Sep 5, 2015

Interview with Hospira Asia and Japan Regional HR Director John Crawford - Part Two: being a culturally-sensitive leader...

In Part Two, John shared with me the two extremes of “culturally-sensitive” leader, and how to correct the common misbelief about what truly motivate local employees as well as break the hierarchy and create a fair working environment to release their full potential.

Jing Yan: What are the most needed leadership skills in China?

John Crawford:

Investing time

It has been a very interesting journey for me both being a leader and being a leader in Asia. As a manager, one needs to do more leading, less managing. Leave the details to your team, once the scope of a job or project is explained, leaving it them, to the people who do it to focus on the details, helping grow their resilience. To successfully do this you need to invest time, if you don’t invest that quality time, you won’t get the return you desire. Too many managers don’t invest real time and effort with their team members, to share, to discuss, to coach, to educate. China has moved so fast in the last thirty years, everybody wants fast results.

“Do this, get this done, this one doesn’t work, I want a new person, this one is no good, I had investment, I want results.” These tactics are doomed to high turnover and unsustainable results over the long term. In order to grow engagement, managers must invest time in their employees, and that’ means coaching, directing, training and supporting... connecting with people and they really have to do it themselves, this is something leaders cannot afford to outsource. And, if they put in that investment, they will get so much more back in the way of returns.

Do this, get this done, this one doesn’t work, I want a new person, this one is no good, I had investment, I want results.” These tactics are doomed...


When you lack fundamental social skills for many years, it’s really hard for people to test those things out. Chinese people are learning those things very late in life and it’s difficult, therefore we need more patience and understanding. I have been running coaching sessions for managers within each of the 3 companies I have worked for in China. One method we use is live role plays. I will give them the general story, and an experienced person will act the role. Their job is to say what went wrong. Initially giving them a basic coaching structure to follow, we listen to their feedback and write it down, have a discussion and facilitate some good information, and then we take out those things they disliked and we will do it again. 

Afterwards, we put those positive things they said into practice, and see what happens. They see the result, like an aha moment. They clearly see what bad and good looks like, which gives them confidence to try the role plays for themselves. It works really well. Coaching is the most important leadership style among directing, supporting and delegating. Too many managers want to be direct all the time, go to the short cut, to tell, even abdicate responsibility. For some employees, if they don’t have any knowledge in what to do, YES they need to be told in detail. But when they have the knowledge and experience of doing it well, why do managers still need to tell them in so much detail what is required? Coaching is a skill that takes time to learn, time to perfect, and time to implement. It gets incredible results though.

A Personal contract

So it is really an investment in 1 to 1 time. You can have team parties, you can go bowling, you can have New Year celebrations, you can give them bonuses, but nothing beats a great manager who treats employees with respect, gives responsibility and accountability, rewards successes, AND shoulders some responsibility when mistakes are made too. When I hire people, I want them to know that they sign the contract with the company, but we also have a contract between us. I’m hiring them to come to help me to deliver a service. So I need their skills and expertise. I am going help them to help this company. In return for that, I am going guide them and their career. So there is a contract between them and me as well.

What do you think would make culturally sensitive leader, especially in large MNCs?

Two extremes

There are two ends of the scale. On one side, a foreign manager can get very agitated and demanding, completely lack respect for local employees and culture and make them feel very uncomfortable, both lose face and often this ends in failure.

On the other side, a foreign manager who almost goes like a native, so culturally sensitive they immerse too deeply in local customs or practices. They end up allowing or turning a blind-eye to some of the practices that are prevalent and which are ‘ok’ in this environment, but they are not ok to the MNC’s or international laws. So you’ve got someone who is completely anti-Asian and they fight that every day, and on the other, someone who goes completely native and can’t be trusted. None of these are recommended or sustainable.

Learn to Understand First

A really great culturally sensitive manager knows how to understand what motivates locals both organizationally and individually, knows and looks at how they can tailor to each to provide sufficient motivation without going either extreme.

Pushing back

Also, being a culturally sensitive leader, they sometimes need to push back to ‘corporate’: “Hey, hang on a minute guys we need to do something differently here and this is what we need to do.” but in a way that does not give the impression of turning native…So locally they should push to challenge the locals to be more courageous and resilient, to learn more, to be independent AND they will also help the local employees by being a bit of a barrier to the sometimes unnecessary force from corporate multinational companies who think they can transfer this program from this western region directly to Asia. 

