Leverage middle management to drive transformation in Asia
Reading Time 9 mins
According to the World Economic Forum, the GDP of countries in Asia is now larger than the rest of the world’s economies combined. With Asia in the economic spotlight, much emphasis has been placed on how Asian organisations evolve and become ready to play a bigger role on the global business stage.
Leaders in Asian organisations are keen to drive organisational transformations to better compete on the global arena. Unfortunately, such transformations are often unsuccessful as they lack support within the organisation and are unable to gain traction. Another reason is that generic change management methodologies are adopted, which have not been adapted to suit the nuances of work and leadership styles in Asian cultures. In particular, what is often omitted is the importance of the role and function of middle management in supporting the transformation journey.
In this group discussion led by Boon Phua, Senior Consultant at Gobeyond Partners, we explore how such missteps can be avoided, and how C-suite management in Asian organisations can leverage their middle management to help drive organisational transformations.
Participants from Gobeyond Partners:
- Beulah Selvaraj – Managing Consultant
- Jas Ghuman – Managing Consultant
- Nathalie Choi – Principal Consultant
- Boon Phua – Senior Consultant and Host
The evolution of organisations in Asia
Boon: We have been actively working in Asia over the past decade; what are some of the common observations you found when running transformation programmes in the region?
Nathalie: First of all, we need to be mindful and avoid generalising Asia as a single entity, especially when it consists of over 50 different countries covering a wide geographic range. There are diverse cultures and significant differences in economic maturity across Asia. As such, it is important to be aware of the diversity and adapt our approach when driving transformation programmes in Asia.
Beulah: There are two main things we observed. Firstly, many organisations acknowledge the need to create change through transformation programmes, but they often lack an integrated approach. They tend to focus singularly on process improvement, operating model redesign or technology, and lack emphasis on people. The directive is often top down, and staff often do not understand nor agree with the transformation agenda.
Jas: From our experience, the importance of getting front line staff and middle management onboard cannot be underestimated. Having employees engaged and committed towards transformation often creates a bigger impact with more sustainable results.
"It's important to be aware of the diversity and adapt our approach when driving transformation programmes in Asia."Nathalie Choi
The differences in leadership viewpoints between Asian and Western environments
Boon: Speaking of leadership, from your experience working with clients in Asia, how do you see the differences in view of leadership between Asian and Western countries?
Jas: I find there are lots of similarities, but also some differences.
No matter the location, there are certain qualities employees tend to search for from their leaders. For example, being visionary and inspirational - leaders with those qualities are generally easier to influence their employees. Authentic and self-aware leaders often find it easier to motivate, earn respect and collaborate with their employees.
As mentioned, employees in Asian and Western countries have some fundamental differences when searching for desirable leaders. For example, Asian leadership tends to value humility and deference to authority, whereas Western leadership centres on leaders being more dictatorial and charismatic. Other aspects that differ include the way Asians communicate and network, which can be viewed as less assertive and direct, though equally important in getting the message across and the job done.
Boon: Having said that, I observed there is a change in both the perception and demonstration of leadership with the rise of a younger generation of senior and middle management who have benefited from globalisation.
Nathalie: Yes, I agree. From discussions I have had with different levels of managements in Asia, we found that the younger generation demonstrate quite a different leadership style compared to the stereotype of that in Asia. We believe this is mainly because the younger generation has been cultivated in both Western and Asian educations, environments, and information. They adopt traits from the Western leadership style, while adapting to the culture and value needed in Asian environment.
As such, when engaging this segment, we cannot base ourselves solely on experiences and success of the West. Due to cultural differences, leading in Asia requires different behaviours, skills, knowledge, and abilities.
"From our experience, the importance of getting front line staff and middle management onboard cannot be underestimated."Jas Ghuman
The importance of middle management to organisations
Beulah: When talking about management and leadership, many people tend to just think about senior management. However, in my experience, middle management plays a crucial role in ensuring a successful transformation programme, regardless in Asian or in Western environments. Different from their peers in senior positions, managers in the middle management act to bridge the gap between top management and employees on both management and communication levels. Additionally, as they work directly with operational employees, middle management can drive changes and address employees’ concerns more directly and effectively.
