Western Leaders in Asia

The 5 Traits Western Leaders Need to be Successful in Asia

Last updated: 24 Aug 2016

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Datuk Dr. Paddy Bowie, writer and a well–known political analyst, once said that a key difference between doing business for Asian or Western leaders, lies in realising that relationships are very important in the East.

Is this too simplistic?

Even the West goes by the adage that “People do business with people they like and can relate to.”  Relationships do matter in the West as well.

Perhaps they matter in a different way in Asia. The surrounding traditions, niceties and ‘face-saving’ tactics to conducting business shapes the texture of relationships in a significant way in the East.  

Asian or Western leaders in a globalised world

In a world where news, pop culture and common ways of working are spanning the globe, is there a real difference between working successfully in one area as compared to another?  

Leaders may have great exposure to both markets, travelling across them as comfortably as catching a cab to the office. Can we actually lump all Western and all Asian leaders into monolithic blocks?

Unsurprisingly, the answer lies in shades of grey. There are still patterns of behavior that affect perception in unique ways in different parts of the world.

In Thailand, resting your feet on a table for example, is considered extremely rude.  In Japan, being direct with negotiations signals a lack of courtesy and disrespect.

And yes, as compared to the more straightforward and straight-talking Americans, this can be a recipe for disaster in talks and business deals.

While there are many nuances, we find 5 broad traits that Western leaders need to have to succeed in Asia.

Trait 1: Decoding skills to work with Asian family businesses

The Asian family business is perhaps one of the more traditional types of business. Hence, they tend to retain an archetypical Asian style to doing business.

Experts claim that the Asian family business entails a different approach. Their ownership models are often inflexible and may lack transparency. There is relatively poor succession planning, and company culture focuses on ‘family values’. This makes them tend to retain control and keep decisions within family members; avoiding deals which may dilute family control at times.

Many of them have large ambitious forays into both developing and developed markets. As an executive, decoding a family business will mean deeply understanding the rules and norms set by the founder, or main owner. This seems to be the best way to be successful when dealing with this business type.

Trait 2: An ability to localise strategy and products

Many multi-nationals hire local talent and tailor strategy to the geographies that they cover. One recent example is McDonald’s. Part of its localisation strategy has been to  look for local franchise partners, besides localising the food to the tastes of the local people. In a report, the company said it was seeking partners who would “enable localised decisions on growth initiatives.”

A strategy that works well in one market will need to be tailored to the needs and wants of the next market. Products originating from the West, need to be adjusted to the local tastes and culture.

Samurai Burger

McDonald’s customises its menu cleverly to the tastes of the local markets it serves

Trait 3: Bringing best practices from your culture over

Asians love the new-fangled offices that Google have. How do we know? Judging from conversations on the web, and trending topics. Many multi-national teams regularly share best practice across regions. And these are some of the best case studies that are used elsewhere around the globe.

It may require an initial pilot study and maybe a focus group or two to see if the new so-called ‘Western’ idea is doable in the East. This way the knowledge transfer bears minimal risk, and allows organic adaptation in the new environment.

So long as the change or idea is culturally appropriate, people will know a good thing when they see it. These may be technologies that empower and simplify work, provide the latest employer-of-choice best practice and yes, those hammocks we saw in Google.

Trait 4: Respect local cultures and ways of working  

If you’re new to Asia, chances are, you will find some ways of working a tad ‘strange’. Chinese for example, need to ‘save face’ and can seem to make decisions a little slower than say an American.

According to this study, people from most Asian nations are less outspoken and more outwardly accepting than their Western counterparts.

The study also showed Asians may show less independent initiative and prefer to have clear instructions on what to do, but may be more willing to listen to others and be less argumentative. They look for consensus to get a decision and prefer to share responsibilities within the team. Asians are also more likely to accept and respect decisions made by more senior people.

Conversely, Westerners are more self-promoting, which, in many Asian nations, can be seen as showing off.

These differences may make a Western manager think Asians are terribly ‘laid-back’. In the same vein, an Asian manager might see a Western employee as being arrogant.

There is a need to understand the fine cultural differences and adjust one’s behavior according to the situation. This may require a delicate balance of diplomacy and care. Conversely, not respecting local cultures can have dire consequences.

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Trait 5: Appreciating that there are many ‘Asia’s

There are different sets of regulatory challenges in the East. Different emerging markets with different growth trajectories. Different government leadership types.

Understanding the full range of complexities surrounding your business takes an adept manager. What’s needed is an appreciation of the unique challenges of this region and how it affects you and your business.

Hofstede and Culture

As a closing point, I leave you with a little resource of information into global culture. Geert Hofstede’s study into culture is one of the most widely referred-to studies into the workings of different cultures around the world and in the workplace and how each culture responds to power, or uncertainty for example.

This study makes an extensive resource to map certain cultural points against what we can expect when doing business with people from that area. An example is India, where power distance is high; thus translating to a greater respect for authority compared to say, the Americans.

Regardless of your country of origin, it would serve you well as a leader to heed these 5 traits to succeed in any market. Such are the joys and fascinations in business, which we are blessed to enjoy.


By Marian Jacob: Marian is a writer and communications specialist with broad multinational experience, and is a regular contributor to the EngageRocket blog.

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