Taming Tigers … Asian business leadership secrets from Ambani 🇮🇳 Gupta 🇸🇬 Horikiri 🇯🇵 Jianlin 🇨🇳 Le 🇦🇺 Ling 🇲🇾 Ma 🇨🇳 Son 🇯🇵 Xin 🇭🇰 and more

June 3, 2019

Whilst Asia is home to the world’s fastest growing markets, it is also where many of the best new ideas for business come from – both what to do, and how to work – applicable to every business leader anywhere. Western business leaders seeking new inspiration should perhaps look east rather than west, as they did centuries ago.

How to embrace the new technologies like Artificial intelligence and robotics? The best examples are probably companies like Alibaba and Samsung. How to engage customers in new and faster ways? Take a look at the incredible stories of Jio Phone or WeChat. How to reorganise your business for smarter and more agile innovation? Be inspired by the likes of Haier or Huawei.

Go shopping in Shanghai, and stores are unlikely to accept your cash or cards, instead expecting you to buzz their QR code with your mobile phone. Sit down in a Dalian Wanda movie theatre and you are invited to immerse yourself in the story with your VR headset. Anything you need at home in Jakarta, just click on Go-Jek, and it will deliver it in minutes. Or Mietuin Dianping, just ranked the world’s most innovative company by FastCompany. Look at the leaders like Jack Ma or Ratan Tata, their business philosophy and leaderships styles are more purposeful, holistic and inspiring.

And of course, many of the West’s best known businesses are now led by Asian leaders too – most noticeably Satya Nadella at Microsoft and Sundar Pichai at Google. Both have brought a very different style and priority to their leadership compared to predecessors Steve Balmer and Sergei Brin.

Whilst Asian companies have been learning management practices from the West for the last 30 years, Western companies could now learn much from Asia. Why? Most significantly because of the environment in which Asian companies are working

  • the unique characteristics of Asian markets and customers – fast growth, urban concentrations, large families, huge aspirations, controlled and uncontrolled markets.
  • the fierce competition from Asian companies is shaking up every market globally – thirst for technology, leapfrogging infrastructures, incredible work ethic, success focused.
  • the private ownership structure of many organisations, built around entrepreneurs who stick with organisations as they grow, and family ownership, enabling longer-term thinking.
  • the search for new investment or partners, locally and globally – ecosystem and platform models are normal, recognising the power of collaborations, and desire to be more global.

Read more: 17 Lessons from Asian Business

Here are some of the inspirational leaders, all of which will feature prominently in my new book which I am currently working on “Extraordinary: How to Lead the Future of Business“, which features 40 of the world’s most inspiring business leaders, stepping up to make sense of a changing world, and seize the opportunities of an incredible future for them and their businesses.

Mukash Ambani … make new ideas happen first and faster

Mukesh Ambani is India’s richest man, and managing director of Reliance Industries, one of India’s most successful companies of the last decade. A turning point in Ambani’s life course came while he was studying for an MBA at Stanford, but decided to drop out before he could finish his studies. He had a good reason. He began working for his father to build Reliance into one of the best companies in the world. The lesson we can draw from this is simple. No matter how good a school is or how good a credential looks on your CV, it will never be as good as a good business opportunity and practical experience.

Reliance, with a value of over $100 billion, has subsidary businesses across India engaged in energy, petrochemicals, textiles, natural resources, retail, and communications. Reliance’s motto “Growth is Life” captures the ever-evolving spirit of innovation and exponential growth. Ambani’s vision has pushed Reliance to achieve global leadership in many of our businesses – including  the largest polyester yarn and fibre producer in the world. It has an ethos of converting adversity into opportunity and making the impossible possible by challenging conventional wisdom, with an aim “to touch the lives of people in a positive way”.

As an example of Ambani’s focus on speed and innovation, he commercially launched his JioPhone (low cost, 4G functional phone) in India in September 2016. Within 4 months he had gained 100 million subscribers, the fastest market penetration of any tech device in history.

