Key Messenger

A critical eye on communication, by Tom Poldre

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Defining the Pan-ASEAN Leader

The following are edited excerpts from an article I co-authored with Patrick Rekart at Black Inc Group, for the January 2015 edition of the Thai-American Business magazine.

Multinationals based in Thailand, especially those continuing to look outward with an ASEAN perspective, will need to critically examine the executive leadership skills required to meet performance goals in the AEC. The first obvious step would be to ensure all expatriate senior managers, including the CEO, understand all ASEAN cultural traits. Fundamental to this is also the understanding that the definition of “expatriate” is no longer the exclusive realm of the Western “businessman”.

What is relevant, however, is the concept of a leader’s personal brand. True, top managers and contributors are hired based a functional skill set. Over time, they are differentiated by their attitude and personality (i.e. how they get the job done). Then, as their brand matures, they contribute enhanced value to the organization based on their ability to comfortably, effectively, graciously, effect change and achieve results across numerous cultures.

Senior executives in Thailand (or anywhere, for that matter) regardless of background, would benefit from an assessment of their cross-cultural acuity, along with access to specialized training where their own cultural inhibitions can be revealed. With this awareness, leaders can be empowered to move forward and embrace changes in their business persona.

We already know some of the “areas for development”: assertiveness training, accountability, interactive capability and critical analysis are among the highly interrelated traits which are vital in the pan-ASEAN corporate context. Also, as one expatriate executive commented, here in Thailand there is often a “failure to differentiate the professional from the personal”.

It will be fascinating to monitor how those clearly and uniquely Thai traits that have almost become clichés – “kreng-jai” (giving extreme consideration to problematic situations; saving face or maintaining external stature despite costs) and “mai pen rai“, (a way out of most embarrassing situations) – will play out on the ASEAN stage.

Thanks to interconnectivity through technology, trade, travel, and no matter how entrenched traditional values and inertia might be, the business and social contexts will keep evolving and shifting. Inevitably, misunderstandings and conflicts will arise internally, externally; locally and regionally.

The best preparation is to ensure your managers are empowered with executive leadership skills and corporate competencies. “Soft skills” should become “hard-wired” into individual and corporate brand personas.

With individual managers, this means a new and enhanced emphasis on self-awareness of personal communication styles. This is an important capability, leading to greater confidence, credibility and persuasiveness in meetings, presentations or even in local media encounters. For the pan-ASEAN leader, adaptability to cultural environment has Darwinian implications.

Just as European managers so often operate seamlessly, comfortably, across EU markets, a new breed of successful intra-ASEAN manager will increasingly emerge. The “chameleon communicator” will show an innate ability to shift style based on cultural intelligence while still remaining true to their genuine character.

With English accepted as the business language of ASEAN, and with such variation in English language proficiency across the region (compare Singaporean and Malaysian managers versus their Thai counterparts) non-verbal skills will continue to play a vital role in connecting with new ASEAN audiences.

It’s been proven that eye contact, body language and the use of gesturing are far more effective than words in the total communication context. Often, however, acceptable Western norms of dramatic display while communicating may seem aggressive and threatening – indicating a loss of control, anger, and diminishing one’s stature, credibility and dignity.

Cultural “faux pas” happen all the time on the world stage. Risk is best mitigated through intensive cross-cultural programs and communications workshops available through many sources, where simulations serve to deconstruct and better prepare local and regional leaders for the new international business environment.