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Organisations have their work cut out for them when it comes to identifying skills for business leadership in Asia. Sabrina Zolkifi finds out what HR can do to help regional leaders develop a global mindset.

Businesses today may rely on sophisticated systems, processes and tools to stay ahead, but the real change makers are the ones walking out the office every night: the employees.

However, having the best employees does little to gain a company an edge if the people leading them leave much to be desired.

The quote “Leaders are made, they are not born” by notable American football coach Vince Lombardi, has rung true in the hallways and boardrooms of many companies, but lesser known is the second part of his quote:

They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.

Today, more organisations are investing time, money and effort into leadership development. As the business world continues to develop and grow, companies are realising they cannot wait until tomorrow to develop leaders.

“Our people and our leadership will make all the difference; it is for this strategic driver that we invest heavily on our leadership pipeline growth and development,” says Shahrukh Marfatia, VP of HR for global commercial (downstream) at Royal Dutch Shell.

At Shell, those earmarked for development opportunities are not only given the opportunity to hone their professional skill sets, but also to work on their personal development.

“Shell believes we will drive performance in the short and long term for our people and the business by personally developing our people to be the best,” Marfatia says.

He adds the company does this through telling employees what is expected of them, holding them accountable for their development and providing the needed support to help staff succeed.

Alex Kershaw, director of HR (Singapore market head) at American Express International, adds that increasingly so, leaders are required to lead through uncertain times.

“Whilst this is not a new phenomenon, I believe it will be an increasingly relevant theme over the next three years,” she says.

“Leaders need to create their own leadership signature by developing and leveraging their capabilities and applying this to the requirement of the current situation.

Therefore, American Express has put in place several leadership development programmes to help leaders further themselves, and most recently, launched its global People Leader Learning Path to help different levels of leaders at different stages of their leadership journey (read more in the case study on page 22).

Putting words to action

Another company placing a lot of emphasis on leadership development is Sony Electronics.

“We talk to all of our senior leaders to find out about the kinds of leaders they are going to need in the future,” says Samantha Foong, regional HR manager at Sony Electronics.

This collaboration between HR and other key business leaders within the organisation ensures the company is developing the right breed of leaders to support the future of Sony Electronics.

But the company wasn’t just satisfied with getting input from their key stakeholders – they also benchmarked the information they received against current leadership research to ensure they were not just prepared for changes within the organisation, but also within the market.

In order to make sure it was providing its leaders with the best environment to be developed, the Sony University was introduced two years ago.

“Previously, we did have leadership training programmes and they would rely on research on external institutions, but this was a more conscious effort from our end, where we said, ‘If we were to take this company forward, then how are we going to develop those leaders?’,” Virendra Shelar, head of HR at Sony Electronics Asia Pacific, says.

He says that’s the biggest piece of advice he gives his peers when it comes to developing talent.

“If you don’t consciously focus on doing something different, it’s not going to happen,” he says.

There needs to be a change in mindset.

But not just any change in mindset is required. In an increasingly global world, where business can be conducted across borders and time zones, the biggest thing holding Asian leaders back is their Asian mindset.

“To be truly successful in the global arena, you need a really global mindset, which I think still needs to be developed in our Asian leaders,” Shelar says.

“If I were to compare Manchester United, one of the best football clubs in the world, to a local club, we have a long way to go. Do we both play football? Yes. But the way in which they are groomed and trained is very different.”

“Manchester United has a lot of established systems and processes, and a lot of money invested into the people. In the Asian context, we are now starting and there’s quite a bit of catch up, but because we’re on the right track and going at full speed, we might catch up quickly.”

Shelar has a lot more to say about the differences between leaders with an Asian and global mindset (read more in Sony’s case study on page 24) but he adds he’s not worried about Asian leaders lagging too far behind.

“When it comes to leadership, I believe that as we see Asia growing and changing, our leaders will also adapt,” he says.

There are a lot of people who can lead in Asia, so the basic fundamental skills are there – it’s just putting that into context of the current situation and adding a global flavour to it.

Changing gears

This is also one of the reasons why Shell is very focused on developing tomorrow’s leaders today.

Shell looks for leaders who are able to exemplify the company’s recently revamped four leadership attributes, namely authenticity, growth, collaboration and performance.

However, Marfatia realises these are skills that cannot be embodied overnight, which is why “Shell leaders create stretch assignments for leaders, and coach and support them in developing their leadership through the assignment and in preparing for future roles”.

At American Express, there is also an emphasis on getting making sure the company’s senior leaders are engaged in leadership development programmes as it is “a critical success factor”.

“Being clear on roles and responsibilities of all the key players is important,” says Kershaw. “This helps to drive accountability for learning and ultimately behavioural change.”

She adds: “HR can play an important role in developing timely, relevant and impactful solutions. These don’t necessarily have to be time consuming or costly programmes. Our leaders often gain as much value from an hour long panel discussion and Q&A with internal senior leaders, as they do from formal learning programmes.”

Moving forward, Marfatia expects business imperatives and stakeholder demands to continue to evolve and get more demanding.

“Business success will be determined by the decisions that our leaders take,” he says. “So how we develop our leaders to deliver and execute on these strategies and address current business challenges and grow in the future will be the key to our success.”

Read more:

Case study: American Express

Case study: Sony Electronics

Case study: Shell Eastern Petroleum

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