Anabel Chew … embrace technology to realise your passion

Anabel Chew started her career as a professional flute player, but a love for fitness led her to co-found WeBarre. Barre, a form of exercise which uses the ballet barre and incorporates movements derived from ballet, is one of the fastest growing fitness trends in the world. Born and raised in Singapore, she spent her youth pursuing a passion for music,  going on to study in Australia. As much as music is about the art form, it is also rather taxing on the physical body, so she always stayed active through yoga and HIIT classes to stay in shape.

Eventually, this love for fitness also became an unexpected career turn, when she founded WeBarre in 2016. “I love how it’s a happy place for many people – where you throw aside your to-do lists, stress and take time in one’s busy day to feed into your body. There is a shift towards spending time and money to take care of yourself, having some ‘me time’, and working on achieving a healthy body. I’m excited to be part of such an empowering and positive industry.”

Chew is still performing as a professional flutist, and teaches instrumental music at Stamford American International School, albeit on a more flexible arrangement. Following over a year of juggling both running a business as a side hustle and teaching, Anabel decided to resign from Stamford to focus on expanding the business. With such a ambidextrous lifestyle she says it’s important for her to recharge, by being “religious with my sleep. I’m always in bed by 10.30pm”.

Piyush Gupta … transform your industry, before somebody else does

Gupta is CEO of DBS, the Development Bank of Singapore. As a CEO, he has a relatively unorthodox background, having grown up in the  technology and operations, parts of the bank. During his previous 27-year Citi banking career, he did 22 jobs in multiple countries, including a one-year stint as a tech entrepreneur running my own dot.com. All these experiences gave him a very broad-based understanding of commercial banking, with a strong digital overlay. DBS is today recognised as a global leader in digital transformation, and by many as the world’s most innovative bank.

However back in 2009 DBS was notorious for our long branch queues. Gupta went to branches incognito to speak to customers and ascertain for himself the cause of our service issues. Few people recognised the CEO then, and he found out that a significant part of the queue was because we had deliberately created a product to make it inconvenient for customers to withdraw cash at ATMs, in the misguided belief that this would help protect the deposit balances. This realisation led to the creation of a Customer Experience Council and Innovation Council — both chaired personally by Gupta.

By 2013, his efforts to improve service delivery by enhancing processes had resulted in more than 240 million hours of customer waiting time being eliminated. In the past few years, he’s also started to embrace customer journey thinking. DBS’s cultural transformation anchored heavily on customer experience has enabled the bank to go from bottom of the class for customer satisfaction to top of the class for the last decade.

Gupta’s leadership hero is Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of Singapore. “I think his bold vision, creating a viable strategy, getting alignment in a multicultural country, creating a non-corrupt culture, making a global city out of a 400 sq km island is a unique story in modern history.”

Noriaki Horikiri … even the oldest traditions need to change

Horikiri is the leader of Kikkoman, one of the world’s oldest companies. The Japanese soy sauce brand can trace its roots back over 350 years to a family business, that made sauce for the Emperor’s palace in Osaka. Over the centuries it has remained the leader of its sector, and recent years has become one of the most recognised symbols of Japanese industry and culture. Yet Horikiri knows that he needs to innovate his traditional business to keep pace with changing markets, consumer tastes and global competition. He challenge is to balance tradition with newness. A little like Coca Cola found, it is dangerous to mess with a long established formula.

In an interview with NHK World he explained more: “I believe that innovation creates tradition. Tradition and innovation appear at first glance to be completely opposing words, but when you look at our company’s history, it’s all about innovation and change. Food culture can be a very conservative area. Yet our company has always challenged the status quo. A consistent track record of challenging conventions and actively innovating is what leads to the establishment of tradition. I want to make Kikkoman soy sauce a global staple. The goal is for it to be on every dining table around the world. Imagine every country, every region, every food tradition enjoying soy sauce. That’s the dream, and what we will continue to strive towards.”

Wang Jianlin … focus on profitability, more importantly than revenue or growth.

