Cultural Fluency: Identifying Skills for Business Leadership in Global Asian Markets

As multi-nationals find more of their employees, customers and partners are based in China and throughout Asia, they recognize the need to develop a culturally senstive lens when identifying those people that will help them achieve their goals in Asia.  At the same time, many multinational companies use leadership competency models that measure traits and behaviors by a Western-centric yardstick (i.e., assertiveness, self-confidence, open and direct communication styles). Those from Asian cultures have profoundly different ways of communicating, doing business, and demonstrating leadership and may have experienced a cultural misfit in Western organizations. 

In her acclaimed book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, Jane Hyun wrote: “Behavior is misinterpreted frequently by business leaders from different cultures, because it is visible, unlike thought processes, feelings, and intent.” A recent study by the Center for Work Life Policy revealed that “Nearly half of Asian men and women (48%) report that conformity to prevailing leadership models is a problem -- having to act, look, and sound like the established leaders intheir workplace.” This mismatch may be hindering MNCs from achieving their desired business results in Asian markets, even with the people they currently have in place.

A classic example of the different mindsets is that in the US, we say that, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease", while in China, it is said that, "the loudest duck gets shot".  This gap can lead to missing potential leaders in China when they are reviewed from a western perspective.

The Conference Board is launching a Research Working Group led by Hyun Associates to examine how leadership styles can be effective in the US and in Asia, and how to recognize these at various stages of management. The goal of this group is to help companies to generate innovative, culturally relevant strategies for managing talent and to strengthen results in key business units. This research will focus primarily on the workforce in China and South Korea and will investigate how diversity and talent teams can work with their global partners to identify successful leadership styles that are relevant to global Asian markets. This understanding will help companies design a workplace that enables business success through the identification and retention of key players, higher productivity and engagement, and reduced recruitment and training costs. 

This group will be limited to 6 companies that are members of The Conference Board and will involve two meetings in the US and a group trip to Asia. This will allow the researchers to come a deep understanding of each company’s practices and challenges in both the US and Asia, and to provide actionable insights for each company. The final research report will highlight case studies of the participating corporations, and will be publically disseminated. The member companies will be given a customized implementation sessions with the research team at the conclusion of this 6 month process.

We seek to address the following business questions:

• What skills do business leaders need to do well in a global business context, whether they have business partners in Asia, manage staff from Asia, or work with customer and suppliers in the region?

• How do multinational organizations develop an understanding of global leadership styles that can drive corporate success and encourage commercial growth in Asia? 

• Based on a study of China and South Korea, what are some of the pitfalls that companies must avoid in attracting and retaining talent? 

• Where does your organization stand in their maturity to applying the cultural lens to their Human Capital practices?  How can those who manage others be trained to have a fresh and global perspective?

2013 RWG on Measuring the Impact of Corporate Social Investments
"We have found great value in connecting with our peers and getting exposure to the industry's subject matter experts through this Working Group. The first meeting alone helped mold our team's 3 year vision for measurement at Target. Additionally, a peer in the group helped us think through how Target uses technology for data collection & reporting. The group's input and examples on shared value helped me craft our exploration of shared value for Target. Overall, we've been thrilled with what we've learned through this RWG."

Mark Muckerheide, Sr. Group Manager, Target Corporation