Tackling the war for talent in Asia

Friday, 17 June 2011 00:58 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In Sri Lanka to conduct the first ever ‘Global Leadership Programme’ organised by the ICASL Business School in collaboration with INSEAD, one of the largest graduate business schools in Europe, renowned leadership guru, the Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Programme Director of the four-day summit, Professor Thomas Mannarelli, speaking to the Daily FT expanded on his views of growth in Asia, INSEAD’s role and described his own beginnings at the business school and his experiences within Asia. Specialised in issues related to creativity, innovation and leadership in organisations, Mannarelli has provided consulting for organisations around the world including Standard Chartered Bank, Siam Cement Group, Glaxo-Smith Kline, Shell, Nissan, Philip Morris, Etisalat, Pernod-Ricard, Pictet, Visa, Singtel, Adidas and IBM to name a few. Following are excerpts from the interview:

By Cassandra Mascarenhas


INSEAD Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Programme Director of the four-day summit Professor Thomas Mannarelli – Pic by Upul Abayasekara

Q: Could you tell me about INSEAD’s history and why it decided to open up a campus in Singapore specifically?

A: INSEAD is an international business school with its history in France and it’s based in Europe. The idea at the time when it was founded over 50 years ago was to build a business school perhaps modelled off some of the business schools that were emerging in the United States at the time, to build one for Europe and over the years, the school evolved to be less of a European school and more of a global school.

There were several researchers working there who were very interested in Asia at the time so they started what was called the EuroAsia centre and the research initiative within the group was to  understand Asia and Asian business better. However we were still based in France and so as time progressed, there was some discussion saying if we were going really to be a global school, we can’t just understand Asia from Europe – we needed to be present in Asia and at that time there was some interest in setting up a campus in Asia so we eventually settled on Singapore as a location for our campus and that opened about 11 years ago.

Q: What is your role within INSEAD?

A: I’ve been with INSEAD for about 14 years; I joined INSEAD in 1997 in France as a professor of organisational behaviour and we were in the process of starting to launch this Asian campus and I agreed to go to Singapore to teach in the inaugural class and also agreed to work on the Asian campus for two years after which I decided to stay there permanently, so I’ve been in Asia for 11 years. Most of my years in INSEAD therefore I’ve spent in Asia.

My role primarily for the past seven or eight years has been in development of customised, tailored programmes for organisations and companies and this programme in Colombo also falls into that category. I’ve actually been interested in trying to work in many different places to learn as much as I can, not just about Asia as a whole but Asian countries specifically as there are vast differences that exist within the continent. That’s how I got involved in this programme here in Sri Lanka.

Q: Have you organised a programme similar to the one being held in Sri Lanka before?

A: This particular type of programme – no. This is a specific type of programme customised to the requirements and needs of the ICASL. What I have done more frequently is work with companies doing programmes for Asia Pacific leadership teams, management and these would normally be single companies. This is more of a consortium programme where the ICASL is local sponsor of the programme and the local participants come from all sorts of different companies including members of the ICASL.

Q: Could you tell me more about the four-day programme?

A: This programme in a sense is not a company programme; it is more of an association programme. It is more on the general side of the topics of leadership so we’ve put together sessions around various leadership topics.

I think with a group of participants that have come from many different companies require a lot of diversity around the experience level, the positions they hold in the organisations they are working for, how much leadership experience they have – some have quite a lot, others are more new to being in a leadership role and as there are quite a few accountants, they have more financial and  quantitative aspects in their experience so some are coming here to develop more of a leadership aspect to their careers. So we have a variety of topics around things like influence, negotiation, liquidity, managing change, establishing vision for the company.

There will also be a lot of behavioural leadership topics because I don’t know if anyone ever mastered leadership but we are looking to get some dialogue going, share best practices, share research done on various areas and also hear from one another as there will be a lot of experience in the room, they will be able to glean a lot of knowledge from one another not just from what I have to say.

Q: Why base this conference around leadership in particular?