Wang Jianlin, sometimes dubbed “the Walt Disney of China” is chairman of Dalian Wanda Group which bought AMC Theatres in the US in 2012 and also has a 20% stake in Atletico Madrid football club. He says that the Chinese entertainment industry is booming at a time when censorship rules are being devolved from central to regional government. 15,000 movie screens were built in China last year alone. “We have the world’s second largest entertainment market”, he says. “Profitability comes first”.

He also believes that sports and healthcare are significant areas of innovation and growth in his home country. Sports events are big sources of capital, and he plans to branch into this area by organising more tournaments in China. It’s still early days, he says. “It’s getting better in China, but we’re not able to compete with Europe just yet”. In addition to entertainment and sports, Wang says he is considering investment in the burgeoning private healthcare system in China. Until recently, healthcare was controlled by the government but private practice has now been permitted. Private hospitals could be an attractive source of new growth as wealth increases in Chinese society.

Wang Jianlin’s book The Wanda Way: The managerial philosophy and values of one of China’s largest companies includes his renowned 2013 ChinaCentral Television Voice interview, his speech to  Harvard Business School, and his business philosophy on Wanda’s real estate, resort, and movies.

Tan Le … using new beginnings to think bigger about the future

Le was 4 years old when she fled Vietnam with her mother, seeking a better life. She was rescued with 150 others in an over-crowded refugee boat off the coast of Malaysia, before finally reaching Australia. After a degree from Monash University she qualified as a lawyer, but quickly turned her attention to software engineering, exploring how brainwaves can control digital devices.

In 2011 she founded Emotiv, a bioinformatics company that has developed technology by which you can control a car with your mind using EEG (electroencephalography) headsets. “When the neurons in your brain interact, they emit electrical impulses, which we can then translate into patterns that become commands, by using machine learning” she explains. Le has a passion for democratising the technology, believing that access to affordable devices will accelerate the speed of progress.

She went from being an unnoticed high school student to founding a company at the cutting-edge of technology. After a stint at Australian law firm Freehills, she experimented with tech ideas. The first was an online children’s tutoring company, and the next was a business that made barcode scanners. “I was always attracted to hardware. You know, even as a little girl I loved cars, I never loved dolls, I just loved little cars and robots,” she said. The scanner hardware ended up becoming a software application that helped big companies communicate with customers via text message, a first during the early 2000s. Le and co-founder Nam Do charged clients five Australian cents (3.7 cents) per message and the tech snowballed: they were eventually handling 150 million messages a month.

In 2003, aged 26, she sold the company. “After I sold my first business … I didn’t want to create a widget or another app … I wanted to explore questions of science and venture into a field that would stop me having to pivot every five or so years,” she said. “I wanted to purposely find something that I could really devote my life to that would be a lifelong endeavor, that wouldn’t require me to reinvent myself, it would be a field that would have vast possibility and would allow me to reinvent the way things are done.”

Allan Snyder, a renowned scientist whom Le and Do met on the speaking circuit, helped provide the answer. Over a late-night dinner they got talking about how computers might be able to understand human emotions. “Our idea over dinner was: how can we evolve the next generation of human computer interaction so it becomes far smarter, so that it actually understands not just what you tell it to do, but also how you’re feeling, how you’re responding to things, so AI becomes more intelligent?” she explained in a Wired interview.

Le then launched Emotiv and set about creating an algorithm that could identify emotions from brain data. But human brains are complex, made up of more than 100,000 miles of neurons. Chemical reactions between them emit electrical impulses, which can be measured, but the brain surface is highly folded, as she tells in her TED talk. “Each individual’s cortex is folded differently, very much like a fingerprint. So even though a signal may come from the same functional part of the brain, by the time the structure has been folded, its physical location is very different between individuals, even identical twins. There is no longer any consistency in the surface signals,” she said. Emotiv’s breakthrough was to create an algorithm that “unfolds” the brain’s cortex so the electrical impulses can be mapped.

