The First-Time Manager in Asia

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 January, 2011, 12:00am

The First-Time Manager in Asia
by B.H. Tan
Marshall Cavendish HK$150

During his darkest days several years ago, executive coach B.H. Tan survived on less than five hours of sleep. He worked around the clock, seven days a week, often on the road. The result was migraines and constant back pain.

However, despite the burnout symptoms, the Singaporean ploughed on - only to have a seizure just before a teleconference with European counterparts.

Instead of taking stock, as soon as Tan felt able he returned to work. Cue a second, massive seizure, followed by a stint in intensive care, as he reports in his cross-cultural business guide, The First-Time Manager in Asia: Maximising Your Success by Blending East and West Best Practices.

The seizure story, which graphically bolsters his argument for work-life balance, is one of the book's most powerful statements - a warning to anyone who takes pride in working all hours.

However, the story is buried towards the end of the guide, which has a suspect structure.

The guide opens with a statement from executive coach Brian Underhill about lessons learned from a hellish stint as a kindergarten teacher. Although amusing, Underhill's input appears only marginally relevant to the guide, which meanders.

The guide is pitched as a primer in mixing East and West best practices, but as the index shows, only 13 of the 240 pages address Asian traits. The guide reads like a general management manual sprinkled with cultural observations including the importance to Asian executives of 'face'.

Any key agreement with an Asian firm should always be signed off by one of your bigwigs - the managing director, say, Tan writes. Otherwise, he warns, the other side may take offence.

Another illuminating ethnic point Tan makes is that Asian staff 'cringe' when bosses praise them. 'They always say, 'It's my job', as though they don't expect nor deserve the compliment,' Tan writes.

Do not take their word for it. 'It is just modesty, which is a cultural trait,' he writes. Asians - especially Generation-Y members (born in the 1980s and 1990s) - love to be praised, according to Tan whose upbeat tone can seem out of step with the global economy.

Tan datedly depicts 'Generation-Y members' as financially secure lucky souls. In another wrong note, he portrays California as 'thriving', despite its US$20 billion budget gap.

Then there is his constant trendy pronoun chopping. One moment, he refers to an archetypal boss as 'she', the next he swaps to 'he', awkwardly rotating.

Still, Tan clearly has an intimate grasp of leadership strategy. Before becoming a coach, he was an executive with 30 years of leadership experience. His coaching client list runs the gamut from L'Oreal to Shell.

In an engagingly conversational tone, he sheds light on all the traits you need to lead. The virtues he condones include 'emotional intelligence' (no micro-managing allowed), agility in the face of constant change, grace or 'cool' under pressure, empathy, and political savvy.

Tan, who holds a philosophy MA, invests the guide with more clout by embedding the wisdom of classic strategists. The likes of Confucius and Art of War author Sun Tzu make the cut alongside that godfather of modern political science, Niccol? Machiavelli.

But if only the guide were more polished. Despite his business expertise, on the page Tan never quite hits his stride.