But you will still find a few Westerners in their upper echelons. And the start of the year is when new foreign managers are typically parachuted into Asia. If an expat has suddenly arrived to head up your team, here’s how to get on their right side.
This is not so you can bring them down; it’s so you can support them where they most need it, says Stuart Fox, a former MD at UBS who's worked in Hong Kong and Singapore and now runs investment boutique Artesian Venture Partners. The potential upside for your career? “As an expat, they're unlikely to last forever – if they get promoted to a global role and have respect for your work, you stand a good chance of a regional promotion.”
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. But it’s not the only one. “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,” says Michael Jones, ex-HSBC banker and head of risk hubs at ANZ, who's now a director at consultancy Connected Analytics.
Finance professionals in Asia often wait for a promotion and new job title before assuming new responsibilities, says Henry Chamberlain, a consultant and former group head of selection at Standard Chartered. “Westerners may be unaware of – and even averse to – the importance attached to titles in Asia. And they may expect you to spontaneously take on tasks. So don’t wait until you have the title; come up with your own ideas.”
“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,” says Chamberlain. “So local staff need to make sure they communicate more comprehensively to get their message conveyed clearly to the expat manager.”
Hong Kong banking professionals tend to shy away from confrontation and saying ‘no’, in order to avoid embarrassing the other person, says Bill Brooks, a Hong Kong-based management consultant. “But when dealing with an expat, the local employee should learn to say what they think without thought for the manager’s feelings. Dealing honesty with the facts will engender trust.”
A new expat may be used to arriving early at work and leaving by 6pm, says Brooks. 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 local staff should help make the transition as easy as possible.”
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,” says 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're probably looking for a new house, and waiting for their personal effects to arrive.”
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,” says Batten. “Most importantly, if you see your boss having difficulty communicating, offer tips on what may work better.”
Local employees in Hong Kong sometimes take directions without question, but Western managers often expect to be challenged. “Unless you speak up and share your opinions, you won’t be noticed and may be seen as lacking ambition,” says Chamberlain. “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.”
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