Tan Hooi Ling … take pride in leaving a legacy for generations to come

Ling co-founded Singapore-based ride hailing app Grab in 2012. Today, it’s valued at $10 billion. Dubbed “the Uber of Southeast Asia”, Grab now operates in 225 cities over 8 countries with over 100 million users, and recently acquired Uber’s local business. She has also launched GrabPay e-wallet, a peer-to-peer paying system and insurance.

In an interview with MarieClaire magazine she said “Don’t be afraid to hear no, and field more questions than your male counterparts. Being in a minority is never an easy path, but take pride in leaving a legacy that makes it easier for generations of women to come. At the same time, never feel you have to do it all alone. Learn to fail and iterate quickly and find good partners who respect you for you.

With Grab, I was fortunate to find a true co-conspirator in my co-founder Anthony Tan. As an introvert, I’ll typically pause, reflect on why I am feeling doubt, and reset so that I can focus on what to do next. I also discuss these doubts with my trusted confidantes to stress-test my assumptions and source ideas on how to approach a situation better. And I intentionally stretch myself beyond my comfort zone. That helps me develop the muscle I’ll need for those inevitable moments of self-doubt.”

Jack Ma … failure is a stepping stone to success

Ma began studying English at a young age, spending time talking to English-speaking visitors at the Hangzhou international hotel near his home. He would then ride 70 miles on his bicycle to give tourists guided tours of the area to practice his English. Foreigners nicknamed him “Jack” because they found his Chinese name too difficult to pronounce.

In 1988 he became an English teacher earning just $12 a month, and describing it years later whilst speaking at the 2018 World Economic Forum, as “the best life I had”. From teaching, he soon had ambitions to do more. He applied for 30 different jobs and got rejected by all. He wanted to be a policeman but was told he was too small. He tried his luck at KFC, the first one to arrive in China. Famously he retells the tale “24 people went for the job. 23 were accepted. I was the only guy who wasn’t.” He applied to Harvard Business School, but was rejected 10 times.

He persevered, seeing every step as a learning experience. In 1994, Ma heard about the Internet. One day, when searching online for the different beers of the world, he was surprised to find none from China. The world’s most consumed beer brand, Snow beer, is of course Chinese. So he and a friend launched a simple Chinese language website called China Pages. Within hours investors were on the phone, and within three years he was generating over 5,000,000 Chinese Yuan. Over the next two decades he built Alibaba into a $400 billion organisation. In 2017, to celebrate the internet giant’s 18th birthday, Ma appeared on stage dressed like Michael Jackson, turning the event into a “Thriller” performance. His passion for his company, and for his audience of employees, shone through.

But astronomical success in business was never a forgone conclusion for Ma. For many years he struggled to get a job, later spending a number of years as a humble instructor of English. One of the keys to his success was the help and support he received from one of his mentors, David Morley, an Australian man who spent some time in China. Morley struck up a correspondence when Ma was 12, which improved Ma’s English skills, and even helped Ma secure his first apartment in China. The power of an effective mentor cannot be overstated says Ma.

Zhang Ruimin … build an organisation of empowered entrepreneurs

Ruimin is CEO of the Haier Group, the world’s largest maker of fridges and washing machines. He first took charge of a struggling refrigerator factory in the 1980s and turned it into a global powerhouse of consumer electronics and home appliances. However his first act was to take a sledgehammer to the decrepit old factory, recognising that revolution was needed.

Zhang believes that the company’sRendanheyi model — a concept that encourages entrepreneurship and empowers every department to operate like a micro-enterprise — is a key pillar of its success. Rendanheyi, he says, allows every employee to connect with the end users, understand their needs and create value for them.

In a recent interview at Wharton he said “In the past, Chinese businesses weren’t very mature in terms of management methods. We learned a lot from Panasonic and its president, Konosuke Matsushita’s method of effective management. I read a lot of books by Peter Drucker including The Effective Executive, which talked about what kinds of things an executive should do to make his work effective and what are the ineffective things that should not be done. He said in a well-managed company there shouldn’t be anything too exciting happening because the routine and rules have been established. Whereas, back in China at that time, people thought there should be a lot of exciting things happening, there should be a lot of activity going on. So that struck me as a very distinctive idea.

