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.


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Another wardrobe malfunction?

U.S. President Obama took considerable heat last week. Not over racial unrest in the Midwest, or lack of response in the face of Russian tampering in the Ukraine, or the unchecked spread of Islamist militants.

No. Horror of horrors, he gave a press conference in a TAN SUIT! A casual, summery TAN suit!

Derision was fast and furious, especially in the twittersphere:

“FOX NEWS: OBAMA’S SUIT MAY BE UNDOCUMENTED”
“Not only is Obama wearing a tan suit, it seems way too big for him too. It looks like he’s about to be bar mitzvahed in Miami”.

Here’s my personal favourite:

“The Audacity of Taupe”.

(Check out the full range of commentary here: http://mashable.com/2014/08/28/president-obama-tan-suit/)

The merciless snark-asm of course stems from our collective expectation of what constitutes presidential attire: the somber power colours of navy blue and dark grey. The conservative cut, lapels not too narrow or too wide – all meant to reassure an anxious public and NOT detract from the message.

As a televisual society, we have become accustomed to, even comfortable with, the dark power suit as the dress of authority and gravitas. The design of our modern business suit apparently evolved from the military uniform and its projection of authority, hence those power shades are the military colours of navy blue, grey and perhaps, just perhaps, even a very dark olive green.

Serious men, when working, are expected to wear the dark-coloured “power” suits. Audience members, as receptors of messages and images, have subconscious expectations of appearance adherence from politicians, bankers, lawyers, TV newscasters and funeral directors.

Similarly, doctors can wear white lab coats, athletes can wear ball caps and jerseys, and rock stars can wear anything they want. Deviate from the norm and the brain goes “huh?”, spending more capacity processing the disconnect than absorbing the message, as per the tweet from Daily Beast reporter Olivia Nuzzi:

“Obama just announced we are going to war with Canada and none of you noticed because you were distracted by his outfit.”

(Women fortunately have a bit more latitude: Margaret Thatcher was renowned for being able to successfully wear power jacket-and-skirt ensembles in bright scarlet, even lime green — she, of course, needed to stand out in a sea of grey and blue suits).

What are at work here are some basic communications fundamentals that I always stress:
1) Most communication is non-verbal.
2) First impressions matter, and are solidified within about ten seconds.
3) There must be congruence between the message and the messenger.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, the tech sector led to a relaxation of corporate dress code – still, however, Wall Street didn’t quite know how to handle Zuckerberg and his hoodie. We’ll see what the next generations bring to the conventional wisdom, but in the meantime my advice remains the same: if you’re in doubt what to wear to a presentation, pitch, meeting or conference, go conservative.

Unless, of course, you’re the president of the United States of America.