“I want a raise.” With the ink barely dry on her contract and less than a year of tenure at Morgan Stanley, the young Asian woman plopped a thick stack of paper on her supervisor’s desk. “What’s that?” he asked. With the confidence typified by the post-80s generation in China, she proceeded to lay forth an explanation of how she had researched the salaries of her peers, conducted a comparative analysis, and concluded that she was underpaid and undervalued. After all, she was a graduate of one of the finest universities, an extraordinarily talented and aggressive professional, well deserving of a fast-track promotion. Taking a risk, her supervisor looked at her with a wry smile and stated firmly, “I’m not going to give you a raise based on this; you have to prove yourself.” Surprisingly, the risk paid off.
This moment became a splash of cold water in her face, sparking a realization which led to reflection on the value of work, which led to her staying with the job, which led to a more rewarding professional experience. Two years later she got her raise. In the meantime, she had been in touch with her peers, most of whom had already burned out in their careers, pushing themselves forward without regard for merit or commitment, making demands and having those demands met by supervisors fearful of losing new talent. While their careers had crashed and burned, she took a learning moment and modified her approach. Her supervisor had become an effective coach whose push-back framed a learning point that would give her the balance she needed. This scenario, or something like it, is being played out in executive offices around the world in 2007.
A New Generation, Culture or Both?
Some would argue that in 21st century international business, age trumps nationality, and any understanding of how to coach Asian leaders must begin with an awareness of the generational changes sweeping the globe. Fortune magazine’s May 2007 article, “Attracting the Twenty-something Worker” presents the new work demands laid forth by Generation Y. A wave of media attention has portrayed baby boomer children as being exigent and flexible. The case in Asia is similar, though not so simple. Fast Company’s June 2007 cover story, “China’s New Creative Class” notes the emerging blend of youthful innovation and more traditional Chinese culture.
The business coach entering today’s global marketplace is challenged to address new dualities in business and culture. In Asia in particular, a radical shift toward business is blending with, but not eliminating, traditional values. The coach must meet clients in a new virtual space, which, as they say at the opening of the original Star Trek, takes us “where no man (or woman, or coach) has gone before.” The traditional Asian veneration of age as wisdom is being counter-balanced by a wave of upstart entrepreneurs. The ancient value of working for the public good is being challenged by freewheeling competition. In the midst of this revolution, what are the implications for leadership and for the field of coaching? Here are some ideas to get you started:
Four Points for Coaching Asian Leaders
- Get to know the ‘Emperor or Empress’; look before you leap.
In terms of age and generational differences in Asia, highly educated professionals in their 20s and 30s working in a multi-national organization tend to be more outspoken, outgoing, and open to change than their predecessors. They admire the Western management style, whereas their parents’ generation, now in their 50s and 60s, followed a more traditional Chinese work ethic.
In previous generations, it was typical to work very hard, be loyal to the organization, and not challenge authority. Among other influences, Confucianism was central to the belief system of the Asian psyche. These days, because of China’s ‘one-child policy,’ sometimes the child of the family has become the ‘Little Emperor.’ He has often been told by his parents that he is a genius. Sought by the best companies and headhunters, the Emperor or Empress may challenge authority constantly, dismiss organizational loyalty, and work only in the areas that foster personal advancement.
- Understand emerging Asian business and adapt your approach.
The emergence of Asia as a dominant force in the world economy, with China at the helm, is rapidly transforming the culture of business. In turn, tools for coaching global leaders must be brought up to speed. Despite the Morgan Stanley tale, it’s not all about tempering the ambitions of young Asian business upstarts. In a recent report by Development Dimensions International (a firm leading in leadership talent and selection) entitled “Leadership in China: Keeping Pace with a Growing Economy,”1 a principal finding was that “more than one-half” of leaders are “inadequately prepared for their roles in the new economy.” Critical skills found lacking were the ability to motivate others, build trust, retain talent, and lead high-performance teams. Generic as these terms may sound, they point to a gap in Asian leadership.
Whether confronting the implications of age or culture, a balanced coaching approach is important. With little emperors or empresses who have grown up to become your clients, for example, it is important to:
- Think through things from their perspective and follow a process attuned to their belief system.
- Take a logical approach, convincing them that a change will get them further if they look at their behaviors and test out a new approach.
- Develop a hybrid model for Asia meets the West; flip the model for the West meets Asia.
In the West, the land of WYSIWIG (what you see is what you get) and ‘tell it like it is,’ a coach’s direct criticism might be welcomed by the client as being just the right medicine. In the East, ‘face’ is highly valued. It is more important not to say point blank that someone is wrong, but rather to offer options to the benefit of the individual. In the hybrid approach, you:
- Listen, observe, and refrain from rigid labeling. Asian leaders may take feedback very personally, so don’t fall into black-and-white judgments or make abrupt assertions.
- Go to their strengths first, exploring how they might be leveraged.
- Factor in your own age as the coach. With a more senior Asian client, a coach who is the same age or older may be perceived to have significant wisdom in the area under discussion.
- If you find yourself on a pedestal, find a subtle way to get off. You want to establish your credibility, but at the same time make it clear that you are not there to preach, but to empower the client.