I have used his idea in our Rendanheyi model, where we encourage members of our team to become entrepreneurial and start their own micro-enterprises. In this process, we eliminated 10,000 middle-level managers who didn’t create value for the users. The micro-enterprises are not about having power or having a high position. They are about creating value for the user. I think this is the most important thing.”

Masayoshi Son … have a bigger vision about how the future will emerge

Masayoshi Son is the billionaire founder of SoftBank. and the man behind the world’s largest technology investment fund. Born in 1957 to a Korean immigrant family in sparsely populated Saga Prefecture, he flew to California when he was 16, and to finish college then study economics at Berkeley. There, he invented an electronic pocket translator he sold to Sharp for ¥100 million which he used to launch his first company on returning to Japan. As a 24-year-old, he launched a software distribution company with two part-time employees in Fukuoka. One morning he stood on a makeshift podium to deliver an impassioned speech to his staff about how the company would eventually grow to be among the world’s giants, counting revenue in the trillions of yen. The two part-timers, thought their boss was out of his mind.

In the dotcom boom of the late 1990s Son lost most of his money, but was fortunate to invest his last $20 million for a 25% in a business that would later become known as Alibaba. Other key moments included buying Sprint Telecom for $22 billion in 2013, and chip designer ARM for $32 billion in 2016, the largest tech acquisition in European history. Softbank has evolved into a global technology conglomerate worth ¥10.8 trillion, and is a legend in Japan, where comic books depict his rags-to-riches story from a poor neighbourhood to the nation’s richest men.

He now leads a $100 billion technology investment fund, SoftBank Vision Fund focusing on emerging technologies like AI, robotics and the internet of things. “I make investments based on a vision,” says Son. In fact he plans to raise an additional $100 billion of funding every year, accelerating the pace of investments and innovation, rapidly turning his future vision into profitable reality.

Zhang Xin … a determination to take risks that can reinvent the world

Growing up in communist China during the Cultural Revolution was not easy for Xin. “The buildings were gray, everyone dressed in grey. We never noticed the sky—there was no notion of blue sky being important for the soul. Nobody was prosperous.” she said in an interview with The Telegraph.

When Zhang and her family moved from Beijing to Hong Kong, she began working 12-hour days on textile factory assembly lines at age 15. Her family had struggled financially, and Zhang says that while the work was hard, it woke her up to a sense of possibility. “I really felt free in Hong Kong, I could buy anything I wanted to buy. I could eat anything I wanted to eat. And I could wear anything I wanted to wear.”

With her factory earnings she flew to England to study at a secretarial college whilst also working at an Oxford fish and chip shop, and then with a scholarship earned an economics degrees from the University of Sussex, studying there at the same time as I did. Having written her masters’ thesis on the privatisation of China, she was recruited by Barings Bank, and then returned to Hong Kong with Goldman Sachs.

In 1995 she set up her own real estate company, which became Soho China, with her future husband Pan Shiyi. They rapidly amassed a multi-billion dollar fortune in particular by refocusing their business model from buying and selling to leasing properties, including the GM Building and Park Avenue Plaza in New York.

“I have always been inspired by the idea that buildings should be art. However, as an office property developer, I have found that many people do not link this type of real-estate development with architecture. When it comes to offices, people tend to think all you need to do is build a “nice” efficient building. But even office buildings will be there for the next 100 years and will make up a permanent part of the city. I believe property developers have a unique opportunity to build the face of the city. Buildings leave a physical legacy, representative of our moment in history, like the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, and Paris’s Eiffel tower.” she told Quartz. Today she is often called  “the woman who built Beijing,” and with a personal wealth of over $3 billion.