Culturally sensitive managers need to be able to manage both sides, to make sure the balance is right and that’s not easy.

So a sensitive leader needs to be able to listen, ask the right questions, understand what motivates both sides, and what de-motivates, and not to be afraid to challenge those cultural norms. Culturally sensitive managers need to be able to manage both sides, to make sure the balance is right and that’s not easy.

You talked about motivating the local employees, many foreign managers here are quite confused about that, they said it is very difficult to motivate the Chinese employees. What’s your take on that?

Find out don’t assume or believe everything you hear. And the only way to find out is to ask! So many companies and leaders assume they know what motivates, “the Chinese want money, nothing else…they like to go on a day trip somewhere… they like to go to karaoke bar”…The Chinese people are motivated by the same things the western people are motivated by. They are motivated by security first, (see Maslow’s hierarchy), people want shelter over their head, food to eat, clothes to wear, and this is the basic need of every human being. And then they want some social status, recognition, they want to be recognized in what they do.

Maybe it is a little bit title oriented and slightly more exaggerated here because hierarchy in culturally still relatively new, but actually people do want that social status and they want to grow too. So talk to people and ask: “What motivates you? What would motivate you to stay? What motivates you that make it really worth staying? Is it education? a defined career path and development plan? is it more care for your family? is it cash? is it a mixture of those things?” So it is really about getting them to tell you what motivates them, getting them to make the decision and eventually own it.

Surveying out

Engagement surveys. Don’t do it if you are not going to do anything about it! If you just want to know what people are happy with, it is not a good tool, because people won’t be happy unless there’s something you will seek to improve. If you do a survey, you raise expectations; people think: “I’ve been given a chance, I will be listened to.” But if no communication or action is taken at the end it will make people even more disengaged than before.

What we have done in the past after the survey is completed and results communicated is to get people together from all departments of the organization, covering different topics, Ask: “Right, what does this mean?” We are all responsible for the culture of this organization, so what we want to do together? What is achievable? Whether it is access to training and learning, access to better working conditions, some sort of social plan, knowing that people are valued, a fairer bonus or performance management system? Critically what will the employees own; it’s not all down to ‘management’ to solve all the issues. It’s about taking collective responsibilities and action not having a complaining session.

Planning out

For motivating the masses, apart from having great managers, clear and fair HR processes, then focus groups are good and leaders are assigned from within to determine by democratic and fair means, what the company ‘social budget’ gets spent on. Then they own it and improve on it...that’s engagement.

How you create a competitive yet fair environment for all people in the organization?

Earned Bonus

In one of my companies in the Japan office, we realized that our sales team were being incentivized (bonus) by age, so the older they were the more bonuses they got, regardless of what they did for the job. So the younger guys who were working really hard got much less bonus for their efforts and saw it given to their ‘elders’.We changed that immediately. How you change that is quite challenging, because you are changing cultural norms and taking away some benefit those people have enjoyed for a long time.But in my opinion MNC’s have been too soft on Japanese work cultures, stay in the law of course but be stronger challenging the status quo.

There’s also often a misconception among Asian employees that the company staff (non sales employees) bonus is guaranteed, no matter what they did to earn it. But life in most MNC’s it is not like that and most schemes are performance dependent. For performing your job as expected to the right get paid your salary! A bonus should only be offered when both the company exceeds its performance targets and you as an individual have supported that and or go above and beyond what is normally expected. Otherwise it ceases to be a motivating bonus. The people who got it for doing very little are no more motivated to work harder next year…why should they?…they get paid out anyway. And the employees who worked extra hard see their bonus diluted to pay those others who did not, so the chances are they too will think there is no point working hard around here…

There’s also often a misconception among Asian employees that the company staff (non sales employees) bonus is guaranteed, no matter what they did to earn it.

Forward looking

Performance management all needs to be forward looking not retrospective. If managers are not good at setting good, clear, achievable objectives that are regularly monitored and regular feedback given, it is difficult to justify at the end how your apportion a performance rating. There are too many performance management systems that look backwards from year end. That’s doomed to fail. People need to get regular and periodically documented feedback on their performance and in that way you can give people a clearer picture of the target, the field of play and standards you have set. Then ensure they have the right knowledge levels and motivation level and let them go!

End of the interview.