Leadership matters - that we can all agree on. What is leadership in an Asian context? Sabrina Zolkifi explores the changing role of leadership, and how HR uses it to define and sustain organisational culture and growth.

As market boundaries blur and organisations try to cope with increasingly diverse workplaces, the question of leadership has to be raised. Questions such as, do our current senior leaders have what it takes to pave the way for your organisation’s successful future? What makes a truly exceptional leader? How can we find and groom the next generation of leaders?

Regionally, the heightened competition for talent in Asia is also having a direct impact on leadership. Talent churn can threaten a leadership pipeline in terms of both quality and quantity of emerging leaders, meaning human resources professionals have their work cut out for them when it comes to helping the organisation manage expectations surrounding leadership development.

“Gone are the days when organisations can rely primarily on home-grown leaders,” says Gloria Chin, director of the human resources division at the National Environment Agency (NEA).

“We thus have to take a more open approach towards the acquisition, development and retention of leaders, and this will have an impact on our organisational culture, as leadership shapes culture.”

Similarly, advances in technology have had an impact on leadership in the sense that companies have the opportunity to try new things, build up a strong reliance on data and adapt faster to the changing environment.

Rich Atkinson, an HR director in the e-commerce sector, says this pace of change has been “very, very dramatic”.

“I often get teased by my business peers that HR still feels like it’s doing the same things it did in the ’90s, and in some instances it’s true,” he says, adding this means there’s a high need for adaptability and higher demands to keep up with an ever-evolving business.

“It’s exciting from an HR perspective – it means we have to think two or three steps ahead - to predict.”

But before looking ahead to developing future leaders, it’s necessary for HR professionals to understand where they’ve come from.

The different phases of leadership

Leadership, at its very core, is about being able to understand. This includes understanding the business, the people you lead, and yourself.

“It also requires the ability to learn, including about yourself, to balance long-term and short-term goals and to create needed change in the organisation to achieve a vision through followership,” says Veronica Tan, the regional human resources director at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

“Leadership development programmes must provide the opportunity for leaders to talk about their own challenges and draw on the experiences of other leaders to meet them.”

This is a sentiment Atkinson agrees with, and he believes the focus of leadership development has changed over the years – through four phases – to allow a fluid progression of leadership capabilities.

“We started out content heavy,” he says. “It was a lot of classroom training and sometimes development centres, where we’d put people into different scenarios, rate them and give them feedback.”

In the early 2000s, this shifted somewhat to include more reflection and self-awareness, where leaders realised they needed to understand themselves better before being capable to effectively lead others.

“Coaching became a bit of a buzz, as did 360 feedback tools. Mentoring also took off , both long and short-term programmes,” he says.

Then, the third phase Atkinson saw was the shift towards a 70-20-10, with on the job learning reflecting 70% of learning. Many organisations follow this today. It also saw the evolution of e-learning, with even Harvard Business School now adopting an online learning approach.

And finally, leadership development is currently progressing to envelop higher purpose leadership philosophy and culture – reflecting the expectations and needs of Millennials.

There’s a more holistic view now – looking at the well-being of leaders, their ability not only to manage themselves in scenarios, but also manage their lives; not just training for content, but developing a focus around leadership cultures.
Companies today that are known for solid leadership strategies – and Atkinson gives examples of GE, Unilever, Google and LinkedIn – prove a strong leadership philosophy is fundamental to attracting the talent that’s coming through.

“It helps you adapt to a more complex and unpredictable environment, but it also helps you attract a far greater population of people.”

While this changing face of leadership is noted by some, Chin says she thinks the definition has remained largely the same, but the importance on leadership development has grown and heavily impacted the HR function, in terms of the competencies needed.

“Public agencies like NEA are subject to a much more rapid pace of change today,” she says. “HR as a strategic business partner must understand the challenges faced by leaders on the ground so as to better design HR policies and strategies to support this transformation.”