Wang Xing … don’t be afraid to copy good ideas, and make them better

Xing is founder of Meituan Dianping, recently ranked the world’s most innovative company of 2019 by Fast Company. Despite a series of early setbacks, the 39 year old tech entrepreneur has managed to build what is now considered as China’s leading on-demand services platform, with a huge fleet of bikes that will deliver anything anywhere anytime. Inspired by the success of Facebook he was too impatient to study drop out of graduate school and become an entrepreneur. He became known as “the copycat” because of his habit of creating Chinese versions of successful Western businesses.

His initial Facebook-like social networks for students did not take off, until he launched Xiaonei in 2005, which swiftly accumulated tens of thousands of users. However lack of additional funding led him to sell it for $2 million a year later (Renren, its acquirer went on to flat it for $740m). Wang kept trying, launching a Twitter-like network called Fanfou, which translates to “have you eaten”. Within two years, it had accumulated millions of users, but was shut down by the government for highlighting political issues.

In 2010 he and his wife Guo Wanhuai launchedGroupon-inspired group-buying platform Meituan. Backed by internet giant Tencent Holdings, it quickly expanded to become China’s (and the world’s) largest food delivery company. It now operates in 3000 cities across China, and having merged with Dianping, a review and recommendations platform, promises to deliver anything to anyone.

Tadashi Yanai … don’t take it too seriously, you’ll eventually find success

Yanai is founder of Fast Retailing, now the world’s fourth-largest fashion retailer, with over 2,000 stores and a portfolio of brands, most famously Uniqlo, but also including Helmut Lang, Theory, Comptoir des Cotonniers, Princesse tam.tam, J Brand and g.u. Uniqlo alone aims to increase sales to $50 billion by 2020, based largely on expansion in US, China and online.

In 1984, Yanai became president of his father’s clothing chain (which was then just 22 stores) and opened a new store in Hiroshima called the Unique Clothing Warehouse, later shortened to Uniqlo. By 1998, there were more than 300 Uniqlo stores across Japan. He is fond of saying that “Uniqlo is not a fashion company, it’s a technology company.” And indeed, the brand’s approach to making apparel has more in common with the iterative approach to product development embraced by the technology industry than the cyclical, trend-driven rhythm of the fashion industry.

In fact, despite the name of its parent company, it’s a misnomer to call Uniqlo a “fast fashion” company. While Zara has built the world’s largest apparel business based on rapidly responding to fast-changing fashion trends, getting items from factory to store in approximately two weeks, Uniqlo takes the exact opposite approach, planning production of its wardrobe essentials up to a year in advance.

Yanai is as humble as he is ambitious, recently telling Monocle magazine, “I might look successful but I’ve made many mistakes. People take their failures too seriously. You have to be positive and believe you will find success next time.”

Zhang Yimin … founder of Bytedance, the world’s largest unicorn

When Zhang Yiming first shopped the idea of a news aggregation app powered by artificial intelligence six years ago, investors including Sequoia Capital were skeptical. Back then, the question was how a 29-year-old locally trained software engineer could outsmart the numerous news portals operated by the likes of social media behemoth Tencent and extract profit where even Google had failed. Zhang, now 35, proved them wrong. Today his company, Bytedance, is on its way to a more than $US75 billion ($104 billion) valuation — a price tag that surpasses Uber to top the world, according to CB Insights. The latest in a long line of investors who’ve come around is Softbank Group Corp., which is said to be planning to invest about $US1.5 billion. Bytedance now counts KKR & Co., General Atlantic and even Sequoia as backers. Much of its lofty valuation stems from the creation of an internet experience that’s a cross between Google and Facebook.

So what is special about leadership styles from Asia?

A variety of studies point to significant cultural differences. While the predominant leadership traits –such as personal integrity, confidence, future mindset, clear communication, and ability to inspire people – are almost typical everywhere, there are two areas of big difference: creativity and intuition. According to a recent IFTF study:

  • 90% of Asian leaders believe creativity is important, compared with just 57% in Europe.
  • 85% of Asian leaders think intuition is important, compared to only 54% in Europe.

More generally, emerging market leaders could typically be described as “modernist” with an emphasis on intuition and creativity, and also on coaching, compared to more “traditionalist” leaders.

