March, I joined Dave Ulrich in Singapore to lead an “executive roundtable” with the CEOs and heads of human resources from seven companies, which was convened by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower. The participants included executives from DBS (a bank), Far East Organization (a real estate company), Procter & Gamble, MediCorp (Singapore’s leading media company, they own everything from newspapers to TV stations), General Electric, IDEO, and IBM. We were also joined by three thought leaders: Debashis Chatterjee, Michael Jenkins, and Howard Thomas.
We had two days of intense conversation about the challenges of leading large companies, with a particular focus on the challenges faced in Asia. One reason that the conversation was so focused was that those of us at the gathering had committed to produce an edited book, which was to be published by September. I was of the opinion that this was an impossible task, but Dave Ulrich (a masterful leader) had done it once before, and he assured me it was possible because of the great managerial skill of the folks at the Ministry of Manpower. I was skeptical, and as regular readers of this blog will recall, I was also distracted because I had open heart surgery in April. Indeed, I tried to resign from the project a couple times, but Dave, and the amazing Arina Koh and Serene Teh from the Ministry (to whom we dedicated the book) talked me off the ledge.
To my amazement, not only did we finish this edited volume on time, I think it makes a nice contribution. It is called Asian Leadership: What Works and it is for sale at Amazon in the states. It isn’t destined to change the world, but it does have some nice cases and commentaries. One of my favorite pieces is “Banking the Asian Way” by DBS CEO Piyush Gupta, which describes the determination of one DBS to meet with an important customer in the middle of a cyclone. I also was quite taken with the pieces by Stuart Dean of GE and Cordelia Chung of IBM on the extreme lengths that these two huge firms go through to develop and assess leaders–and with how both showed that being a solo superstar doesn’t cut it in either place.
The thought leaders also wrote some lovely pieces too; for example, Michael Jenkins’ piece on the company vs. national culture was intriguing, especially because we had a lengthy conversation during the gathering where most executives argued that company culture was more important for success than national culture. I was also taken Debashis Chatterjee’s piece on change, as he made a strong case that, especially in Asian settings, imagination and taking a long-term time perspective were ore important for success than doing careful analysis and choosing “the best” decision in many cases.
I could go on and on, as the book contains 30 short pieces organized around 8 themes:
1. Creating Customer-centric actions
2. Implementing Strategy
3. Getting Past the Past
4. Governing Through Decision-Making
5. Inspiring Collective Meaning
6. Capitalizing on Capability
7. Developing Careers
8. Generating Leaders
Even after doing this book, I am far from an expert on Asian leadership, but I did learn a bit more about this vexing topic from the process and it also helped me understand a bit more about what it takes to be a good boss in any culture. I also enjoyed working with Dave Ulrich a great deal, as we have complementary skills; he is much better at organizing ideas than I am and is skilled at dealing with my diverse and often disconnected thoughts. Dave was also enormously supportive of my personal challenges during the production of the book, which I greatly appreciated.
Reprinted from Work Matters
Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Follow him at twitter.com/work_matters.