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By Brad Hall, Managing Director, Hall & Company

As Asian companies globalise their workforces, maintaining an engaging organisation culture becomes increasingly important. Can organisational cultures of Chinese companies attract, motivate and retain world-leading talent? Glassdoor.com’s rating of ‘Refer a Friend’ is an excellent measure of engagement within global companies.

According to Glassdoor’s ratings, of all Asian global companies, only Toyota might be considered an Employer of Choice in countries throughout the world. Why have so many Asian companies failed?

As an American, I have served on international assignments for two American companies, AT&T Japan and IBM Asia Pacific. I have also been a headquarters executive for two non-US companies, ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam and Huawei in Shenzhen. Talent Management leaders may checkbox these equally as ‘international assignments’ but, in reality, the experiences were dramatically different. The differences were caused by workplace culture.

I have been a headquarters executive for two non-US companies, ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam and Huawei in Shenzhen.

Organisation cultures of most American corporations are founded on American values such as equality, individualism, and personal freedom. Americans believe these are universal human values and that they will be accepted by people throughout the world. That may be true. More people choose to immigrate to America than to any other country – by far. Additionally, according to LinkedIn, American companies represent 21 of the 25 “Most Attractive Employers on Earth.”

Asians who work in American companies often say they have been “Americanised.” Many struggle when joining an Asian company. But, who has heard of an American who has worked for a Japanese company as being “Japanised?” Maybe American values truly are universal.

I have worked as an OD consultant at PepsiCo, McDonald’s, AT&T, and IBM. Many Americans might say that these cultures are very different, but they really are not. What is the difference between AT&T and IBM cultures? I could not perceive a difference.The reason is that American corporate HR practices and leadership expectations are aligned to American values. For example, if ‘all humans are equal’, then HR methods and leadership competencies at PepsiCo and McDonalds will be similarly designed to support that value. And those practices will be consistent in every country in the world. This was true also at IBM where HR policies and leadership practices are the same in every country. Thus, the organisational culture of IBM China and IBM India are the same as IBM US.

Over my nine years at Huawei, I watched the culture change. Every year, central committees of leaders delegated more and more decisions and authority to the front line and to business units.

However, the cultures at ABN AMRO Bank and Huawei were completely different. I joined ABN AMRO as SVP, global talent management. The company searched throughout the Netherlands, then Western Europe, and finally, after two years, they expanded the search to North America and I got the job.

On my first day, I was invited to attend a large meeting of ABN AMRO HR people from all over the world. The meeting purpose was to design ABN AMRO’s global talent management strategy. The CHRO said I could listen, but I was not allowed to make any comments. “What?” I thought. “You just hired me as your global talent management leader. These people know nothing about talent management. And they are creating the strategy that I must execute?”

I learned that this type of group decision making is deep inside the Germanic cultures. That may be acceptable if you are Dutch, but my desire to innovate and my American need for individualism could not accept it. So I left.

Huawei was the opposite of ABN AMRO. When I entered Huawei in 2010, the average employee was 28 years old. The senior executives told me Huawei managers were young and could not be trusted.

Employees were required to badge in and out. They could not walk outside office buildings during work hours. HRBPs stood next to the cashier at lunch lines to make sure employees did not buy lunch before 12 pm.

In 2010, Huawei’s decision making was strictly top-down. All HR policies, processes and programs were presented to the Human Resource Committee (HRC) – like a board of directors for HR. The HRC made all decisions. Once made, these decisions were almost impossible to reverse. Getting all committee members to agree is difficult. Even if the decision was clearly mistaken or was not producing the intended result, no one dared to go back and reopen the issue. Many in HR worked on projects they knew would never work.

Successful Huawei HR professionals understood this culture. They followed their orders. Once, I visited the COO of Huawei University. I said, “I have a breakthrough idea on training!” He stopped me, “If the CHRO tells me to do it, I will do it. If he does not tell me, I won’t do it.” He did not care about business success. He did not even want to hear my suggestion. However, his behaviours enabled him to get to the top of Huawei HR.At Huawei, I called this Emperor Leadership. Whatever the Emperor said, the employees would do – no questions asked. Historic Asian leaders used this type of leadership. And some might argue that today’s governments still use it. Throughout my time at Huawei, I fought to expose and reduce Emperor Leadership.

Huawei has succeeded in continually realigning HR systems and leadership practices to strengthen a culture that maximises motivation.

Over my nine years at Huawei, I watched the culture change. Every year, central committees of leaders delegated more and more decisions and authority to the front line and to business units. Finally, the HRC was dissolved and business units and countries were allowed to customise their own processes and policies using a centrally designed template. Maybe this was because lower-level manager capabilities improved. Or maybe, they realised that as Huawei grew it was impossible for HQ executives to make front line decisions. In any case, the executive team continually realigned HR practices to meet marketplace realities. The result was significant culture change.

In 2017, Huawei conducted the world’s largest study on work values of ‘Millennials in the Workplace’ to assess the alignment between HR policies and Millennial motivators. The overall conclusion was that the values of Huawei’s Chinese Millennials are rapidly merging with Western values.

In response, Huawei further modified HR and leadership practices to meet these changing demands. Now, Huawei climate survey responses find that Huawei’s Chinese employee engagement is high and that non-Chinese employee engagement remains significantly lower, but is finally improving.

Great leaders have willing followers. Great organisations create values and HR practices that meet employee needs. Huawei has succeeded in continually realigning HR systems and leadership practices to strengthen a culture that maximises motivation. Maintaining that alignment will be a core challenge for every Asian global company.