Diversity in Leadership: Bin Wolfe - Managing Partner, Talent, Asia Pacific at EY

Bin Wolfe is the new co-chair of Asia Society’s Global Talent and Diversity Council Asia Committee, which identifies challenges and shares best practices for attracting, developing and retaining talent in Asia. The committee will promote and showcase leading practices and talent solutions to the Asian marketplace. Today she talks about her personal career and the importance of sponsorship for high performing Asian talent in multinational corporations—particularly in Asia.

Sitting at my desk in Shanghai, I can look out into the city and see the excitement in the busy construction sites and bustling streets. Asia is the place to be. Last year, China alone exported more in six hours than all of 1978. Emerging markets last year accounted for over 50% of world GDP, from less than one-third in the 1980s. Cross-border trade flows have risen fivefold in the last 20 years. Multinational corporations (MNCs) who want to capture that growth need strong business leaders with a global mindset and local knowledge in these expanding markets.

Leader sponsorship of up-and-coming talent is a critical part of succession planning in all global organizations, but when it comes to Asia, there are nuances that executive sponsors would do well to consider. Developing Asian protégés often require additional and differentiated effort from sponsors to make these relationships work.

Can You See the Talent?

Even the first step of identifying strategic talent in Asian markets may require sponsors to dig deeper than they may initially expect. The individualist culture values the “go-getters” -- the people who want to stand out, express ambition and show competitiveness, but in the collectivist cultures we see in Asia, modesty is a virtue. It’s a mindset captured in a Chinese proverb that says, “The shot hits the bird that sticks its head out.”

Even those who privately aspire to leadership roles are unlikely to be seen raising their profile or asking for promotional opportunities. It would be considered poor taste. That shouldn’t be taken at face value: there is often an implicit expectation in Asia that strong performance will result in being tapped on the shoulder for promotions and rewards.

When I reflect on my 24 year career, most of it in the U.S., I would never have made it to where I am without great sponsorship. I was fortunate enough that a few key individuals looked beyond my apparent reticence to convince me of my own potential and to insist that I take on something new and bigger than what I was doing. Their willingness to take a risk to promote me was a real vote of confidence.

“You can do it” from a senior executive carries incredible weight for those of us who grew up in a hierarchical culture.

Often, Asian education systems, and to a lesser extent, Asian business cultures, emphasize technical excellence over skills in presentation or communication. While many Western professionals can make a great impression with a confident presentation style, the reverse is also true. Many Asian executives with extensive experience and deep knowledge may appear less competent if judged by how they speak in front of a large group. That impression is compounded when they are expected to deliver in a second or third language.

There’s no question that English language and presentation skills are critical for global leaders. But if that is one of the first hurdles for screening and identifying potential future leaders, MNCs risk missing out on a wide pool of talent in Asia. Instead, if we consider these skills as something that could be built into the leadership development experience over time, MNCs will no longer be fighting the so-called “war for talent” in Asia with one hand tied behind their backs.

Is Failure an Option?

Having come back from the U.S. to work in Asia seven years ago, one key difference I see is how people relate to the concept of personal risk. As much as many Asian executives may aspire to higher professional achievements, one question lingers: “What if I fail?” Western business cultures reward risk, creativity, innovation, and even failure. In Asia, failure is more likely to be associated with shame and disgrace than a learning experience. Many people choose to work for large organizations because they value stability and a steady and predictable progression of their careers. The notion of taking risks in one’s career is often seen as too high a gamble to make.
EY Greater China Global NextGen 2014 Group
Photo: EY Greater China Global NextGen 2014 Group

Sell a Clear Vision

So if having strong local Asian leaders is a business imperative, what does it take for a sponsor to find and develop the right talent?

Firstly, sponsors may have to be proactive in convincing protégés of their own potential and building their confidence to move out of the comfort zone. Even after living in the US for years, for me, hearing, “You’re better than you give yourself credit for,” was a powerful message that pushed me to take on career challenges I would not have pursued otherwise. On two separate occasions when I was asked to take on a more senior leadership role, I said “no” numerous times. My sponsors were persistent in their efforts to help me see myself in these roles I hadn’t considered. It took time to convince me that I had the right skills, experience and strategic thinking to succeed, and that they were personally invested in my success. Coming from hierarchical societies, people place a lot of value on what their sponsor thinks, so it is important for sponsors to be very explicit in providing encouragement, and sometimes, not taking “no” for an answer.

Secondly, sponsors should consider carefully how they can also help manage the sense of risk for an Asian protégé. Map out a clear career path or a menu of career options and “fall back” plans. They must be specific about what support they will provide, especially what protection they will give a protégé when it comes to making mistakes. In one case, my sponsor told me: “If this doesn’t work out, I will personally get you out of this situation.” At that moment, I realized it wasn’t just me who was taking a risk; he was also taking a personal risk by appointing me in that role. It was reassuring.

Thirdly, sponsors should help protégés build a professional “safety net” of relationships with executives across the global organization. It can be doubly daunting for a young Asian professional to step into the proverbial spotlight of a sponsorship when there are few Asian faces in global leadership roles today. The burden of having to succeed and be an example for others while feeling culturally isolated can be overwhelming. In this regard, sponsors may consider working with the organization to provide Asian talent with access to a broad network of mentors and advocates at senior levels. I have seen some successful programs in my own organization (see sidebar).

Ultimately, these dimensions of the sponsor/protégé relationship must be built on a sense of mutual trust. This takes time, especially in Asia where relationship building is more about the art of taking the journey together. Global leadership teams need to start today to look for future leaders several ranks down and start developing those relationships early. The investment of time and opportunities for high potentials to gain critical skills to be effective leaders on a global platform and to reinforce local relationships, values and business practices, will produce leaders who have flexibility to lead in different contexts. That is what will keep global organizations relevant in these rapid growth markets for years to come.
‘The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global Ernst & Young organization or its member firms.’

Beyond sponsorship: leadership development by organizations

Sponsorship is centered on a one-to-one relationship between an experienced leader and a protégé. Organizations can support those relationships with leadership development programs that support diverse talent pools. At EY, there are a number of examples:
EY Unplugged – This is a mentoring and networking program in the U.S. for incoming Asian professionals to shed some light on the “unwritten rules” about what it takes to be successful at EY. The program includes a webcast which features EY Asian partners and senior managers who share their stories about the challenges faced and successes achieved on their way to the executive ranks. Several hundred participants view the webcast together in group settings, and then engage in interactive table discussions moderated by EY Asian executives and colleagues.
Career Mentors and Sponsors – This U.S. program focuses on filling the executive pipeline with diverse talent, with a focus on high-performing women and people from ethnic minority groups. With equitable access to mentoring, sponsorship, and game-changing career assignments and experiences, individuals are better prepared for promotions to the partner, principal, and executive director ranks.
Global NextGen – For this two-year partner pipeline development program, steps are embedded in the nominations process to prevent gender and cultural bias. Participants are given opportunities to build their profile with leadership, expand their networks and demonstrate their capabilities through a series of business challenges.