International banks in Asia may be talking a good game about hiring more local staff, but in their upper and middle echelons you will still find plenty of Western (mainly white, mainly male) expats.
Within the top-10 banks globally, only three have Asia-Pacific CEOs who are Asian or of Asian descent, according to a report from headhunters Heidrick & Struggles quoted in The Wall Street Journal. Below the C-suite, recruiters in Asia say expats are still being recruited for managerial roles, even as their ranks shrink at a junior level.
If an expat is suddenly parachuted in from the likes of London or New York to “shake up” your team, here’s how you can still survive and thrive.
1) Begin by breaking the ice
Ask HR to organise a round-table meeting so the new boss and the team can get to know each other, said Lynda Aurora, an executive coach at the consultancy Plus Partnership in Hong Kong. The manager will share their background, management style, performance expectations and understanding of team issues, while employees will discuss career aspirations, current challenges, and what they expect from the manager, she added. “Then there’s a Q&A – this can establish a strong start to the new team dynamic.”
2) Work out their weak spots
This is not so you can bring them down; it’s so you can support them where they most need it, said Stuart Fox, a former MD at UBS who has worked in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore and now runs Sydney investment boutique Artesian Venture Partners. The potential upside for your career? “As an expat, they are unlikely to last forever – if they get promoted to global role and have respect for your work, you stand a good chance of a regional promotion,” Fox added.
3) Socialise with them
Expats in Asia are renowned for their love of after-work drinks, so going to the pub with them is a good first step in building your relationship. “When I was working at HSBC in Hong Kong one of the things I enjoyed most was when members of my team invited me to play football in their local neighbourhood,” said Michael Jones, an ex-HSBC banker and head of risk hubs at ANZ, who is now a director at Melbourne-based consultancy Connected Analytics.
4) Take on new tasks without a new title
Employees in Asia often wait for a promotion and new job title before assuming new responsibilities, said Henry Chamberlain, director of Henry Chamberlain Consulting in Hong Kong and a former group head of selection at Standard Chartered. “Westerners may be unaware of (and even averse to) the importance attached to titles in Asia,” he added. “And they may expect you to spontaneously take on tasks with minimal instructions. So don’t wait until you have the title; come up with your own ideas.”
5) Extend your explanations
“Chinese people tend to be high-context people, so a few words can carry a lot of information. By contrast, Westerners often say everything explicitly,” Chamberlain said. “So local staff need to make sure they communicate more comprehensively to get their message conveyed clearly to the expat manager.”
6) Know when to say no
Hong Kong professionals tend to shy away from confrontation and saying “no”, in order to avoid embarrassing the other person, said Bill Brooks, a management consultant at IT consultancy Command Hub in Hong Kong. “But when dealing with an expat, the local employee should learn to say what they think without thought for the manager’s feelings,” he added. “Dealing honesty with the facts will engender trust into the relationship.”
7) Help them tweak their hours
A new expat may be accustomed to arriving early at work and leaving by 6pm, Brooks said. In Hong Kong, by contrast, it’s unusual to start before 9am and people tend to finish well after 7pm. “These changes of working hours are a challenge for the new expat manager, so it’s a challenge for local staff to help them understand local work practices, assisting in making the transition as easy as possible,” he added.
8) Practice patience
Your new boss may have been brought in to make drastic changes, but improvements are unlikely to show straight away. “Don’t expect them to understand everything from the outset, like your last manager who was with the company for five years,” said Ben Batten, country general manager at recruiters Volt in Singapore. “It’s important to give them time to settle in, and not write them off early. You should also be conscious that they are probably looking for a new house, and potentially awaiting their personal effects to arrive,” he added.
9) Lend your local knowledge
Share your local tips – and don’t confine them to professional advice. “In Singapore, this could be where the best chicken rice meal is, or the best place to get a taxi,” Batten said. “Most importantly, if you see your boss having difficulty communicating, offer tips on what may work better. I remember one of my first hires in Singapore doing just that, and it had major positive impact on my working experience.”
10) Prepare to face some flak
Local employees in Hong Kong tend to take directions without question, but Western managers expect to be challenged, said Aurora from Plus Partnership. “Unless you speak up and share your opinions, you will not be noticed and may be seen as lacking ambition,” Chamberlain added. “Conversely, don’t be sensitive to criticism from your manager. Know that Westerners generally speak their minds and they don’t necessarily mean it personally.”