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Hybrid World: The Complexities of Age, Values and Asian Business

“I want a raise.” With the ink barely dry on her contract and less than a year of tenure at Morgan Stanley, the young Asian woman plopped a thick stack of paper on her supervisor’s desk. “What’s that?” he asked. With the confidence typified by the post-80s generation in China, she proceeded to lay forth an explanation of how she had researched the salaries of her peers, conducted a comparative analysis, and concluded that she was underpaid and undervalued. After all, she was a graduate of one of the finest universities, an extraordinarily talented and aggressive professional well deserving of a fast-track promotion. Taking a risk, her supervisor looked at her with a wry smile and stated firmly “I’m not going to give you a raise based on this; you have to prove yourself.” Surprisingly, the risk paid off.

This moment became a splash of cold water in her face, sparking a realization which led to reflection on the value of work, her staying with the job, and enjoying a more rewarding professional experience. Two years later she got her raise. In the meantime, she had been in touch with her peers, most of whom had already burned out in their careers, pushing themselves forward without regard for merit or commitment, making demands and having those demands met by supervisors fearful of losing new talent. While their careers had crashed and burned, she took a learning moment and modified her approach. Her supervisor had become an effective coach whose push-back framed a learning point that would give her the balance she needed. This scenario, or something like it, is being played out in executive offices around the world.

A New Generation, Culture or Both?

Some would argue that in 21st century international business, age trumps nationality, and any understanding of how to work with Asian leaders-in-the-making must begin with an awareness of the generational changes sweeping the globe. Fortune Magazine’s May 2007 article “Attracting the Twentysomething Worker” presents the new work demands laid forth by Generation Y. A wave of media attention has portrayed baby boomer children as being exigent and flexible. The case in Asia is similar, though not so simple. Fast Company’s June 2007 cover story “China’s New Creative Class” notes the emerging blend of youthful innovation and more traditional Chinese culture.

Just as the hybrid vehicle is transforming the automotive industry, so today’s global manager is entering the marketplace challenged to address new dualities in business and culture. In Asia in particular, a radical shift toward business is blending with, but not eliminating, traditional values. Today’s manager must meet clients in a new virtual space which, as they might say in Star Trek, takes us “where no one has gone before.” The traditional Asian veneration of age as wisdom is being counter-balanced by a wave of upstart entrepreneurs. The ancient value of working for the public good is being challenged by freewheeling competition. In the midst of this revolution, what are the implications for leadership?

Three Points for Motivating Asian Leaders

  1. Get to know the “Emperor or Empress”; look before you leap.

    In terms of age and generational differences in Asia, highly educated professionals in their 20s and 30s working in a multinational organization tend to be more outspoken, more outgoing and open to change than their predecessors. They admire the Western management style, whereas their parents’ generation, now in their 50s and 60s, followed a more traditional Chinese work ethic.

    In previous generations, it was typical to work very hard, be loyal to the organization, and not challenge authority. Among other influences, Confucianism was central to the belief system of the Asian psyche. These days, because of China’s “one-child policy,” sometimes the child of the family has become the “Little Emperor.” He has often been told by his parents that he is a genius. Sought by the best companies and headhunters, the Emperor or Empress may challenge authority constantly, dismiss organizational loyalty, and work only in the areas that foster personal advancement. Whether confronting the implications of age or culture, a balanced approach is important. With little emperors or empresses who have grown up to become your direct reports, for example, it is important to:

    • Think through things from their perspective and follow a process attuned to their belief system.

    • Take a logical approach, convincing them that a change will get them farther if they look at their behaviors and test out a new approach.

  2. 2. Understand emerging Asian business and adapt your approach.

    The emergence of Asia as a dominant force in the world economy, with China at the helm, is rapidly transforming the culture of business. In turn, tools for global leaders must be brought up to speed. Despite the Morgan Stanley tale, it’s not all about tempering the ambitions of young Asian business upstarts. In a recent report by Development Dimensions International (a firm leading in leadership talent and selection) entitled “Leadership in China: Keeping Pace With a Growing Economy,” a principal finding was that “More than one-half” of leaders are “inadequately prepared for their roles in the new economy.” Critical skills found lacking were the ability to motivate others, build trust, retain talent, and lead high-performance teams. Generic as these terms may sound, they point to a gap in Asian leadership.

  3.  3. Develop a hybrid model for Asia meets the West; Flip the model for the West meets Asia.

    In the West, land of WYSIWIG (what you see is what you get) and “tell it like it is,” a direct criticism might be welcomed as constructive feedback. In the East, however, where “face” is highly valued, it is more important to offer options to the benefit of the individual than to say point blank that someone is wrong. In the hybrid approach, you:

    • Listen, observe and refrain from rigid labeling. Asian leaders may take feedback very personally, so don’t fall into black and white judgments or make abrupt assertions.

    • Go to their strengths first, exploring how they might be leveraged.

    • Factor in your age relationship. With a more senior Asian, a person who is the same age or older may be perceived to have significant wisdom in the area under discussion.

    • Avoid giving the impression that you don’t know the answer.

A 2006 survey entitled “The Dream Team: Delivering Leadership in Asia” by Korn/Ferry International, one of the world’s leading providers of executive human capital solutions, polled over 300 senior executives as to what makes a business leader successful in Asia. In response to the question “Should a Western business leadership model be replaced in Asia by an Asian business leadership model?,” 35.5% affirmed that “No, globalization warrants a model that is neither Western nor Asian, but includes elements of all best practices.”

In the new Asian business world it is essential to work with openness to the reality that every person on the planet has a unique background and personality. Don’t make any assumptions; try to understand the person. Don’t assume that just because the person is Asian he will have an indirect communication style. Don’t assume that young Asian leaders are all petulant children; the continuum of personality is broad and varied in every age bracket. Leaders come in all sizes and shapes. Asians aren’t always of the same ethnic background. In the Greater China region, for example, there are 56 cultures and ethnicities in Hong Kong, the mainland and Taiwan.

Whether you’re managing a young Asian or interacting with someone from a more mature generation, embracing an open, flexible, hybrid style is a key best practice for success.

by Maya Hu-Chan

Want to learn Chinese?

References:

1. Leadership in China: Keeping Pace with a Growing Economy, 2005 page 10, finding 4; Development Dimensions International Inc. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

2. "The Dream Team: Delivering Leadership in Asia" 2007 Economist Intelligence Unit and Korn/Ferry International, page 4; Korn/Ferry: Los Angeles, Singapore, Shanghai.


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