A glass ceiling for Asian managers at Western employers?

The Wall Street Journal has a lengthy article about the lack of Asians in upper management or executive roles at western MNCs in Asia as the top slots are usually still filled with westerner expats.

Traditionally when Western MNCs entered the Asian market, headquarters would send an executive to show local employees how the business should run. However and decades later, not much has changed because the initial leaders have tended to promote employees in their own image and culture, perpetuating a cycle of white, male bosses according to consulting and executive-search firms interviewed by WSJ.

The article then cited a number of interesting statistics, including:

  • Around 40% more Westerners are placed in CEO-type roles in the region compared with other roles.
  • At the top 10 banks globally, only three out of 10 have Asian-Pacific CEOs who are Asian or of Asian descent (and two are co-CEOs).
  • At the top 20 asset-management firms globally, only two CEOs are of Asian descent in the Asian-Pacific region.
  • Compared with the global average, Asian senior managers are younger (38 years old versus 43), have less work experience (16 years versus 22) and have less tenure with their current employer (eight years versus 10).

However and according to one headhunter, part of the problem might be that locals are “hired for execution: delivering a growth plan, tactics, sales” and there is an incentive to save coveted Asian-Pacific slots for ambitious executives from elsewhere in the company because “experience in these markets is crucial preparation for future top leadership.” In addition, executive-search firms told the WSJ that their clients would “leap at the chance” to hire locally, but few firms are taking steps to develop and groom that local talent.

This is a real problem because the time to productivity for western expats can be slow if they lack company or market knowledge with one consultant pointing out that:

“…understanding consumer needs, trends, purchasing power, brand positioning—not just for luxury brands, and not just in Tier 1 cities—is becoming increasingly important. To fill those needs, multinationals have to shift their hiring practices to [local] talent who really understand these markets.”

With that in mind, the article’s comments section is also worth reading as some readers pointed out the same situation at Asian MNCs operating in the West plus one reader wrote:

A major drawback to grooming and then placing a local Asian in a leadership role is that he/she becomes a prime recruitment target for competitors; both Asian and foreign.

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