In the crosshairs: Why multinationals push out their heads of Asia again and again

The top job in Asia is one of the most challenging—and risky—jobs around. It seems all eyes are on Asia, from the Board down, and everyone has a point of view. One multinational's regional president of Asia told me, "We have too many cooks in the kitchen willing to sharpen their knives. Managing up, in the midst of running my business, is the toughest part of my job."

Companies also face fast-shifting markets, often relying on very loose business or talent strategies to hold things together. "What strikes me about my role," another regional executive said, "is that they (corporate bosses) want double-digit growth without taking the time to build an Asian strategy."

So why do some top executives thrive when leading the Asia offices and others fail? Why do some companies churn through regional heads like so many contestants on the TV show "Survivor"? As usual, the answer boils down to leadership.

To my mind, there are four main reasons why top regional executives fail.

  1. They fail to anticipate the advancing puck. In both good times and bad, a company’s strategies around products, customers, and talent may be based on old or the wrong assumptions. The Asia head needs to stay ahead of changes and evolutions in Asia's fast-moving marketplace. This cuts both ways. When revenues are rising at rates of 20 to 30 percent, executives often find themselves overwhelmed by new complexities and unprepared for the next cycle. Conversely, as revenues fall, subordinates and bosses lose confidence in their ability to respond with a new approach or strategy. Put another way, the top executive in Asia needs to thrive in the absence of a playbook.
  2. They fail to connect with people. Many regional executives find it difficult to manage the complex cultural differences across the region. Typically, these execs are brought down by their own people who complain about their lack of sensitivity with subordinates, inability to relate to customers, or lack of EQ.
  3. They fail to manage up. This is the most common problem. Of course, it takes two to communicate, but successful executives assume accountability for educating their bosses on Asia and influencing the outcomes of key decisions that affect their customers and employees. They use their organizational skills and savvy to align, realistically, the revenue goals of the region with the resources necessary to achieve success. If more or different resources are needed, they don’t leave a headquarters meeting empty-handed or uneducated on the facts. These mature executives demonstrate a willingness to confront sensitive, often untouchable issues, in support of their mission.
  4. They lack an observable sense of purpose. Many top leaders in Asia are hired or appointed for their contacts, loyalty, knowledge of the business, relationships with customers, and industry reputation. And yet, once in the job, fail to stretch the possibilities. A sense of 'mission,' combined with a clear point of view on Asia and the business, is often a source of great tenacity and achievement. Great leaders link their passions to business goals.

Coaching and executive development can help, but the best way to ensure success is to hire or appoint the right executives in the first place, addressing first and foremost, the executive's learning agility, EQ, self-awareness, executive maturity, and character. For most executives in the top job, these qualities must be covered in the price of entry. Companies doing this well will build the pipeline and avoid a succession of leadership misfires. In other words, when considering succession, hire for agility and develop for executive maturity.

For both the company and the executive, the top job in Asia is a high-risk and high-reward proposition. As Asia roller-coasters its way to becoming an economic powerhouse, making the right leadership choice is critical — and challenging. But executives will make better decisions by removing the guesswork, making informed assessments, and, yes, learning from experience why some top executives fail.