Article: CCL’s MD on must-have skills for global Asian leaders

C-Suite

CCL’s MD on must-have skills for global Asian leaders

In an exclusive interview with People Matters, Elisa Mallis, Managing Director, and Vice President Asia-Pacific, from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) shares some insights on what it will take to groom Asian leaders to break through the ‘bamboo ceiling’ as Asia becomes the center of the world.
CCL’s MD on must-have skills for global Asian leaders

Elisa Mallis has over 20 years of experience as a business leader with a focus on transformational change, human capital strategy, sales, and marketing. She has spent 14 of these years based in Asia (Beijing, Sydney, and Singapore). Before her role as the APAC Managing Director for CCL, Elisa served as the Mainland China Director and Head of Executive Development for a talent development firm, Management Development Services (MDS). Before MDS, Elisa spent over ten years at Accenture, working as a talent and organization consultant for Accenture’s New York, London, and Beijing offices. Elisa, who split time growing up between Miami, Florida, and Athens, Greece, has lived in multiple countries in four continents and is passionate about leading with an inclusive and global mindset.

Elisa joined CCL in 2019 as the Managing Director and Vice President, Asia-Pacific. In her role, she leads CCL’s efforts in SE Asia, India, North Asia, and Australia to accelerate the leadership development and results of clients throughout the region, from multi-national corporations and government agencies to domestic organizations, while also contributing significantly to CCL’s global research agenda.

In an exclusive interview, Elisa shares some insights on what it takes to support Asian leaders to break through the ‘bamboo ceiling’ and better support organizations that would like to be ‘truly global’. As Asia becomes the center of the world, what are the skill and mindsets that leaders must possess to accelerate success and create a positive impact not only in their own country and region but across the world.  

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

Your career trajectory is very extensive and interesting. When you look back, what are some of the key talent shifts/trends you have seen in the APAC region in the last decade?

Over the past 14 years living and working in Asia I’ve witnessed an impressive increase in leadership maturity. Globally we know we are in an increasingly RUPT (Rapid, Unpredictable, Paradoxical, Tangled) environment. In Asia, the pace of that rapid change has been far more acute. There are many examples of technological advances in Asia that have skipped many steps that other markets had to go through, leapfrogging ahead. At the start of my 10 years living in China, I remember adjusting myself to a “cash only” approaches for many payments and transactions. By around 2016 the drastic transformation to a “no cash at all” way of life took within a year powered by WeChat and AliPay mobile payment systems, skipping many steps that other countries had to go through. Asian leaders driving and adapting to these types of transformations have had to further develop and demonstrate high levels of agility and resilience along the way. 

Another aspect of the significant increase in leadership maturity over the last two decades in Asia comes with the increased movement, mobility, and diversification that has taken place. Across China, India and SE Asia, increasing numbers of Asian professionals have been relocating to different cities, gaining more regional exposure and experience. These leaders have become more culturally savvy and globally-minded. 

Moving forward Asian leaders aspiring for global careers need to further develop a level of comfort with disruption. They also need to step out of their comfort zone to develop global relationships and credibility with key stakeholders within and outside the organization. 

While global organizations continue to look to Asia for growth, there is a stark need for leaders who deeply understand the region to not only execute a local growth strategy but also to have a strategic and influential point of view within the top team on what it will really take to win in Asia

Can you tell us about some of the key highlights from CCL’s Global Asian Leader report? What are some of the stark highlights that you have noticed come out of the report? What traits do you see in the global Asian leader?

With Asia as the “new center of the world”, Asian organizations and Asian leaders will be playing an even bigger role in defining some of these new solutions and new economic models for success going forward. While global organizations continue to look to Asia for growth, there is a stark need for leaders who deeply understand the region to not only execute a local growth strategy but also to have a strategic and influential point of view within the top team on what it will really take to win in Asia. However, despite the acute need for ‘Asia-fluent’ leaders at the top, our research confirms a significant underrepresentation of Asian leaders in the top Executive Teams of European and US multi-nationals. The Global Asian Leader research systematically identifies the obstacles leaders face in their transition to global roles, and the roadblocks organizations need to overcome to build a robust talent pipeline from Asia. One significant insight coming from the study is that while organizations facing a leadership crunch almost instantly start evaluating capability gaps of Asian leaders, the root cause of inadequate global Asian leadership often resides elsewhere. Our Global Asian Leader research identifies multiple root-causes, including: the organizational roadblocks, roadblocks at the country level, as well as roadblocks coming from the individual leader that include but are not limited to capability gaps. Country-level infrastructure to equip talent with the skills that are needed and the unwillingness of the individual to go out and get more exposure themselves are two common limiting factors. 