- Don’t give the impression that you don’t know the answer.
A 2006 survey entitled “The Dream Team: Delivering Leadership in Asia” by Korn/Ferry International,2 one of the world’s leading providers of executive human capital solutions, polled more than 300 senior executives as to what makes a business leader successful in Asia. In response to the question “Should a Western business leadership model be replaced in Asia by an Asian business leadership model?” 35.5% affirmed that “No, globalization warrants a model that is neither Western nor Asian, but includes elements of all best practices.”
In the final run, the most successful global coach must both become a hybrid catalyst for the coaching process, and encourage the client to adopt a hybrid East-West approach for leadership. In Chinese culture, there is a fine balance that must be carefully dealt with to ensure that the right connection is made. When the coachee asks for advice, the coach should be careful about providing suggestions. The idea should not be ‘this is my advice/these are my answers for you’ but rather ‘these are different options’ and offer resources or point to best practices.
- Keep your focus on the client.
Even more important than being culturally aware in the new Asian business world is to work with openness to the reality that every person on the planet has a unique background and personality. Don’t make any assumptions; try to understand the leader. Don’t assume that just because the leader is Asian he or she will have an indirect communication style. Don’t assume that young Asian leaders are all petulant children; the continuum of personality is broad and varied in every age bracket. Leaders come in all sizes and shapes. Asians aren’t always of the same ethnic background. For example, in the Greater China region, there are 56 cultures and ethnicities in Hong Kong, the mainland, and Taiwan.
Finally, the hybrid cultural and generation approach must always make the coachee the center of the conversation. It is about how the coach can help the coachee to reach his or her goal. Once the core data is in about the coachee, including 360-degree feedback, body language, perspectives, values, culture, and background, the coach’s role involves mirroring and serving as a guide for moving forward. The coach is a neutral presence who stays positive and helps the client to keep looking into the future. With the foundation of a ‘hybrid,’ the coach serves as an important bridge for action and success in the challenging new realm of global business.
This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (Fall Issue 2007, Volume 3, Issue 3).
1 Leadership in China: Keeping Pace with a Growing Economy, 2005 page 10, finding 4; Development Dimensions International Inc. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
2 “The Dream Team: Delivering Leadership in Asia” 2007 Economist Intelligence Unit and Korn/Ferry International, page 4; Korn/Ferry: Los Angeles, Singapore, Shanghai.
Maya Hu-Chan is an international management consultant, executive coach, author, public speaker and leadership development educator. She is the co-author of Global Leadership: The Next Generation.
As business, and business coaching, becomes more global, the impact of most business coaching approaches can be enhanced by giving more attention to the influence of culture.
In Coaching Across Cultures: New Tools for Leveraging National, Corporate and Professional Differences (Rosinski, 2003), I define coaching as “the art of unleashing people’s potential to reach meaningful, important objectives.” A cultural perspective in coaching can bring to the surface powerful issues and assumptions related to culture and mobilize them to unleash client potential and facilitate sustainable and positive change. The key approach is to value and explore differences rather than seeking to impose norms, values and beliefs. The coaching impact goes further than enhancing the company bottom-line. As coaches we have an opportunity to help foster the conditions of a better world.
I do not suggest that coaching from this perspective is superior or even the first perspective that one should take. However, I believe that it is a crucial perspective that has been given insufficient attention during the relatively short existence of the profession of coaching.
Groups of all kinds have cultures. Groups originate from various categories, including geography, religion, profession, organization, social life, gender, and sexual orientation. A group’s culture is the set of unique characteristics that distinguishes its members from another group. However, culture is not static — it evolves. Our individual identities are a synthesis of the cultures of the multiple groups to which we belong. On the surface level, culture concerns the language we use, our greetings, and our dress. Beneath the surface it can determine our thinking patterns and how we go about solving problems. It influences how our businesses are structured.
As coaches and executives we can use culture to unleash potential in many ways. We ignore the influence of culture at our peril because it influences thoughts, behaviors and emotions. It is pervasive, vastly underestimated, and can be a powerful force for positive change. We seek to unleash client potential by creating new ways of operating through drawing on many different approaches. We consider context, preferences, possibilities and consequences and come up with ways that work best for the client, within ethical boundaries.
A Practical Approach to Leveraging Cultural Differences
With a lever, you obtain a stronger force than the one you are exerting. Leveraging cultural differences means achieving more output with a given input. The input is human potential — individual or collective, in its rich cultural diversity. Through considering and leveraging alternative cultural orientations we can enlarge our views, our options and achieve synergy.
Although there is no set recipe to follow, I set out in Coaching Across Cultures a useful framework of The Global Coaching Process. Through this approach, coaches and clients can connect their personal voyages with those of their families, friends, work colleagues, organizations, communities and society in general. Different levels and layers of culture will interact and the ground will be uneven and shifting. In coaching conversations we aim to facilitate clarity by inviting an exploration of cultural influences. Clients can then leverage culture to unleash their potential and successfully pursue their goals. In this process we assist clients in finding new ways of operating that are meaningful and sustainable in their contexts.
