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Leading in the ASEAN region

Preamble: How do you prioritise, navigate and make decisions as a leader? Stuart Dean, Senior Advisor of ASEAN Advisory and former CEO of GE, uses his 35 years of experience to give you actionable insights on becoming a better leader in the ASEAN region.


Gain Actionable Insights To:

  • Setting priorities and using decision making frameworks to lead effectively in a large organisation
  • Building the right habits to help you succeed as a leader in the ASEAN region
  • Balancing the priorities of Western headquarters with the priorities of localised ASEAN execution
Setting Priorities

What’s the most important factor to monitor – people, strategy or culture? While you’ll need to prioritise each of these factors differently, you must be addressing all three factors well to lead your department or company. These factors are closely interlinked so ignoring one factor would naturally have a negative impact on the others. You’ve got to work very hard to build the right culture, values and direction.

Letting everyone set their own priorities is a prescription for disaster. Business is a team game. An excellent recent example is AirAsia, which I’m on the board for, which became rather siloed over time. This in turn made the company bureaucratic and factionalised. After the leadership realised and recognised this, it enabled us to become more efficient as a company. We changed the culture to be more integrated and we called it One Air Asia. An organisation needs to reach consensus on priorities and try new things to grow but there should also be processes to follow such initiatives. The company needs to be willing to pull the plug if initiatives are not working. Generally speaking, most companies have too many initiatives going on at once. It is better to have fewer initiatives with greater emphasis.

Given the multiple initiatives in an organisation, as a leader, you need to make difficult decisions on where to focus. Prioritisation is crucial at this point. It’s always more important to focus only on the relatively important big issues rather than a whole raft of problems that will burn people’s time without making much of a difference to the organisation. One of the biggest lessons that I learned in GE was to give priority to the big “why” so that resource allocation could go to significant opportunities moving forward.

I don’t subscribe to the analogy of keeping fires burning. If the issue is critical and strategic, then the teams should be working on it. If not, then kill it and don’t let the fire continue to burn. Don’t let non-strategic projects frustrate teams and reduce their energy, causing good people to leave the organisation.


Decision Making Frameworks

Always prioritise customers. The voice of the customer should always be the loudest and be given the most weight. With the many digital initiatives today, we can now leverage on data-driven decision making. For example, we can get much better data on our markets and customers to better understand their decision-making processes. Further, the data we get from our equipment like aircraft engines and gas turbines help both GE and our customers to improve their performance and safety. The goal is to create a win-win for our customers.

It’s also critical to understand what the real business question is. Ask stakeholders about what they really want to know – Why is this person asking this question? What’s the context? What are the impacted segments? Based on the answers to these questions, you can then create an analysis plan with hypotheses that guide you. Next, you decide on the methodology you’re going to use whether it’s correlation analysis, predictive analysis or any relevant methodology. Based on the methodology, you collect the data that you need. After collecting your data, you need validate, order, triangulate your data and get into the analysis to answer your guiding questions. You then end off by making recommendations.

In addition to data driven decision making, I find the Disney brainstorming framework to be very useful. The Disney brainstorming framework is about getting all of the brains in the company to work on big issues together. No matter where you are in the company, you can take part in this brainstorming framework, including entry-level employees who are usually not heard. This type of brainstorming offers them an opportunity to be heard, and it gets employees energised and excited about the role they can play in some of these transitions.

In the Disney framework, you can have 25 or more people in a room. You start by posing the various strategic questions that you want answered. Everyone then writes their answers on post-it notes and sticks them on the wall. The first stage is known as the Dreamer stage, and you don’t want to get in the way of creative solutions during this stage. Create a space where all ideas are welcome, and focus on the process of creativity. In the next stage, known as the Realist stage, you want to get into the practicality of the idea. It’s not about what’s wrong with this idea but about what can be done about the idea. At this stage, the focus is on the “how”. Finally, you go into the Spoiler stage where you shoot holes at the ideas suggested. During this final stage, you want to be critical and talk about why an idea can’t work. This whole process gets employees engaged in the process of decision making which is vital.

Habits of a Leader

There are some habits that will carry you far as a leader. Personally, these habits have helped me to lead better and achieve the objectives I was tasked with.


Overcommunicate

You need to overcommunicate with your team and consistently repeat the strategies. You need to consistently reinforce the company’s culture, values, KPIs and measure your team. When employees don’t embrace these strategies and culture, they become like what I characterise as cancer in the organisation. As a leader, you have to make the difficult decision of exiting these people from the organisation. If not, other employees will be unhappy and may decide to leave.

Overcommunication is not a one-way street. It has to go both ways which means you need to be listening to what others have to say too.