So what is the common recipe for success when it comes to global and regional roles? Developed from the 120 interviews in the study, the global Asian leader capability model provides a common recipe for success and the skills required, which include: Curiosity, Courage, Trust, Strategic Thinking, and Influencing. It is about the ability of the leader to influence others who are people who are very different from him or herself and being able to do that across multiple countries. 

What are some of the similarities and differences that you have noticed across the Asia Pacific when it comes to leadership skills?

While there are significant and valuable differences in the culture and accepted practices of doing business across Asian countries, our research identifies five common leadership traits of Asian Leaders.  

  • Collectivist approach – Asia scores low on individualism
  • Focusing on harmony – Non-confrontational attitude at work
  • Having a VUCA-ready attitude – Moving pieces make leaders very complexity-‘friendly’
  • Dependencies on networks and relationships – Friendships, family ties, or social strata
  • Having a pervasive sense of hierarchy – Caring-autocrat attitude

Recognizing, celebrating and championing these leadership traits is an important part of supporting Asian leaders to reach their full potential. At the same time, we know that practices and behaviors that make leaders successful in one country may, in fact, set them up for failure elsewhere. Asia is very diverse. Depending on the types of experience leaders have, regions they grow-up in, their ethnicity and other factors; they may look and behave very differently. This Asian diversity is extremely valuable and is also becoming more complex. Through the research interviews, we see that Asian leaders come in four different flavors.

  • Asian Returnee – A leader of Asian origin who has educated and mainly worked outside of the region (often till mid-career)
  • Regional Champion – A leader of Asian origin with multi-country and perhaps a multi-company work experience, but mainly within Asia
  • Global Nomad – An Asian leader who has diverse multi-country experiences within and outside of Asia, often with the same organization
  • Local Expat – A leader who may not be of Asian origin, but has spent most of his or her working career within Asia

Interestingly the Asian returnee and the local expat face similar levels of experience when it comes to exposure to different cultures, strength of relationships in headquarters and how embedded they are in the enterprise strategy. 

Better understanding Leadership Development through an Asian lens, in terms of how it manifests today, is critical for future success of most global organizations

In your current role, you are responsible for accelerating the leadership development and results of clients throughout the region while also contributing significantly to CCL’s global research agenda. Could you tell us more about your focus areas?

In terms of our research, we are taking an “East to West” approach in order to better understand leadership through an Asian lens. Over the last 50 years, the study and practice of leadership development has been influenced mainly by academic institutions and organizations in the Western world. Better understanding Leadership Development through an Asian lens, in terms of how it manifests today, is critical for the future success of most global organizations.  

In addition to the Global Asian Leader, we have recently completed the most extensive study done to date on Asian Boards of Directors (BOLD 3.0) and will soon be launching a unique piece of Asian research focused on overcoming barriers to Women’s Leadership. 

Inclusive leadership is becoming more and more important at a global level for organizational and societal success. We need leaders who can rise above differences and readily recognize our common humanity, especially in a digital era

What are the key traits of inclusive leadership and what do they do differently? How do leaders become more inclusive?

When my husband and I announced to all our family and friends in 2007 that we were moving to Beijing, we heard two words repeatedly: difficult and different. Of course, there were many difficulties and it was very different from London, where we lived at the time. What at first looked difficult, quickly became much easier thanks primarily to the people who helped us relate to, understand and come to love the many unsaid and important things about living in China. Having the curiosity to see the world through their eyes and feel and understand their reality was the driving force to form stronger and deeper connections. The mentors and leaders in Asia who influenced and impressed me the most over the last two decades have been leaders who have demonstrated that curiosity and courage. Inclusive leadership is becoming more and more important at a global level for organizational and societal success. We need leaders who can rise above differences and readily recognize our common humanity, especially in a digital era. We see technology outpacing what people, organizations, and countries can keep up with. As we continue the digital transformation journey, we need to make sure we are not leaving large pockets of people behind. Inclusive leadership is the key and inclusive leadership also fosters developing the right understanding, products, and solutions to win across many markets. The global Asian leaders who have the maturity and self-awareness to relate to people from all walks of life will be instrumental not only in solving for their region but also in solving for the world. 

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Topics: C-Suite, Leadership

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