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Case study: Sony Electronics

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Sabrina Zolkifi speaks to Virendra Shelar, head of HR at Sony Electronics Asia Pacific, about the company’s leadership development principles.

Sony Electronics’ belief in driving innovation and making changes doesn’t just extend to its products.

“We wanted to show to our leaders that it didn’t have to be products only – it can be applied in any place across,” says Virendra Shelar, head of HR at Sony Electronics Asia Pacific.

He says that is one of the biggest principles the company follows when doing business.

“One of the biggest things we did while keeping that spirit in mind was we were going to give one briefing of RFP (request for proposal) to everybody at the same time, so please be open that you’re going to have your competitor sitting at the table,” he shares, adding doing a mass proposal call like that was pretty much unheard of, and allowed an element of creative thinking to the process.

“[One of Sony’s founders] Akio Morita san said, ‘To be successful, we have to do what others do not do’, and that’s what we want to do in our training programmes.”

Two years ago, the Sony University was launched in Singapore, located an easy five-minute walk away from the company’s headquarters in western Singapore.

Shelar says the HR team recognised talent development was not something that was solely HR’s responsibility, and so engaged other business units within the organisation to identify which competencies were needed.

“One of the things we did was we interviewed our key stakeholders, and asked them what kinds of leaders we will need five years down the line. They gave certain ideas in terms of some of the competencies required for these people, which we then benchmarked it against research Korn/Ferry was doing called Asia 2.0.

“Then we took the competencies we were required to develop in our leaders, and designed our programmes around that. The programmes we are doing at the Sony University are more futuristic – other than developing leaders for now, we are developing leaders for the future,” Shelar says.

He acknowledges Sony isn’t the only company to have jumped on the corporate university bandwagon, and suggests a shift of mindset over the past few years was the biggest driver behind the trend.

“The previous mindset was ‘I can bring in a leader from the western world, plant them in Asia, and they will be successful’.

“In Asia, with the whole economic shift where you can see Asia being more and more important, it became very critical for companies to realise that bringing in someone from the outside world is not going to help.”

It was because of this realisation the Sony team decided it wasn’t enough to only develop leadership Asia, but also Asian leaders who possess a global mindset.

“Asia is where it’s growing, but there’s a lack of global leadership. We have leaders, but they may not have the global leadership mindset.”

But what is the biggest difference between leaders with an Asian and global mindset? Shelar says when it comes to competency gaps; the answer was in one word: listening.

In the Asian context, we tend to speak more than listen, and in the global context, people will listen quite a bit.

“Of course, both have their own pros and cons, but in Asia, we believe a lot in consensus building first; before taking any action, whereas once everyone is on the same page, it’s very quickly executed. If not all views are considered and you’re not on track, your execution has been a waste of time.”

However, the Sony University isn’t just focused on developing global leaders – it also wants to produce leaders who will thrive in the complex and dynamic business world of the future.

“We know the world is changing very rapidly and the term VUCA, which is an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, is being used more so in the business world. As leaders, as Asian or otherwise, they need to get comfortable with this idea of ambiguity.”

Therefore, all programmes offered by Sony University are designed around the concept of VUCA.

“In the programme itself, we bring a lot of volatility and uncertainty, and give them real-life situations. Once they get comfortable with the idea of VUCA, no matter which situation we put them into, they should be able to take back whatever learnings they had.”

Similar to how the company takes a transparent and unconventional approach when it calls for proposals, Sony Electronics “challenged every single traditional norm” when crafting the programmes.

“The other thing we told them was that the whole module, which was carried out over six days, would be done without a single PowerPoint presentation,” Shelar says.

When you remove the PowerPoint, your training becomes more interactive.

He says the design of the programme also included a coaching element, which made up the middle portion of the three-part module. Following the 70-20-10 model, participants would spend three days both at the start and end of the module for training on campus, which makes up for the 10%.

In between, there is a three-month gap where the 70% comes in, and participants are expected to apply their learnings to their everyday roles. It is also during this time that participants have to take on a mentor role, which will then account for the last 20%.

“During these three months they are away, we encourage them to meet up at least once a month to coach or teach, and when they return for the second part of the on-campus training, the first question we ask them is: “How was your coaching? What have you learnt? Who did you coach?”, and those are questions you have to answer in front of the group – and you can’t fake it.”

And because Sony University captures the company’s spirit of innovation and change, and was created with the intent of developing futuristic leaders, Shelar says the team makes a conscious effort to change 20% of the modules offered yearly.

“After five years, we will have a completely different set of programmes… there will be some things that have changed completely because the business has changed.”

While he admits this is a risky move because “we don’t know if this will work or not”, it is a risk they are willing to take.

“We want to keep challenging ourselves to be in line with the market.”

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