A: Well it’s not unique to this organisation or programme – I think for INSEAD and business schools around the world, leadership programmes have had the highest demand. Now leadership can mean a lot of things - it could mean strategy and leadership or even finance can be covered in a leadership programme but most leadership programmes cover behavioural aspects, what they call soft skills, although I would argue that soft skills are the hardest ones to master.

In fact, you hear many great organisational business leaders who say that they never master leadership, they are always learning more and I think this why these kinds of programmes tend to be in such high demand because I think to be an effective leader you have to constantly be learning – you always have to be prepared for changes that are happening under different circumstances and situations that you may have to face.

So leadership, I think, is a very challenging subject for business people and that’s where the demand for talent is, for those people who can not only demonstrate success and capabilities in executing and delivering results, but also able to bring out the best in others so that they are building up a talent pool of people who can execute and deliver results. That’s what organisations are most interested in, the people who can develop and execute, not just people who can only deliver within their own sphere.

Q: Is there a particular reason you decided to extend your two year stay in Singapore and continue working in Asia?

A: Well I was just attracted and mesmerised by the exciting things going on in Asia. I mean, I’m American with Italian roots and I spent a lot of time growing up in Europe and I was very attracted to moving to Europe and when I did, I moved to France which was a very rewarding experience and I learned the French language and I learned much more about the European culture than I knew previously so when I moved to Asia, it was like a whole other world opening up for me and it went far beyond just Singapore; it was the whole region.

For example, I’ve spent time in China and Sri Lanka which are very different countries with different cultures so for me staying in Singapore was largely about having a dynamic career where I could learn a lot. Even at the time, although many people knew there was a lot happening in Asia, no one realised how fast and how much growth there would be and now it’s quite common for people to want to come to Asia but at the time it wasn’t an obvious thing so in a sense I feel that, although I didn’t get on to the ground floor, I got on to a lower floor in terms of being able to see a lot of this development and growth and a lot of the buzz that is even now on a upward scale, it still has not reached a plateau.

Q: Discussing some of the trends in Asia, you just said that the growth has yet to plateau – what do you see in terms of the near future?

A: There are a lot of trends in Asia and one of them that I keep hearing coming up is the war for talent because as businesses, multinationals and countries grow, they need talent to lead the growth and that is why leadership is so important in this part of the world. The talent pool to assume those kinds of levels is limited, relative to the demand so the competition for those people is extremely fierce and so

I’m seeing more and more organisations are not only competing with multinationals but are competing more with local companies who are now moving into a realm of being able to compete with the multinationals for talent. So multinationals that were previously mostly concerned with their direct competitors are now finding competition in many different places. It’s a great time to be in Asia if you are a talented, educated and experienced person but for companies, they are struggling to win this war for talent.

Q: Do you think there would ever be a point when companies do win this war; will there ever be enough talent in Asia to satisfy the demand?

A: I think so, you see a lot of countries exporting in talent and people are very mobile now so many people are moving to Asia because of the many opportunities. For instance, I’m working with a couple of companies with big operations in China and they are finding that the talent pool there is far more sophisticated than it was 10 years ago. They are better educated and prepared to take on more significant roles so it’s moving up but at the same time the growth is ahead of the supply.

I’m sure that over time, as there is enough ambition out there and when people know that there are opportunities, they put themselves in the position to try and take advantage of these opportunities. Sure, there will be some lag but that will just make the opportunity more attractive for people to try and fill those gaps.

Q: Would you say that INSEAD is also playing a role when it comes to filling these gaps?

A: I think so; we have a lot of people who would have never thought too strongly about moving to Asia if not for our Singapore campus. Many of our students start off in France and then move to Singapore for a couple of months and then they discover that they love being in Asia and see all the options and opportunities that are available so more and more of our students are choosing to stay in Asia as opposed to going back to Europe. Just in Singapore alone, the number of our alumni who have decided to stay in Singapore is quite significant.

All you have to do is look at the trends of growth in Asia which is not linear; it’s going to be quite dramatic.

It already is but I think if you look at 20 years, it’s going to be hard to imagine a scenario where Asia is not the centre of global commerce as opposed to what was previously North America and Western Europe so there is definitely no quick end in sight to this trend.