"The next-generation global leader"—Nick Chia interviews Su-Yen Wong, former chief executive officer of Human Capital Leadership Institute, on how businesses will define diversity in the future and how that impacts what is required in the leaders of the future.
How do businesses define diversity today, and will that definition change in the near future? What does it mean to be a leader who is able to manage diversity? What are the qualities and competencies needed in our future leaders?
"The world is changing, and the way we approach leadership must change too. Progress throughout history has always been about evolving as circumstances dictate."
An interview with Su-Yen Wong, chief executive officer, Human Capital Leadership Institute
Su-Yen Wong is non-executive chairman of the board of Nera Telecommunications, a global technology solutions provider that operates in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and is listed on the Singapore Exchange Mainboard. Concurrently, she is an independent director at Mediacorp, Singapore's leading media company; at Yoma Strategic Holdings, a large-cap conglomerate with diversified business interests in Myanmar; and at NTUC First Campus, which is the largest provider of childcare services in Singapore.
She was until December 2017 chief executive officer of the Human Capital Leadership Institute, which was established by the Ministry of Manpower, the Singapore Economic Development Board and the Singapore Management University to develop global leaders with a strong understanding of leading in Asia, as well as to build Asian leaders with the ability to lead on the global stage.
Previously she was chairman (Singapore) for Marsh & McLennan Companies and managing director, Southeast Asia at Mercer. Prior to that she was Asia managing partner for the Communications, Information & Entertainment practice at Oliver Wyman.
Q: How do you define diversity?
A: For me, diversity is very multifaceted, and I find that a lot of the narrative at the moment is focused on observable characteristics alone. Of course, those dimensions are critical, but it is no less important to look at variables such as diversity of cultures, social economic diversity and diversity of thought. We can use observable characteristics as a marker, but if we're really trying to create diverse organizations that are equipped to solve complex problems and drive innovation, we've got to get to a point where we're bringing in a broader spectrum of people. What teams ultimately need are individuals with different experience profiles, along with different ways of approaching an issue.
Having said that, the current efforts to improve gender diversity on boards, to build up the pipeline of women in senior leadership positions and to increase the number of women in technology are all critical initiatives. The focus on observable characteristics provides the minimum baseline, and we need to get these right to start with. But it's not just about gender; for example, in Singapore, there is an increasing focus on age diversity. Singapore has a rapidly aging population—one of the fastest-aging populations worldwide, in fact—so there is work to be done to address conscious and unconscious biases that are centered on age. With life expectancy moving into the 80s and 90s, we need to think differently about how people in their 50s, 60s or even 70s can contribute to organizations and society at large.
Q: Do you think that the kind of diversity businesses are focused on will be different in the near future?
A: The world is changing dramatically and businesses are becoming more and more global. Enabled by technology, even a relatively small business may need to engage with customers, suppliers and employees from around the world! Consequently, I believe that organizations will increasingly need to have leaders that reflect their business interests internationally. Ultimately, boards and senior leadership teams will need to feature a global makeup that truly represents their footprint and priorities.
Q: Will that shift change what is required in a good business leader?
A: Leaders of global businesses will be required to effectively manage cross-cultural diversity and unlock the potential that it presents. Leaders will need a heightened ability to deal with ambiguity and complexity, which in turn will require exposure to many different operating environments. Those who have experienced only a unidimensional context are likely to be less equipped to lead in a rapidly changing environment. A unidimensional leader develops a paradigm around a specific mode of leading that works in one context but may not be effective in another. For example, an environment like Indonesia, where the head of the business is referred to in the Indonesian language as "ibu" or "bapak," which translates directly as "mother" or "father," is a completely different context in which to lead if you are not familiar with Indonesian culture. At a very visceral level, leaders need to be attuned to the fact that environments are not inherently right or wrong or good or bad; rather, they vary widely due to the influences of history, culture, religion, politics and so on, and this needs to be handled without fear or supremacy. An effective business leader will be able to seamlessly adapt the way he or she leads to motivate people and drive performance.
Q: And will that change the competencies and qualities required in the next generation of global leaders?
A: There is certainly a need to rethink the competencies and characteristics that define a global leader in the 21st century. Many Western-headquartered businesses have been operating in Asia for decades and have high growth expectations for the region. Yet, we still see very few Asians in the C-suite or on the boards of these businesses. Is it possible that the yardstick by which leaders have historically been measured is no longer appropriate for the next phase of growth in Asia and other developing markets?
Q: Certainly, and you could even draw parallels between gender and the shift in how we traditionally have viewed leadership.
A: Absolutely. Many of the challenges that confront women in traditional organizational structures or leadership models parallel the challenges that Asian leaders face in Western business cultures. One of the dimensions that often presents a conundrum for leaders is how to adapt in different environments while remaining authentic to who they are. We see a lot of angst with leaders saying "that's not me," but the trick is knowing how to build a bridge between a style that you are not accustomed to and your authentic self. The world is changing, and the way we approach leadership must change too. Progress throughout history has always been about evolving as circumstances dictate.
Thank you, Su-Yen.