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  • Writer's pictureSusan Chen

Thought agility and authentic leadership: Skills for HR business partners to thrive in emerging Asia

Updated: Jun 18, 2023

I love HR, and I love the Asian emerging markets. The excitement, the ambiguity, constant changes, and the value add that HR can bring to a growing company in emerging markets outweighs the frustration and constant battles that HR leaders may face on a daily basis.

Having relocated to Indonesia from Singapore for a chief HR officer role after over 14 years of experience in mature markets, I have often been asked by many HR professional about the differences, if any, between the skillsets required to thrive and survive in emerging markets. Although born and bred in Asia with an Asian face, my New Zealand upbringing and foreign education give me a broader and more holistic view on working as a HR leader in Asia.

Many assume that emerging markets still very much view HR as a reactive and administrative function. As businesses grow quickly and with planning that are often organic, strategic HR interventions are urgently required which can often provide visible short term impact and to the long-term sustainability of the business.

In the case of Indonesia, the focus on industrial relations and labour law means HR has taken on the primary role of compliance and government relations, whilst strategy specialisations such as talent acquisition and learning and development takes on a demand-led and reactive lens, focusing on fulfilling short-term manpower needs and in-class technical training. Longer-term leadership and talent development is often a low priority, if it is a priority at all, whilst a wide talent gap still exists in the emerging markets.

More often than not, local HR education does not prepare local HR talent with the frameworks or experiences needed to support and facilitate strategic HR solutions to the business challenges in the market. Therefore, HR leaders outside of emerging markets, without full integration or understanding of emerging market challenges often are shipped in to lead emerging market HR transformation. Whether you are going to be based in the market or managing a regional team from a HQ in or out of the region, I have observed and experienced two skillsets that are the key to transforming your emerging market HR functions and having the impact intended on the business: Thought agility and authentic leadership. The first focuses on the technical expertise of HR, whilst the latter draws attention to leadership and people management requirements.

Thought agility. Emerging markets are constantly changing, and you will often face ambiguous decision-making demands. More often than not, emerging markets are made up of interesting and dynamic start-up companies, or with large mature companies entering into a new market, which typically require different types of HR interventions. Complex and fast-paced work situations require HR leaders to be intentional about where they place their attention. They need to provide well thought through recommendations that are tailored for the challenges at hand. Often the complex scenarios in emerging markets force leaders to do just the opposite, resulting in heavy reliance on automatic reactions and the tendency to attempt to apply institutionalized best practices to new business models and HR problems. Therefore, leaders need to: 1) become more aware of how they react to time constraints and information overload, and 2) learn to turn off their reliance on best practices and known solutions.

The entrance into a new market that has a new culture, new customer behaviours, and new HR dynamics often find HR leaders overloaded with information yet constrained with time to make important decisions.

HR leaders need to make decisions quickly, own the vision, and execute in one breath. Thought agility means having the cognitive flexibility to sift through information, decide what’s relevant, and act upon it with confidence.

It is too easy to be overwhelmed by the information available and distracted from the key focus of change. It is not enough to just have a HR vision of change in an emerging market, but HR leaders also need the ability to use this vision to execute; in Asia, actions always speak louder than words, and execution excellence is critical.

Thought agility also means that you are intentional with the HR solutions that you provide. HR leaders need to recognize that best practice applicability in emerging markets is often mediocre at best.

A solution that works in mature markets, more often than not, will not have the same impact in the emerging market, largely because of the different talent fundamentals and cultural contexts. For instance, in mature markets, internships are often great ways to attract high potential talent and is often promoted as a talent trial in large reputable companies, whilst the notion of internships in emerging markets tend to be a graduation requirement and therefore hold less importance or long term talent impact. Therefore, to solve emerging market talent gaps and pipeline issues is not as simple as designing an impactful internship program or focusing on campus employer branding – companies must instead consider multiple diverse avenues to attract talent and develop skillsets.

Authentic leadership. Landing a HR leadership role in an emerging market in Asia may mean that you will not speak the local language; moreover, you will likely stick out like a sore thumb culturally. You will feel like you do not fit in, as you may have comparatively more extensive experience overseas and/or in mature markets. You may enter markets where you are expected to lead in ways that you have never led before, or thought you are capable of.

Authentic leadership in the emerging markets mean that 1) you are intentional with your thoughts and behaviours, 2) you are aware of your leadership impact on others, and 3) you stay true to your values in different cultural settings

I have seen many HR leaders struggle to find a leadership balance in emerging markets, which often expect more authority and instruction-led leadership from their managers. Many HR leaders adapt to such a leadership style, solving all the strategic issues at hand whilst reinforcing the administrative and operational nature of HR through their larger teams, which are also more visible to the larger organisation. Many express that it is either faster to solve problems themselves, or that it takes much longer to get things done if you leave it to the team to come up with solutions. Even worst, some HR leaders question the capabilities of the local team, without seeing the potential that exists within local HR talent, and therefore not nurturing or developing local HR talents.

An authentic leader helps to build others through recognizing and accepting their strengths and weakness. The first step of such a partnership is to build trust through treating the team like they are equals within an existing cultural framework.

This may be as simple as asking “What do you think?” and “How can I help you?” Being sincere and intentional with your questions will help you transcend cultural and language barriers.

Moreover, despite cultural differences, much fundamental human behaviour is the same across markets, i.e., we all want to be respected and to be listened to. Being an authentic leader means you need to listen more and react less.

Authentic leaders appreciate and encourage others to learn from failure. This often contradicts the cultural fundamentals in Asia, yet it is a prominent requirement for start-ups and mature companies in new and unfamiliar territories.

The ability to build a framework and culture that supports failure and risk-taking will be an extremely valuable skillset for HR leaders in emerging Asian markets.

So, the next time you wonder about leading in HR within emerging Asian markets, be prepared to be agile in your thoughts and solutions, and to be ready to lead and inspire action through authenticity.

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