One of the aims of the Japan Institute of Workers’ Evolution (JIWE) is to contribute to the industrial development of Japan by promoting opportunities for female workers to make full use of their vocational abilities and skills.
“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.
Business coaching, like much else in South Africa, was isolated from mainstream professional development due to international restrictions during the years of apartheid. Thus, it is only in about the last five years that coaching has sprung to prominence in South Africa.
However, as might be expected, many of the problems and inequalities from the past remain. In 1994, South Africa held its first democratic presidential election. Although Nelson Mandela—after 27 years of imprisonment—became president, the demographic imbalances created by 50 years of dictatorial white supremacy still hang heavily on the country. In this context, coaching in South Africa faces daunting challenges. At the same time, coaches have unique opportunities to significantly engage and intervene in the on-going process of transforming the country from a racial tyranny into a free, open and democratic society.
South Africa is a land of enormous diversity. Of the 11 official languages, the main ones include English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana and Sotho. The variety of languages reflects the country’s wide ethnic and cultural differences. Language can also represent a minefield of cultural and power politics, since it was used in the past to promote minority racial groups and suppress the majority. The white population, who are still the main beneficiaries of coaching, tend to be monolingual, or, at best, bilingual (English and Afrikaans). Africans, on the other hand, commonly speak not only English, but several African languages as well. The choice of language in professional settings is often viewed as a reflection of past power dynamics, and must be negotiated with sensitivity and tact.
In a country in which racial differences were the main driving force of daily life for so many years, it is inevitable that color still plays a major role in public discourse and personal sense of identity. This is a potent issue to which coaches must be highly sensitive, and they must learn to navigate these delicate waters with flexibility and skill.
Coaches in the developed world would probably be startled to discover how often, both in private conversation and in public debate, the issue of color predominates. The main identifiers are obviously “white” and “black.” But in South Africa, there is a third category, defined by a term that western societies would regard as offensive or unacceptable. “Colored” refers to mixed-race individuals, most of whom so define themselves. They are predominantly Afrikaans-speaking. These racialized categories are a source of personal, educational and business friction and misunderstandings. Thus, for coaches, there are minefields to negotiate when dealing with either personal or professional issues.
For me personally, this represents an unusual opportunity to be part of the changing landscape in a fledgling democracy. In other more privileged and wealthier societies, the coach probably does not encounter such raw personal hurts and structural imbalances; here, open and frank discussion is gradually dismantling them. In this sense, it is an exciting time to be a coach in South Africa, working with individuals and leaders at the cutting edge of this crucial transformation.
Multicultural and diversity issues
Difference—of gender, race, culture, language and education—creates huge challenges in any workplace. Emerging from its traumatically divisive past, South Africa is in the early stages of trying to work with these complexities and its own unique burden of history.
As currently practiced, coaching is viewed as a privilege far beyond the hopes of all but an elite few. This presents an ethical dilemma. Previously privileged executives are still the ones who benefit from all that coaching offers. The irony is that many who would also benefit are working in the same organizations, but as “previously disadvantaged” (i.e., black men and women), they may not yet qualify for coaching. Often they are not employed in sufficiently senior executive positions to qualify; with coaching they might be.
In South Africa, most organizations remain subject to male culture and assumptions. Corporate culture continues to be dominated by white male norms, language and behavior. Although women have made serious inroads through the glass ceiling and into the boardroom, most South African organizations still reflect the culture and values of a male point of view. Women face complex and difficult challenges in the workplace.
Ironically, one place where women are beginning to feel equality is in South Africa’s parliament, which is predominantly black and 50% female. However, women still face disempowering behavior and stereotypes from both female and male colleagues at work, regardless of their occupational field.
Research and development
Important academic research is underway in South Africa. A growing number of masters and doctoral students have recently completed, or are in the process of completing, current market research projects, and their papers are circulating worldwide.
Some of the difficulties in the marketplace stem from the lack of enough qualified, certified coaches to service the needs of small, medium and large organizations. Purchasers of coaching services demand measurable results, value for money, recognized accreditation, sustainable ethics, standards, and continuing professional development.
One development is the creation of the Coaches and Mentors Association (COMENSA), whose mission is to create an umbrella association in South Africa to provide for the regulation of local coaching, to develop the credibility and awareness of coaching as a profession, and to promote the effective empowerment of individual and organizational clients. One of the roles of COMENSA has been to build relationships and alliances between purchasers and providers of coaching services. This has encouraged collaboration across many different functional areas, such as the training and development of professional coaches.
A second area of development is inside organizations. Companies such as Standard Bank, Old Mutual, Woolworths, Netcare and Pick ‘n Pay are in the process of creating their own standards and competencies to regulate the hiring of external coaches, ensuring their alignment with the specific ethics, standards and competencies of those organizations. These corporate bodies are also beginning to investigate the possibility of developing their own internal coaches.
A final development is the collaboration among business coaches themselves, who are forming alliances to offer coaching services to corporate executives and their teams.
Coach training and certification
Two key issues in South Africa today are the dearth of black coaches, plus a lingering perception that coaching is “exclusive” (i.e., not dissimilar to South Africa’s recent history under apartheid). On the other hand, there is a new range of quality coach training programs, both commercial and academic, which are often influenced or supported by international coach training programs. However, because the young, aspiring black managers are busy gaining their years of experience in the business world, many are not yet ready to step into the position of executive or business coach. They want to build their competence, expertise and credibility before tackling the task of coaching other aspirant leaders.
Another issue which has surfaced—and one of the underlying reasons for setting up an organization for coaches and mentors—is that any new profession attracts mavericks as well as pioneers. With the development of coaching as an identifiable, legitimate profession in South Africa, and with international support and pressure, some of the problems of unregulated and untrained coaches will begin to recede.
Challenges coaches face today
In South Africa four types of coaching have emerged: executive coaching, providing one-on-one services to leaders or senior management within organizations, entrepreneurial coaching, one-on-one coaching for entrepreneurs building their own businesses, management coaching as the primary way for managers to develop people and achieve results, and life coaching to support individuals wishing to make significant changes in their careers or personal lives.
The key challenge remains overcoming the legacy of apartheid. With such a diverse work force—in terms of language, race, culture and history—we still do not have enough black coaches working at senior management levels. Due to the country’s destructive history, this is only the second generation of skilled and “in demand” black business leaders. First generation business leaders were often forged in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Looking to the future
Business coaching in South Africa has a positive and powerful future. That bright future is attributable to the explosion of coaching inside organizations, the development of coach training programs, the inclusive, democratic process of COMENSA’s creation of ethical codes and standards of competence, the development of a supervisory framework, the collaboration of executive coaches, and the benefits of international partnership.
The coaching profession is still in its formative stages in South Africa, in the process of becoming a profession in its own right. Over the next few years, we will see increased regulation of coaches, with a demand for qualifications, specific standards and ethics, and recognized certification. There is an exponential explosion of coach training within the country, both academic and commercial/corporate.
Coaching is the trend of the moment. If it continues to develop at its current rate, conforming to internationally accepted standards, coaching will make a significant difference in helping to develop individuals, executives, their teams and their organizations. It will usher South Africa into the future with the very best of inclusive and transformational business practices.
This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (Summer Issue 2006, Volume 2, Issue 2).
Sunny Stout Rostron, MA
Sunny Stout Rostron, MA, is an executive coach and the author of six books, including Accelerating Performance, Powerful Techniques to Develop People (2002). She is one of the founding members of the Coaches and Mentors of South Africa (COMENSA).