Lack of leaders puts expansion in the slow lane

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 April, 2005, 12:00am

Survey finds that 70pc of firms in Asia do not have enough of the right people to make things happen

WITH MOST SIGNS pointing towards a period of renewed economic growth for the region, many companies are running into an unexpected area of difficulty.

Despite having strategic plans for expansion and available funds to invest, they are struggling to hire a sufficient number of personnel with the experience and essential leadership skills to set up and manage new divisions, subsidiaries and offices.

'This lack of leadership talent is a serious constraint on business at the moment,' said Andrew Bell, practice leader for talent and organisation consulting for Hewitt Associates.

'Companies are realising they just do not have enough of the right kind of people to make things happen.'

Mr Bell will be a speaker at the Hewitt-organised Best Employers Conference to be held on April 13 at the Grand Hyatt.

Referring to a recent survey by Hewitt of 260 multinational and local companies in the Asia-Pacific region, Mr Bell said more than 70 per cent of respondents admitted to having a shortage of such talent and, as a result, they were being forced to defer major opportunities for investment.

One solution is to establish a corporate culture and internal policies to help executives lead more effectively and, simultaneously, develop the next generation. As a global human resources consulting service, Hewitt has created a blueprint that aims to put people first.

'Amid all the complexity, the task of a leader can be distilled into three things,' said Mr Bell. Basically, these are to connect with employees about the company's vision, strategy and objectives; to engage them so they become passionate about it and want to contribute; and to execute the plan while continuing to communicate about progress.

'The best leaders not only communicate up to three times more than others, but also take a very active role in defining the organisation's culture and values,' he added.

This involves setting standards and making clear the general expectations about behaviour and service quality. In most cases, that means getting out and talking to staff at all levels about what is going well and what barriers exist to improve performance. It also entails an unrelenting focus on developing future leaders through comprehensive training and mentoring.

'All this should stem from the leader's fundamental personal belief that people are important for the success of the business,' Mr Bell said.

'Executives who focus on the numbers or market share will achieve short-term results which are not sustainable. Getting the best out of people is a business-driven argument for the long term and, when employees see leaders actively supporting this, it makes a big difference.'

But how does a company start to improve if all its talk about staff being the most valuable asset is nothing more than that?

The first step is to look at the gap between rhetoric and reality. The company should find evidence, or lack of it, for what they say about themselves and narrow the gap either by changing their rhetoric or justifying it.

At the same time, they should make a commitment to improve communication and spell out their expectations and objectives. 'It's got to come from the top and leaders must remember that it's what they do that counts, as well as what they say,' Mr Bell said.

Once a consistent message is delivered, a new corporate culture can be created. Far from seeing this as something intangible, Hewitt stresses in dealings with clients that it is possible to measure culture through surveys or focus groups and then to shape it.

'It used to be a common mistake for companies to think of these issues as just an 'HR thing', disconnected from the rest of the business. Now the best leaders realise you can manage culture up front and should discuss it as a priority,' he said.

However, in addressing the current role of HR professionals, Mr Bell had some specific recommendations about how best they should implement new measures - and be sure of getting results.

'One of the failings of HR departments is their inability to make a business case for change, and this ties in with their own leadership skills,' he said.

'They may design great programmes, but unless they also establish the relevance of what they want to do and the time scale, they won't get the budgets.'

He said what distinguished good from bad in HR was the ability to show how an initiative would help the overall business. For this reason, Hewitt was now working specifically on the leadership development of HR people to help them function more effectively within their own organisations.

Talking heads are best

Businesses expanding in Asia are suffering from a shortage of leadership talent.

Good leadership depends on the ability to connect with staff, engage them and execute plans well.

The best leaders communicate constantly and embody the company's culture and values.

Focusing on people issues rather than business measures will deliver long-term success.

HR managers need to use their own leadership skills more effectively to win internal support.