The lifeblood of every organization in Asia is talent, especially high-potential Asians. There, more than the West, top companies are reliant on strong individual leaders—as opposed to a company’s brand—to be the magnet that attracts and holds high-potentials to a company. I was in Singapore recently discussing this with my friend Nick, who works for a top Asian multinational. Talented Asians have plenty of choices for jobs, he told me. They are more likely to join his company and stay because of him and the leadership he provides, not because of his company’s reputation for growing talent.
The idea stuck with me for two reasons. First, I think that the concept resonates with executives all across Asia who must lure talent away from the top multinationals. Who doesn’t want to be recognized as a great leader, especially in the toughest of battlegrounds? Second, it shows how success is so personal. Great leaders do it their way, after years of trial and error.
So what kind of leader attracts talent in Asia? And how do CEOs spot leaders of that caliber?
Over lunch recently in Korea, I asked the former CEO of one of Asia’s largest multinationals ($40 billion in revenues), whom I’ve known and admired for fifteen years, what he looks for. His eyes lit up. He looks for leaders who attract followers. He wants to know that subordinates love working for their leader.
This experienced Asian CEO wants to see his leaders to engage with others, eye to eye, with unyielding will and focus, to achieve big things. Moreover, he wants to see success across the entire value chain, from supplier to customer—win-win solutions. How, I asked, does he identify these qualities in others? He leaned forward, smiled with knowledge, and brought his forefinger to his nose. “I can smell it,” he said. In conversation with others he can sense these qualities. “I know when a leader engages with others to achieve great results. I look for great capacity and aspiration.” And also humility and tenacity. When they fail or hit a wall, they fix what didn’t work, and try again to accomplish the mission.
Those at the top of Asia’s best companies directly engage with others through nuts-and-bolts conversation. They operate at ground level, where their counterparts are—without bias, wishful thinking or game playing—in an effort to achieve great results. They work fast, minimize academic thinking, and tolerate ambiguity. There is no playbook.
People often talk about the “ready, fire, aim” quality to building businesses in Asia. To operate that way, these leaders need the humility to listen and find their aim as they go. Arrogance fails. And this process isn’t about perfection. These leaders who build followers and earn their trust that eventually they will get it right.
Leadership is visceral. It requires interaction and reaction, trial and error. Leaders touch their teams and push them forward. They engage when it’s easier not to, when the team needs it. And they develop in their people the capacity to thrive in this new volatile and ambiguous world.
Nick knows that the strong connection he has with his team is likely what keeps them from walking out the door. What does he do to keep the team engaged? “The team knows very clearly my expectations,” he says. “We are attacking the market every single day. We don’t wait for headquarters to tell us what to do. It’s not about me. I want our team to love winning.” Nick is building followers. And his leadership brand.