The Cultural Orientations Framework (COF)
I have drawn together cross-cultural research on orientations across a range of human activities into the Cultural Orientations Framework (COF). One orientation is not right and others wrong. I invite clients to adopt an and approach, rather than an either/or.
The COF looks at seven categories. Here I give a brief example in each:
1. Our sense of power and responsibility;
There are three ways we can relate to the world in general, and more specifically to our businesses and our own careers. (1) We can seek to control. (2) We can be humble where we accept natural limitations. (3) We can also strive for harmony and balance with nature.
We encourage our clients to work with each of these. They can take responsibility for their lives, follow their dreams, and strive for excellence and advancement — a stance of control which can provide motivation and lead to positive self-fulfilling prophecies. At the same time, they can accept natural limitations of both themselves and their situations. Knowing one’s limits is not always obvious, but humbly accepting them is paradoxically within one’s control. Harmony is learning when to act and when to accept with humility what has occurred.
2. The way we manage time;
There are different cultural orientations to managing time. For example, many executives see time as a scarce resource. An alternative orientation is to view time as plentiful. For the client who sees time as scarce and gets caught in a daily flurry of activities without meaningful actions, we might discuss strategies for opening up opportunities for reflective thought — while at the same time making strategic use of their capacity for high-speed action. By viewing time in a plentiful fashion, the client may paradoxically appreciate the scarcity of time.
3. How we define our identity and purpose;
In defining identity and purpose, it is common for executives to refer to how much they do and achieve — a doing orientation. Another orientation is to stress living itself and the development of talents and relationships — a being orientation. For example, with clients whose preferences are for doing a lot at the expense of productive and meaningful relationships in the workplace, we may encourage them to try new strategies for building trusting, sustainable relationships. Not only can they then do more, but they may also receive the benefits of a richer personal and professional life.
4. The organizational arrangements we favor;
One way people differ on organizational arrangements is in the degree to which they are collaborative or competitive. In competitive cultures, the workplace is often the stage for a contest between individuals or work areas. The aim is to win. In collaborative cultures, the emphasis is more on working together. The European Union is an example of leveraging competition and collaboration. Countries strive to be the best. Governments regularly compare their performances with their neighbors’ to motivate performance – but there is also collaboration. Best practices are exchanged in all areas; science, engineering medicine, and so on.
5. Our notions of territory and boundaries;
In protective cultures, people are keen to protect their physical and mental territory. They like to keep their physical and psychological distance. In sharing cultures, people seek closeness and intimacy and in the workplace they freely discuss personal subjects as well as business matters. Clients who favor a protective approach can be encouraged towards a sharing orientation through greater self-disclosure. This can promote greater protection through establishing network relationships built on trust. The stronger network also builds productivity benefits.
6. The way we communicate;
There are many variations across cultures in how people communicate. For example, US business practice is typified by a direct communication style where the priority is to get one’s point across. In many Asian cultures, an indirect style is favored, where the priority is to maintain a cordial relationship. To leverage the two orientations, I suggest being clear and firm with the content while being careful and sensitive with the form. Some coaches hold bluntness as a virtue and will challenge clients directly as a sign of courage and honesty. This approach may well backfire across cultures. By holding to the substance but being sensitive on the process, coaches can leverage difference for the benefit of the client.
7. Our modes of thinking.
Much recent research has proven that there is a large variation between cultures on modes of thinking. For example, some cultures tend to favor analytical thinking. Analysis breaks a whole into parts and problems are solved through decomposition. In other cultures, systemic thinking is more common. Systemic or “holistic” thinking brings the parts together into a cohesive whole. Emphasis is on connections between the parts and on the entire system.
In the Global Coaching Process, I leverage the two forms for goal setting. Analytically, objectives are broken down into categories of self, family and friend, organization, community and the world. Systemically, interconnections between the categories indicate possible synergies, and the global perspective prevents losing sight of what is truly important.
Coaching from a cultural perspective helps unleash client potential by broadening perspectives and focusing on possibilities. A consideration of culture is a way of injecting additional passion, meaning, and variety into the coaching process by a holistic consideration of clients’ lives. My experience is that coaching from this perspective will help facilitate financial success in business for clients. In addition, when individuals accept the challenge of incorporating the cultural perspective, they take on a shared responsibility for better relationships, teams, organizations, communities, and global societies. The approach of genuinely respecting, valuing, and leveraging of difference is highly infectious. As carriers, our impact as coaches can reach well beyond the lives of our clients to truly make a better world.
This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (Summer Issue 2005, Volume 1, Issue 2).
Philippe Rosinski, Ir, MS, MCC
Philippe Rosinski, Ir, MS, MCC is principal of Rosinski & Company, a global consulting firm that helps leaders, teams, and organizations unleash their human potential to achieve high performance. Philippe has written Coaching Across Cultures (Nicholas Brealey Publishing/Intercultural Press, 2003; http://www.coachingacrosscultures.com). Philippe may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geoffrey Abbott is an executive coach and consultant, and a researcher with the Faculty of Economics and Commerce at the Australian National University. Geoff is currently based in El Salvador, where he is coaching international executives and researching the effectiveness of executive coaching with expatriate managers.