Towards Sustainable Leadership

Towards Sustainable Leadership

Howard James
Feb 4 2014
Aptly titled “People Strategies for Asia – Future-Proofing your Organisation”, the 2013 Singapore Human Capital Summit presented a multitude of solutions for organisations seeking to bolster their leadership prowess, strengthen their talent pipelines, and ultimately achieve sustainable growth.
‘Change’ was a core theme of the summit. Of particular note, the event focussed on macroeconomic trends that have shaped today’s global economic landscape; changing patters of migration; and the need for companies to adopt  their operating strategies in order to survive in the long term. 
“We live in a world where even change has changed,” asserted management thought leader Gary Hamel during the event’s keynote presentation. 
According to Hamel, it is only by adopting revolutionary talent management strategies that today’s companies will stay afloat in the forthcoming decades.
“How do we build an organisation that is forever looking forward, that never takes refuge in denial, that is relentlessly optimistic, that captures its fair share of opportunity, and which regularly surprises its customers in new ways?” questioned Hamel.
“To do this you have to acknowledge that the single biggest barrier to adaptability is bureaucracy – a structure that empowers the few and disempowers the many,” he answered. 
Key to enduring today’s turbulent operating conditions, he argued, is for companies to invert the traditional management pyramid. Within such a model, staff frequently assess their superiors and work in an open and transparent culture where management is subject to performance feedback from subordinates. By doing this, organisations will no longer fall foul of the inefficiencies and poor productivity levels that have characterised many companies of late, said the thought leader.
These actions will also encourage enterprise-wide innovation and better equip organisations to tackle future volatility, he noted.
Being open to change and embracing grass-root innovation, however, requires strong leaders who are deeply committed yet humble. Business chiefs must have a clear vision of what it is that they want to achieve and carry an idea though to completion, according to Avani Avain Davda, Managing Director and CEO of Tata Starbucks Limited.
“Companies need leaders who are prepared to take bold steps and lead courageously, from start to finish,” asserted Davda. “The first rule of leadership is that you are going to go wrong – you are going to upset someone and you are going to make some bad decisions. The opportunity to learn from these mistakes is an invaluable experience and as a leader you have to be very humble over this,” she added. 
Migration – a key driver of today’s talent pool
Asia is the new epicentre of the global economy, with migration having played an important part in establishing this. However, the issue of importing foreign talent is a pertinent issue across the region and one that was frequently debated throughout the summit.
“The flows of human beings around the world are not moving in the direction we are traditionally accustomed to – from poor countries to rich, and from East to West. Now we have flows in all directions. There are over 230 million migrants in the world today – more than ever before in the world’s history,” explained Dr Parag Khanna, Director of the Hybrid Reality Institute.
“There is this global pool of top-tier talent that is ready to move anywhere. And they are seeking to come to Asia,” he added.
The eagerness of the world’s talent to come to Asia carries advantages and hindrances to the local labour market. On one hand, foreign management bring global expertise and best practice to local markets. Western firms bring knowledge and skills transfer through joint ventures, which help their local counterparts move up the value chain. Conversely, an influx of expatriates raises the cost of living; aggravates locals who feel excluded from the top rungs of the economy; and leads to a situation where governments de-emphasise indigenous innovation in favour of foreign investment. 
According to Ramachandran Rajamanickam, Vice President of Abbott Nutrition International, the solution to this dilemma is for both local and foreign entities to only hire expatriates that bring expertise that cannot be met by local workers.
“If we are bringing in complementary skills to augment an organisation, it is less of a threat to local workers. But if a company brings in a ‘me too’, this aggravates the local population… As long as we are enhancing an organisation with unmet skills, immigration is less of an issue,” said Rajamanickam. 
The import of foreign talent is therefore beneficial for growth, only if organisations and governments harness it to develop their local talent while being aware of the trade-offs.
The idea of applying sustainable business models, particularly in light of today’s tumultuous economic environment, is at the core of most Asian organisations. Yet, with the consumption of the world’s natural resources set to skyrocket over the next three decades, and with the planet verging on the brink of catastrophic climate change, arguments as to who should take the lead in enabling sustainable growth are abound.
Andrew Grant, Director at Mckinsey & Company, argued it is the private sector that must lead today’s sustainability agenda. Grant supported his case by pointing out that the private sector contributes more than two-thirds of global economic growth and employs the majority of the world’s talent. He also claimed governments are overburdened by meeting the expectations of citizens, and are simply not as influential on society as private sector consumer brands, like Apple, Nike, Disney or Amazon.
“Why let hope take over from experience? The responsibility of sustainability should lie with those that contribute the greatest to society, which is overwhelmingly the private sector,” said Grant.
“Business has disproportionately taken the world’s best talent away from government. It pays more, promotes faster and offers global careers. Driving sustainable growth will take the best talent and the best ideas, which the private sector undoubtedly has,” he added.
Chandran Nair, Founder and CEO of Global Institute for Tomorrow, disagreed. According to Nair it is governments that should take the lead on sustainable growth, rather than private corporations.
“Companies thrive on promoting relentless consumption… That doesn’t make them bad at what they do. But that is why we have governments: to monitor and to regulate. We still need private companies to become partners to governments, but companies essentially do more, not less. And at the heart of sustainable development is the notion of less,” explained Nair.
“If we are to have a sustainable future, we must control consumption. But this can only be achieved by setting strict rules. These are not made by multinational companies – they are made by the state,” he added.
On the topic of human capital, Nair urged leaders to hire talent who are willing to address today’s pertinent issues and voice their own views, rather than those of their employers. 
Core values
Few leaders would oppose that at the heart of future-proofing an organisation is adherence to core values. 
Indeed, this was a viewpoint shared by Dr Erik Hunziker, Chairman of BB Biotech, who urged fellow executives to focus on delivering outstanding customer service and superlative employee welfare.
“Forget about complexity. Any big company is nothing more than a large sushi shop! You provide a service, you have customers and at the end of the day you have some cash in the box… These are core values all companies should strive towards,” he asserted.
Hunziker stressed the importance of empowering employees. In addition, he urged fellow attendees to treat all workers as talent, with valuable ideas and opinions that can drive a company to superlative levels of productivity – a view shared by Srikantan Moorthy, Group Head of HR at Infosys.
“Today the workforce wants to participate in decision-making and wants to have their voice heard… They want to give their best to an organisation and in return they want opportunities. Creating an environment that allows them to achieve this engages talent and encourages them to stay put,” he said.
Furthermore, giving space to ideas, supporting them, and accepting that some will go forward and others will not is a key part of leading, according to Moorthy.
Towards sustainable growth
The manner with which executives lead in today’s ever-changing economic environment is critical to the future success of their organisations. Likewise, ensuring that their organisations are prepared for the unexpected (if not the worst) is of equal importance. 
To achieve both feats requires organisations to be adaptable and innovative, not only with regards to the goods or services they supply, but also with regards to how their workers are managed and valued. Indeed, by removing levels of bureaucracy organisations will become more productive and will be able to better attract and retain their talent base. Employee empowerment, it appears, is key to developing a robust talent management strategy.
In order to continue the region’s growth story, however, Asian companies must continue to leverage the skills, knowledge and technology transfer brought to the region by the West. But this must not be done at the expense of the local workforce. As called for on numerous occasions throughout the summit, the expertise brought into the region should meet current demand, rather than displace domestic workers. 
Adherence to core values will ensure both companies and governments become sustainable in the long-term, irrespective of which party takes the lead in driving the agenda forward over the next decade and beyond. Indeed, by future-proofing their respective organisations, companies will ensure they are greater prepared for future events as well as better attract, retain and develop their talent.

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