’s Global Network (EGN), affirms. 

It’s all too easy for executives leading the multinational corporations of Asia-Pacific to feel alienated from their headquarters and from others.

Today, Singapore plays host to more than 37,000 international companies, including some 7,000 multinational corporations, with more than half of these operating their Asia Pacific businesses from the city state (according to statistics from Singapore’s Economic Development Board). Effectively leading these outposts has unique challenges, one that the team back in their HQ may fail to appreciate.

Harvard Business Review recently commissioned a study that revealed that 50% of chief executive officers (CEOs) have reported feeling a sense of loneliness. On top of that, 61% felt that it held them back from delivering their best at work. The problem is particularly acute in Singapore and in the region due to the varying work cultures.

Navigating cultural peculiarities with no one to turn to

Singapore presents executives with a high standard of living, ease of access to the rest of Asia, excellent medical care and great (if costly) education for kids. One key area where Singapore rates poorly on international rankings is work/life balance.

Singaporeans are prone to ‘presenteeism’ and making a point of ‘showing face’ by remaining in the office well beyond regular working hours. Many will also think nothing of demonstrating their ‘always on’ approach to work by calling or messaging superiors and colleagues – and expecting an immediate response — in evenings and on weekends.

Even in ‘westernised’ Singapore, which is frequently referred to as ‘Asia Lite’, there are cultural differences such as this to navigate. And since international companies often use Singapore as their southeast Asian base for dealing with countries across the region, there are even more cultural peculiarities between Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei, Laos, and Cambodia to get to grips with.

As such, executives running the Asian operations of international companies can begin to feel alienated from colleagues at head office. Their counterparts at HQ won’t necessarily understand how business is done in this part of the world (let alone in the disparate countries that make up Asia), so executives in leadership roles frequently get the sense they’ve no one to turn to for valid advice or informed second opinions.

Skip the short-term fix, prioritise a support structure instead

This isolation is particularly worrisome at a time when CEOs are facing significant challenges. Adding fuel to the fire, PwC’s Global CEO Survey recorded a record increase in pessimism among CEOs in Asia Pacific as they have to deal with trade conflicts, geopolitical uncertainty, and widening information and talent gaps.

Psychologists are worried that there are signs of a loneliness epidemic spreading across most developed nations. In the United Kingdom, research by the New Economics Foundation estimated that the problem was costing UK businesses £2.5 billion (SG$4.33 billion) per year.

Taking the above into account - firms looking to expand to Southeast Asia or have a presence here need to prioritise a support structure for their executives
The issue of executive support has in fact created a wide array of businesses, with firms hawking everything from basic coaching and mentoring services for support to advanced on-demand phone calls with experts for specialist advice at S$1,500 an hour.

While these services provide a short-term fix to executive support by giving CEOs the advice and listening ear that they need, they do not tackle the root causes of the problem. Also, executives aren't the only ones who lack support. The problem trickles down to mid management who are typically tasked with the operational aspects of the business - but lack the guidance from their superiors.

Taking the above into account - firms looking to expand to Southeast Asia or have a presence here need to prioritise a support structure for their executives. Social and professional networks, more autonomy in decision making, and regular communication with head office on local issues; these are just a few remedies on how firms can achieve greater success in Southeast Asia, and prevent isolation for their executives.

Nick Jonsson (pictured) has worked across Asia, Australia and Europe representing major international firms, and he acquired international general management, direct sales and marketing experience. He also been entrusted to serve as the Vice Chairman of the Nordic Chamber of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh City and the Vice Chairman of the Direct Selling Committee Vietnam.

Photo / provided

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