Of course, Asian leaders are mostly operating in high growth markets, with young consumers and immature competition, which will evolve over time. It is is therefore possible that styles will converge as Asian markets mature.

However given the much faster growth rates of their economies, it might be that leaders in emerging markets are gaining the confidence to stick with their own management approaches, what has been working for them – or that they have the agility to adapt to approaches that prove best suited to their fast-evolving local markets. A Deloitte study on Asian leadership finds that leaders of companies in the region are deliberately blending imported and home-grown management techniques and approaches to create a new “Asian Way” of leading, rather than copying and replacing.

My wife comes from a Chinese family, and getting to know her family has taught me that differences between Asian and Western cultures are often subtle. However some things immediately stand out, both in family and business life. 5 things are particularly distinctive about the behaviours of Asian business leaders:

  • Build relationships … communications are about building relationships, while in the West it about efficient exchange of information and getting things done as quickly as possible. Silences and pause are normal. It’s not that Asians are unwilling to share information, but details may not always be immediate. Alternatively, it may be best to approach someone on a one-to-one basis, in private.
  • Saving face … Asians will go to great lengths either to save face or to save someone else’s face. Face is about dignity and respect, and a person’s social role. It’s not just about feelings, but about social norms. An old saying is that a person would rather die than lose face. A person can lose face by declining a social or business function on a weak pretext, refusing a present, expressing emotions uncontrollably.
  • Decisions take time … Westerners see power in quick decisions and taking action. In Asia this haste for “time is money” could have negative outcomes. Decision making is based on ensuring that the balance of all parties is taken into account. Asians want to be sure that things are thought through before coming to a conclusion. And of course, Asian culture rarely says “no” in a direct manner, so don’s assume otherwise.
  • Guanxi is more than networking … It is the platform for social and business activities in Asia, and consists of connections defined by reciprocity, trust and mutual obligations. Build up your guanxi and be aware of the dynamics of guanxi around you before you do anything. It’s an unwritten rule that if someone does not trust you, they are unlikely to do business with you.
  • Finding your Taijitu … or harmony (as in the combination of yin and yang). Asians sometimes see an individual standing out from the crowd as showing off, causing disharmony, and is considered poor behaviour. Being the first to come up with an innovative idea in a group setting can have significant social implications. It could be seen as trying to get one over others, and possibly generate envy.

Women are still on a long journey towards equality. Today, just 24% of senior business roles around the world are held by women, but the proportion of female CEOs is on the rise. Awareness is growing that diversity, of all sorts and in any walk of life, leads to better decisions and outcomes. There is increasing evidence that a more diverse workforce correlates with higher sales, business growth, return on invested capital, and return on equity. One recent study from China even finds that having more women on company boards reduces the incidence of fraud. Meanwhile, uniformity of background often yields uniformity of opinion and worse decisions. The pressure is on to make boardrooms and management ranks less “male and pale.”

It has often been claimed that a key way in which business women differ from business men is in their leadership styles, typically more democratic and participative. Studies also show that, as investors, women are more risk-averse and, at the household level, tend to invest a higher proportion of their earnings in their families and communities than men.

Looking across the world, women are more common in senior roles in companies in emerging markets – Eastern Europe, for example, as well as Southeast Asia. More female leaders typically correlates with more openness to using creativity and intuition – and also a higher value placed on the ability to delegate. In any case, these parts of the world, with their higher proportions of women in leadership, have a fair claim to be arriving sooner at the well-blended leadership style of the future.

Decision-making based on analytics may still denominate in big corporate Western markets, and certainly represents progress in many areas where managerial decisions have been made in the past on “gut feel.” But there are still many decisions in business that, either because they relate to future possibilities or because they involve softer trade-offs, can’t be reduced to data and calculations. One could argue that those are the very decisions – the ones requiring creativity and intuition – where leadership is most called for and tested. In a fast-moving, digitally-powered world, creativity and intuition could be the difference between getting ahead, and getting left behind.

Above all, as they say in Chinese … 把握当下 … seize the moment.

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