Multicultural gems hidden in the ranks

Westernised Asian and Asianised Western executives can play critical roles and bring distinctive skills to the company

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 August, 2013, 4:31am

A recent survey of management talent in Asia observed "Westernised" Asians and, to a lesser extent, "Asianised" Westerners occupied most senior executive positions in multinational companies in Asia. But beyond the experience of living in different countries, what do these profiles bring?

Many of them are multicultural and most can play five critical roles in how they work and the distinctive skills they bring:

  • Making creative associations and drawing analogies between geographical markets, allowing them to develop global products and build global brands while remaining sensitive to local market differences;
  • Interpreting complex knowledge - which is tacit, collective and culture-dependent, hence impossible to simply "explain" - across cultures and contexts;
  • Anticipating cross-cultural conflicts, and addressing them, a critical contribution to the effectiveness of global teams;
  • Integrating new team members from different cultures into teams that quickly develop their own norms of interaction and a strong "in or out" identity that make joining the team once it has been in existence for a while particularly difficult; and
  • Mediating the relationship between global teams with a high level of cultural diversity among their members and the senior executives they report to, or their interaction with local subsidiary staff they collaborate with, who are often monocultural.

As international companies in Asia increasingly need to balance subtle forces of globalisation and localisation at the same time, and to transcend the conflicts they may create, these multicultural skills are increasingly important to succeed in the region.

Multicultural skills are increasingly important to succeed in the region

Underlying all these skills is intercultural cognitive integration (one's ability to simultaneously hold and apply several culturally different schemas and thus to think as a member of one culture or another depending on need and context, or to think simultaneously as member of several cultures) as the key to creative, adaptive and leadership skills fostering their career success and that of the companies they work for.

The paradox we observe, though, is that despite the rather obvious benefits their unique skills bring, multicultural managers often languish unrecognised in the ranks and files of their employers. International human resources practices have not always caught up with the potential multicultural managers offer. Beyond simply lagging behind good practice, there are deeper reasons for this.

First, multicultural executives are not a universal panacea: not all are equally skilled at integrating across cultures. Personality plays a role: being extroverted, assertive and sociable contributes to effective multiculturalism. A balance of identification strength between cultures is also a required condition for effective bridging, and the stronger the various cultural identities, the better. If in the self-image of a multicultural person one cultural identity "wins" to the detriment of the others, the person cannot be effective as a multicultural executive.

Second, how one truly becomes multicultural is not entirely clear, and not easily captured in the simple demographic indicators still often used in recruiting and promotion decisions. Some individuals are visibly multicultural by ethnic background and early childhood experiences, but that does not guarantee they will be well integrated in a balanced fashion in their multiple cultures.

Can one become multicultural through expatriate assignments in a multinational company, or just by living and working in multiple countries and cultures? This obviously helps, but just "being there" is not enough.

Studying and working abroad as an adult, immigration, or an international marriage may provide the quality of interaction required, but becoming multicultural takes time and effort as several cultures need to be internalised. One needs to have strong interaction with people belonging to the local culture, an active learning drive, and become embedded in the local culture.

Expatriate "villages" will not suffice. Just learning the behavioural adjustments is not enough, one needs to delve into understanding the underlying "whys", or the meanings, not just the manifestations of culture. This is slow, difficult learning, and may be a big challenge for the rapidly internationalising Chinese firms such as Lenovo, Huawei, ZTE and Haier, as it has been earlier for Japanese and Korean ones.

Some invest massively in developing corporate universities but accelerated training will never be a full substitute for patient experience accumulation when it comes to acquiring multicultural skills.

Furthermore, not all Asian cultures start in the same place. Some, like India, are composite countries, multicultural in their own right (that partly explains the outstanding success of Indian executives in many Western companies, and not just in local roles in India), others, such as Japan and Korea, are culturally very homogeneous and strongly monocultural.

Third, not all organisational contexts are equally propitious for multiculturals to play effective roles. Organisational culture, human resource management policies and cultural value conflicts in the organisation reduce or enhance a multicultural's willingness and ability to be effective.

Being appreciated and trusted by colleagues and peers is also a must but colleagues may zero in on one of their cultures and make the development, or maintenance, of balanced integration skills harder, and multicultural managers' roles less effective. To achieve this, companies need to be beyond an internationalisation threshold, where they start to overcome their ethnocentric culture (the first Western managers recruited by Korean companies seldom fared well).

The operational link between human resources policies and the opportunities offered by multicultural managers as "hidden gems" remains largely to be built, and more research is needed on these issues. Multicultural managers at firms such as L'Oreal have emerged from the growing pool of "international talent" over the past decade, bringing their experience and insights into "new markets". It hasn't taken long for their colleagues to become aware of their unique skills, and of their usefulness.

Bur for every company that recognises the opportunity offered by multicultural managers, how many still miss it entirely?

Yves Doz is the Solvay chaired professor of Technological Innovation at Insead and Hong Hae-jung assistant professor, Rouen Business School, in France