Listen more than you speak. Don’t talk too much. Before you start flipping the organisation chart and repeating the strategy that the CEO has, it’s good to have a sensing session with employees and listen to what they have to say before making decisions and presenting solutions. It’s also important to not only listen to employees but also the customers, partners and regulators. Listen to these considerations before you create your next strategy.

Today, young and new people who join the organisation could be demotivated if they don’t have a voice in some of the changes that are going on in the organisation. As a leader, you can’t afford to hold on to the power of making decisions alone. Others can add a lot of value in the decision-making processes, and it helps them feel more connected to the organisation. You don’t want to be missing out on such valuable information by not listening to what others have to say.


Prioritise Values

While business priorities are crucial, values are just as important. At GE, we give a lot of weight to the values of our professional staff. We give a 50% weight to people’s performance and a 50% weight to their values. Not many companies give values such importance, but I believe it’s vital and sets the right culture.

Values are subjective, and there’s no doubt about that. However, if you’re consciously measuring the values of an organisation and of how you want your staff to work with each other, customers, and regulators around the world, then you have to make sure that the values are apparent.

I’m a huge fan of Jack Welch and I agree with the values he prioritised which can be remembered as the 4 E’s. We measured all our employees on these values. The first value we measured them on was Edge, which means their ability to make tough decisions around the organisation, market and people. We then measured them on Energy, which is especially important in a global organisation where you may sometimes be up at strange times of the night for conference calls. It’s vital that they are still energetic in the midst of that.

The third value we looked for was Execution, and we measured them on whether they were delivering what they committed to. The final value and, arguably the most important value we measured was their to ability Energize their teams and their employees and ensure they were adaptable and responded well to changes.

The values themselves evolved overtime to respond to changes in the environment and work force changes. It is important to keep up to date and know what kind of values you want your staff and company to Embrace (a final “E” that I’d like to add to the mix).

There will be some real stars who have the values and are also performing well. However, you will have some great performers without the right values and some staff with great values but whose performance is low. You want to be emphasising on both! Now if you have been training both these groups of people and they aren’t improving, what should you do? You can consider those with good values for other roles in the company. They are a good fit for the company but perhaps not their current role. On the flip side, if your good performers can’t seem to exhibit the right values, you might need to consider letting go of them. By keeping such people, you could be detrimentally affecting your company culture.


Make Tough Decisions to Protect the Culture

As you prioritise values, you also need to protect the culture. As a leader, you want to minimise internal politics. In my experience at GE, our best leaders stayed a long way from politics. Culture, values and KPIs should always take priority over politics. If some people can’t do that, leaders must take them out. Once at an annual leaders’ meeting, Jack Welch fired 2 out of 6 global SVPs because they could not change their leadership style despite getting coaching for it. As you can imagine, that sent a strong message to everyone in the company. One of them was my boss, for whom I had little respect. I was thinking of leaving the company because my boss was a jerk and led very autocratically. So of course, many of us sighed with relief when we found out that he was one of the two who were fired. The more critical factor is that it changed the culture in the company after those leaders, who couldn’t prioritise the values and lead through those values, left the company.

These are hard decisions, but they must be made. I once had a terrific employee who was running one of our one of our bigger businesses in Singapore. He had a truly terrific track record of selling engines for GE, but he wanted to take all the credit. You can imagine when you’re selling 25 engines for about a billion dollars, it takes many people throughout the process to be able to make that happen, and if somebody thinks that it’s just him doing all the work, he demotivates the rest of the team who are part of that process. We tried for a year to coach him and, although he would get better, he would fall back to bad habits. Eventually, I had to take this employee out of the company with the help of HR. Once we had taken him out of the company, there was a sigh of relief throughout the organisation. He’s an example of what I mentioned earlier – cancers in the organisation. If you don’t take them out, other people who are a good fit to the organisation will be demotivated and potentially leave. You can’t take that risk.

When this particular employee left, there was of course a temporary revenue loss to the company because this employee was great with customers. It was difficult to get back to where we were with some of the customers who really liked this employee. But we had people with the right values step up and take on the role. It hurt us a little for an interim period, but it was an important decision to protect our culture.

Entering New Markets

There can sometimes be a trade-off between the US headquarters’ vision and strategy and the execution on ground in the local country. It’s essential for headquarters to have empathy with what the local teams are doing. You need your top management to really understand the priority of globalising the company and putting the resources behind it. If there isn’t support from top management, then there’s a very low chance of success.

When a global company with Western headquarters is entering a new Asian emerging market, there is a need to balance the priorities of both the Western headquarters and the emerging market. There are some non-negotiables like obeying all US and national laws, especially bribery. I am very proud of GE’s track record in ASEAN. Our revenues were roughly USD 4-5 billion across ASEAN every year, and we have not had a bribery problem in the last ten years. In the past, people just took bribery as a necessary evil but that has changed a lot over the last 20 years which makes it easier for global companies to do business in ASEAN. But equally important, in order to be successful, are the other values that are crucial to an organisation’s success. Values such as prioritising customers, trusting customers, having open communications with both customers, and regulators are vital in getting the organizational culture right in a new geographic area.


Conflicting Agendas

So, how do you handle two conflicting agendas or conflicting interests between your global HQ and the needs of your regional key accounts?

For a long time, GE only sold equipment and services within the US. However, when we realised that the opportunity outside the US was much bigger than in the US, we made it a priority to be as good outside the US as we were inside. It took us more than 25 years to reach maturity, but it has paid huge dividends. The critical success factors were building up a national workforce to become as good as what we had in the US and Europe. Of course, given limited resources, it is not easy to please everyone or every region. Senior leadership should prioritise regions and ensure that the prioritised regions get the needed resources and are held accountable to making their commitments.

If you want to be a global company, you have to tailor the strategy in the new market to work. You want to make sure that you prepare your management and have their buy-in into the strategy and execution. You need to convince the global leaders on Asian strategies and have a healthy debate on what is needed in Asia. However, after the debate, you have to reach a consensus and get everyone on the same page. If some people cannot support the consensus, they may have to be moved somewhere else.  When you have strong leaders like Jack Welch and Jeff Immelt, entering a new market is a lot easier. Jack and Jeff would travel at least four times a year to Asia. When we had severe disagreements, senior leadership would help us finalise the decision. GE had a strong commitment to globalising the company and recognised the differences across the world. Today, GE’s revenues outside the US are more than 2/3 of the total revenues.


Adapting to the New Culture

Some of the most significant gaps are the cultural differences between Asian and Western democracies. The biggest shock for me was when I was moved to Indonesia for eight years. I started my Asian business journey in Singapore which was very similar to how business is done in America. Indonesia, however, was a very different cultural assimilation for me and not an easy one, but it helped me understand the ASEAN region much better and gave me credibility as a regional leader. As a leader, to be able to get things done in the ASEAN region, you need exposure to the diversity of the markets, and that means you have to be willing to grow organizations in new and uncomfortable places.

Once you develop a base of credibility with your employees and customers and build trust – particularly with customers and regulators, you’ll enjoy it more. It also started becoming easier to do business since we built trust with many different parties like employees, customers and regulators, and that really helped make GE pretty successful.

Although it took us a long time, we now have local leaders in every ASEAN country who speak both English and the local language, in addition to understanding both the global GE and the local culture. Most of them have worked for GE outside their home countries and are truly GE global leaders. Such exposure is valuable because you see the bigger picture and can adapt better.

I reported directly to the Vice Chairman of the company who was responsible for all operations outside the United States. I didn’t have much latitude on what I could do when it came to prioritising projects that I was going to be in charge of. As a result, 80% of what we did was dictated by the company’s overall strategies, and we had perhaps 20% discretion on projects we would drive locally, especially on new growth areas for the company. We must tailor our strategies, policies and organisations to these differences so that we can adapt to what our customers need in different markets.


Work Well With Others

The concept of building trust within the organisation, with regulators and with customers is vital to be a successful leader anywhere you go. If you can build trust, it pays huge dividends. A big part of building trust is to do what you say you’re going to do. Many people promise many things but don’t fulfil those promises, and therefore lose all of that trust. Work hard to make sure that you gain trust and are doing what you say you’re going to do.

As a leader you should also be celebrating others and helping them towards their dreams. I’ve helped numerous GE employees over the years and many of them have become great leaders in GE. Guiding others is probably one of the most important elements of my legacy. As a leader, you will come to realise that the same is true. Impacting a life that you lead will always be worth it.

As I look back on my 25 years in Asia, while there are still cultural differences between West and East, the differences have diminished dramatically as the world has gotten smaller.

Steps to Take in 24 Hours

  1. Move Out of Your Comfort Zone
    First of all, move out of your home country. If you’re joining a global company and you’re just going to sit in your home country, you’re never really going to understand what it is to be a global employee in a global company. Find opportunities to gain international exposure and work across different markets with different cultures and practices.
  1. Say-Do Ratio
    Start by sticking to your word and doing what you promise. Don’t say that you will do something if you don’t think you can stick to your word. Work hard to make sure you that you’re doing what you say you’re going to do, and build trust with others. In GE, we would refer to this as your Say-Do Ratio.
  1. Learn the Local Language
    You need to differentiate yourself when you enter a new market or region, so try to learn the local language and culture. It helps you build trust and credibility with the local workforce. In fact, many of my best friends in the world are from Indonesia and ASEAN – because I made the effort to pick up Bahasa Indonesia in order to differentiate myself.

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