Keeping on top of a growing workforce

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 December, 2011, 12:00am


Across Asia, enterprises are expanding their labour forces at an unprecedented pace. Asia's fastest-growing companies often triple or quadruple their staff from year to year, in contrast to the West, where revenue and profit growth typically far outpaces employment growth.

Even multinationals have found themselves in recent years adding more employees in Asia than in the rest of the world combined.

Such fast growth puts a strain on leaders. Top executives who were once perceived as caring, entrepreneurial and far-sighted are suddenly viewed as unpredictable, confused and focused on the short term.

Longer-term employees feel that growth has destroyed the company's spirit. Conflict intensifies and silos emerge. What happened? Are entrepreneurial leaders constitutionally unable to keep up with rapid growth?

Imagine you're driving through the mountains listening to the radio while the signal fades in and out. Figuring out what tune you are listening to is difficult because you only hear intermittent snatches. For the same reason, long-running serial dramas on television draw smaller audiences over time - if you have missed a few episodes, it's difficult to catch up with the ongoing storylines. As a result, more and more people are watching entire seasons of shows they like on DVD, where they can view all the episodes back-to-back.

When a company is small, most employees encounter the chief executive several times a week. They feel a sense of continuity because they understand the ongoing story they are building together. Inevitably, as a company grows rapidly, employees experience an abrupt transition. They only see or hear the CEO every now and then at random intervals. In between, they hear conflicting rumours about what the boss is saying or doing, how his priorities are shifting, and what he plans to do next.

Chief executives are seldom aware of this change because they view every episode of their own drama. They personally know what they are doing and why, so their behaviour seems entirely consistent to them. They are often surprised, even angered, to find that what they perceive as steady, dependable leadership is misperceived, and that the messages they view as connected and coherent perplex others.

They don't realise that employees only pick up the top leader's radio signal every now and then, and fill in the gaps by guessing or by asking others what they have heard.

In the West, companies usually scale through delegation and decentralising, and CEOs are told to communicate constantly so that a simple, consistent message filters to the layers below.

Such solutions may not work in Asia. Asian companies are often centralised in order to keep the enterprise from splitting into warring quasi-independent fiefs led by local barons. Asian employees expect their bosses to communicate when they have made a decision to be implemented; they are often dismayed when Western executives publicly muse about different options instead of conveying firm directives.

So what can the leaders of hyper-growth Asian enterprises do to sustain confidence in themselves and their messages when they are unable to reach most employees personally and with consistency?

First, kill the rumour mill. Sometimes, people plant rumours or pass them on in order to increase their own power, by making others believe they are 'in the know'. Unmasking a few of them publicly sends the message that quoting the CEO is dangerous unless you are repeating something he or she actually said.

Another is to ensure that there is a single accurate source within your company of what the CEO wants every employee to know. For example, AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes maintains a CEO blog. At other firms, a regular feature in the company newsletter or a page on the intranet can ensure that the CEO's public messages for all employees are passed to them direct and unfiltered.

Second, try to understand what your message appears to be among people you see infrequently. Ask employees at different levels what their priorities are and why some things are more important than others. Find out what seems confusing or contradictory to them. Test to see whether your intended meaning is getting through.

Third, focus more on communicating a vision than on concrete goals. A vision describes what it will be like to work in the company you are building together. Goals can change while the company's shared picture of its desired future state stays the same. Let other managers convey messages about specific objectives - top leaders should stay focused on the shared purpose that explains why those objectives matter.

It's much easier to lead when you can touch people personally, but fast growth makes that impossible. Asian CEOs must develop a communication style that works with intermittent messages and kills off competing signals that create unwanted noise.

Philip Anderson is the INSEAD Alumni Fund Chaired Professor of Entrepreneurship at INSEAD business school, which has campuses in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi