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Does Asia really lack leaders?

Does Asia really lack leaders?

What are the different factors that contribute to the notion regarding the lack of leaders emerging from the Asian region?

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by Ash Mishra

In the last couple of years, I have attended a number of workshops on developing ‘Asian’ talent. At a recent networking session, almost all large companies mentioned this as one of their top priorities (closely followed by gender diversity).

So, is there really a talent shortage in Asia? And if so, are organisations serious about resolving the issue?

If you look at numbers, you will understand why many feel it is an issue that needs to be addressed. Board members of most large companies are largely western educated males. Most senior leadership follows the same trend. Of course, there are exceptions, but if you look at the Fortune 500 list, only 4% have CEOs of Asian, African American or Latin American origin. On the brighter side there were 24 women CEOs (probably the best ever).

Even the Asian HQs of large global corporations have a disproportionate number of employees from European/American origin on their senior leadership teams. What is most counter-intuitive is that while Asia has produced some of the most well-known social and political leaders (Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, LKY, Mao), when it comes to corporate leadership, we have limited role models. So is the Asian talent really lacking in skills or is something else holding them back?

While opinions may vary, to my mind, it’s not about the skill. Asian talent is exceptionally bright, but it boils down to a couple of important considerations:

  1. Judging Asian Talent on parameters that were designed in the west
  2. Lack of concerted effort by organizations and Asian governments

Let me explain further.

‘Ideal Candidate’ bias:

For most managers, there is an image of an 'ideal candidate' for senior positions.

Every time a senior role opens up in Asia, a number of candidates from all over apply. Unfortunately, in many multinational companies, someone with experience in the western world in preferred. It is this bias that ensures the Asian candidates don’t get their due. I call this the ‘ideal candidate’ bias.

It is changing, but nearly not as quickly as it should.

Fair Selection?

In order to ensure selection of the ‘best’ candidate, most organizations have opted for an external assessment – psychometric tools, assessment centers etc. are a huge industry at the moment. Without going into the merits of these processes individually, a lot of them again support the bias of an ideal candidate I mentioned earlier. Most of these processes are run by large companies headquartered in west. These processes were designed by them with a different cultural context in mind. While I have to admit that all of them have put in a lot of effort to ensure such processes are balanced and can work in any cultural context, doubts still remain. Many Asians do very well in such assessments, but it requires more effort on their part than others who are educated in west. I may not have statistical data to prove it, but speak to a few managers based in Myanmar, Vietnam or Indonesia and I can promise in most cases they would agree.

Are we serious?

None of what I have mentioned above is news to any senior manager or an HR professional. So, why does the problem still exist? I think it exists, because we have not made sincere efforts to resolve it. Each company has been driving some efforts, but organisations, universities and governments are yet to launch anything on a pan-Asia basis. After years (and some government intervention), companies are now measured on their gender diversity mix. It is a quota based approach, which can lead you only this far, but it at least is a start. No such pressure when it comes to hiring & developing candidates of Asian origin. There are some barriers now being created by the governments, but in a race to attract investment, they haven’t pushed the envelope far enough.

So, what does the future look like? Bright, I would say, since we are moving in the right direction. A lot of it is down to the individual effort and conscientiousness of Asian talent. Through their efforts and sheer brilliance, they will continue to do well. Partly, the onus is on them to put their weight behind this issue. But largely, it is down to the organizations themselves to get serious about this issue, and take action before another generation of Asian talent passes on without fulfilling its potential.