Boon: How do you see this from an Asian context?
Jas: Middle management often have a greater impact in driving employee performance than top management due to their unique role which you mentioned. This role is challenging because middle management needs to manage both upwards, downwards and cope with normal business operations. This is particularly exacerbated by Covid-19 and virtual environment.
Beulah: While motivated managers can help to drive organisational transformation and be an active catalyst for change or improvement, conversely there is a considerable risk of them:
- burning out before transformation occurs,
- them being the main resistance to change
Hence, they need to be carefully managed and empowered.
Empowering middle management
Boon: Given their importance, what do you think an organisation can do to empower middle management in Asia to drive transformations?
Nathalie: We found things break down for two reasons:
- an organisation does not train its people in how to lead (managers, not leaders),
- the focus of senior leadership is not aligned with the people below them
Therefore, it is important to do the right things. Organisations need to understand the motivations of middle management and distinguish whether they are People Managers, or Knowledge Managers. Difference between these two types of managers is their core duty – People Managers, as the name suggests, focus on managing staff members and ensuring operations run seamlessly, whereas Knowledge Managers focus on solving technical problems and retaining or sharing knowledge to a wider audience. These two roles are both considered middle management but have some fundamental differences. Their motivation, therefore, can be different and so are the approaches to empowering and developing them.
More organisations are now aware of these differences, and thus provide different development programmes to hone middle management’s leadership and stakeholder management skills. This usually achieves limited level of success. We observed that such stakeholder management programmes often focus on managing downward stakeholders. What we find to be equally important and often lacking is the ability to influence upward stakeholders as well. By providing middle management with well-rounded stakeholder management skills, it helps amplify the essentiality of middle management role and function within the transformation programme. This helps them become effective bridges that can help communicate and realise the ideas of top management into actions with the operations team.
"Different from their peers in senior positions, managers in the middle management act to bridge the gap between top management and employees on both management and communication levels."Beulah Selvaraj
Boon: With this understanding of the motivations of Asian leaders, how can organisations engage them to drive change?
Beulah: Communication is essential, but the execution is key. For example, we found that one-to-one chats or small group discussions are highly effective in an Asian context as they provide a more personal touch. Compared to large settings such as townhalls, this approach helps strengthen relationships and allows middle management to provide feedback in a safe environment.
In addition, we should provide middle management with the support to drive change – through assurance from top management that they are behind the transformation, and welcome change drivers from within.
Nathalie: Asian managers have the advantage of considerable experience working in collectivist organisational cultures, which emphasise the value of mutual, cooperative relationships. And it is these experiences that can contribute to the leadership competence and development of Asian managers.
Jas: Leaders who can find their own ways to use executive practices from other cultures will have the best chance of being winners wherever in the world they operate. They will certainly be better positioned to capitalise on the growth that is happening in Asia.
The benefits of leveraging middle management to help drive transformations
Boon: In conclusion, there are lots of benefits for organisations to have an empowered middle management in the transformation programme.
Jas: Through empowerment using the right support tools and techniques, operations can usually generate efficiency improvements. We have undertaken several projects working with teams across different Asian locations, focusing on using data-driven and systematic approaches to develop and upskill the middle management, especially on their leadership and people management skills. We consistently achieved around 15 to 20% capacity creation within 8 to 12 weeks. Our approach and techniques are highly sustainable and transferrable for managers who participated in the programme, even if they move on to a different role.
Beulah: Aside from these quantitative benefits, we consistently observe qualitative benefits from our previous transformation programmes, such as:
- having better sense of belonging on an employee level
- improving morale and employee tenure
- building a continuous improvement environment on operation level
- identifying potential future leaders at a business level.
Building upon and leveraging the lessons learnt above, the next article in our series will touch on how to run and implement successful transformation programmes in Asia.
Interested in learning more? Take a look at the first article in our series, Empower your people: the key to successful change delivery