Is ethnicity a barrier to growth in Asia? — Kate Sweetman
AUG 13 — An international banker working in Hong Kong, whom I will call Lim, is enlarging his firm’s business and expanding its presence in mainland China.
Meeting his revenue goals depends on his ability to gain new customers in markets awash with global financial giants and well-placed local players. Despite the fact that Lim’s employer is a relative latecomer to the market, Lim is doing well.
The key to his success? His Chinese Malaysian ancestry. “Malaysian Chinese are increasingly coming to China to invest,” he explains. “They speak the local languages, so they can deal with any bank. But they want to do business with someone who understands them — and for whom their Mandarin, Cantonese or Hokkien is not accented but normal.
“They want to work with someone who understands their holidays, their food, their jokes. They want another Malaysian Chinese.”
On one level, Lim’s story is not problematic. It seems to be a rational matching of external market needs to a professional’s individual strengths — a clear win-win. After all, it is a smart move for a bank, or any business, to ensure that its customers are as comfortable as possible with the firm.
But consider the consequences of this phenomenon for the organisation’s internal workings and future success. How can a bank grow with so few Lims? And what if Lim is not really the best person for the job in other ways? For example, what if he is good at building relationships, but not so good at structuring deals?
And how does a firm mould its future leaders when only a select few get the best development opportunities and job experience, based strictly on their ethnicity? Not all leaders can come from just one or even a few select backgrounds. Innovation suffers, as does employee engagement — both key issues in Asia.
Another bank we are working with, also based in Hong Kong and hoping to boost innovation and employee engagement, is taking the first steps towards changing its demographic profile.
Its newly stated goal is to recruit, develop and advance the strongest people it can find. The bank wants to avoid sorting based on race and ethnicity and other demographic factors — it wants to be a transparent meritocracy.
Here are three key questions the bank needs to consider:
● Which roles require someone from a specific background?
Firms face serious challenges when dealing with ethnicity in Asia. The reality is that certain outward-facing positions — like Lim’s — often need to be filled by professionals with very specific backgrounds. But companies should not make hiring decisions based on the constraints of the external market. Internal departments like information technology, human resources, research and development, engineering, office services and the like must be open to anyone with the skill and drive to succeed.
● How can roles be migrated over time?
Lim does not work alone. He has a team. He should familiarise his clients with his team members from different backgrounds and vice versa.
Over time, clients will grow more comfortable working with Lim’s colleagues and the firm would not need to keep him limited to this one, outward-facing role — which will allow both Lim and his team members to advance.
● What can the organisation do to facilitate this change?
Build trust. The client’s core need is not about ethnicity — it is about trust. Yes, being comfortable with someone on a cultural level is a key part of that. But people both inside and outside of an organisation can be trained to reach across cultural divides.
That last point may sound naive. But I have met many minorities in the halls of power, including women in the Middle East and Africa, in both business and politics, who get their staunchest opponents — local men — to know and trust them inch by inch, by focusing on the interests and values they share.
As the journalist Christiane Amanpour said in a recent interview with Harvard Business Review: “I’ve lived in a completely multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious environment in some of the most difficult places in the world.
“I’ve seen first-hand that you can bridge differences. The trick is to minimise the extremes in any kind of relationship and to stick to the sensible centre.”
Breaking the ethnic barrier would make an enormous difference in Asian firms’ abilities to develop the best talent — but are they willing to do what it takes to bridge the cultural divide? — Today
* Kate Sweetman is the director of research and curriculum at The Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre, based in Kuala Lumpur.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.