Shakimah Abdullah, head of group HR and admin at Maju Holdings, says making sure a leadership plan is consistent across the company is imperative to producing solid, effective leaders at all levels.

Revising the KPIs

“Every year we will revise our KPIs, which will need to support the company goals, so we look at the training needs and gaps we need to fill up,” Shakimah says. “Because of that we have to identify who are our second liners or high potentials who can be the next leaders.”

This brings up one of the age-old questions surrounding leadership – whether the preference is around hiring for leadership potential or hiring for skills needed now.

To build a leadership culture within your company, it is necessary to reflect the core identity of your business. Then, you can teach leaders a specific way of leading others within a common context.

Many businesses find themselves promoting the best specialist to leadership positions, but in doing this you can sometimes run the risk of having someone in a leadership role who has the skills, but puts the fundamentals of leadership second.

“I think if you’re hiring someone for their leadership potential, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it at entry level or senior management,” he says.

I think we often fall into the trap of, ‘they’ve managed big teams before and they’re great specialists’, but we don’t always drive as hard on questioning their leadership skills.
Atkinson suggests looking closely at competencies when hiring for leadership potential, as well as their proven ability to adapt.

The other focus should be on experiences. What sort of leadership experiences has a potential hire had? How did each of those experiences go?

Building and managing expectations

Whether you’re bringing in a new leader or developing a leadership talent from within, HR needs to make sure the channels of communication are left wide open to ensure both employees and the business knows what to expect right from the start.

Employees want to be led by competent and inspiring leaders, says Chin, and often the importance of this can be highlighted by middle managers who are able to drive change with access to both the top management and their staff and peers.

Chin says this development and support of middle managers can help bring new ideas to the surface, while any risk management can be left to the top managers.

“HR, hence, plays an important role in advising management on the right approach for strategies for talent management and succession planning,” she says. “Employees may have varied expectations, but most of them have a good level of realism.”

HR can further facilitate this by making sure there is sufficient communication and engagement, so employees feel there are ample and fair opportunities to grow.

“Employees also need to understand that leadership development is just one area of focus,” Chin says. “Development of technical expertise and operational excellence in NEA, for example, are other important areas of focus.”

Getting the language right when communicating expectations is something Atkinson agrees with, adding these expectations should be coming from all angles of the organisation.

“If you say to leaders it’s non-negotiable to have one-on-ones with staff , why aren’t you telling staff they should have the same expectation of their leader?

He says this not only puts pressure on the organisation to live up to its own leadership promises, but it will also ensure you don’t end up contradicting the culture you’re trying to build.

“It’s also a lot about dialogue. There’s a move away from a top-down approach towards a more networking style,” he says. This means building a “community” where feedback and communication goes both ways.

“Leadership development is part of your employee value proposition. Just because an employee isn’t a leader today, doesn’t mean they don’t have aspirations to be a leader tomorrow, so it’s appealing to them to know there is support and organisational investment.”

The next generation

We’ve looked back to where leadership development has come from and how it has adapted, to where it stands now and how HR can help the business engage employees in a leadership culture. But what about tomorrow’s leaders?

“They need to know how to communicate and give clear directions,” Shakimah says. “They also need to be able to be coaches. We’re no longer just administrators – we need to be able to coach employees and that is why communication is important.”

Similarly, Tan says H+K looks out for talent at all levels of the organisation who display leadership tendencies and then nurtures them.

“Early on in their careers, individuals demonstrate nascent leadership skills by showing curiosity, initiative, passion and excellence.

“Regular talent reviews enable us to nurture and build upon the work and contributions of our leaders, and in turn, this plays a central role in our succession planning.”

Chin adds a structured leadership competency framework with clear definitions of leadership roles is fundamental to ensuring a solid future pipeline of leaders.

The aim of this is essentially to bridge any leadership development gaps by ascertaining them at an operational level, as well as an individual level.

“Finally, there must be some form of measurement to assess the outcomes of these leadership development programmes.”