This year, I'll celebrate 20 years in Asia. I went over to Taiwan with Leo Burnett in 1986 at a time when our clients were just starting their Asian expansion. That was back when people thought Taiwan was the source of great Thai food. I spent 3 years in Taiwan, 15 years in Japan and am now President of the region, still with Burnett, and based in Hong Kong. When I left for Taiwan I remember someone at the agency remarking what a shame it was that I was going overseas where I’d be out of the loop and basically throwing away a promising career....
That was the view 20 years ago. With everything that we read and experience about globalization, one would have expected that to be a dated perspective. But just a few weeks ago, I was chatting with a colleague who has also spent a number of years working in Asia about how hard it still is to get people from the US to take an overseas assignment, especially when it's in Asia.
So here are 8 good reasons why you should get on a plane tomorrow and come work in Asia for a few years.
1) It will make you a better manager, faster: No matter what your position, you’ll need to prove your value – quickly. As a foreigner who can’t tell a cab driver how to get to the client’s office, and who gets paid more than a local, your presence initially make things more difficult for everyone around you as opposed to helping. You won’t know much about the business or consumer in the local market but you’ll still need to make decisions,and this will force you to find and rely on people who can help you make the right decisions. You’ll probably work with people who have a range of English skills – you’ll need to develop patience to really understand the strength of their ideas. You’ll also discover that time lines are compressed and most operations are extremely short staffed. You’ll end up doing a lot on your own and quickly eliminating anything that is a nice to have but isn’t essential. You will have to focus on the big picture, on ideas and substance, on getting the work out the door - not on producing a document in perfect grammatically correct English.
2) You will learn from some people who are different from you, and perhaps surprisingly, smarter. The response I give every time to someone who has just moved out to the region asks what they should and should not do is the same: keep your mouth shut for the first 2 months; just ask people questions and listen to their answers. The temptation is to show off everything you know, believe you have all the answers and jump right in to begin fixing problems. But that can be a recipe for disaster. Take the time to find the specialists with deep knowledge and ideas, the people who can give you perspective on the corporate politics, the people who know the history and the people who have the vision but have not been able to implement it. In one of my early overseas assignments I was assigned to fix an account where the agency was on notice. I had lots of ideas and suggestions, along with the pressure to show quick results and the impatience that comes with that. After an emotional exchange where everyone on the team was threatening to quit, I changed tactics. For the next 6 weeks I participated in all the meetings but just listened. When I started to contribute my ideas again, people listened and we fixed the problem account.
3) You'll learn how to operate effectively in a culture where you don't speak the language. Depending on where you are, conversation around the office can take place in Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean or a local dialect. You will miss a lot, especially humor and sidebar comments, and you'll be dependent on people telling you the things you need to know. You'll learn to ask smarter questions. You will learn how to frame your thoughts precisely and express yourself succinctly and clearly. You'll become more adept at "seeing" what is not said, relying on expressions and body language to decipher that "hai" in Japanese can mean everything from "I absolutely agree," to "this is the dumbest thing we've ever done but since you're the boss it's your ass on the line." You'll discover the reservoirs of patience needed by both sides to ensure that there is mutual understanding.
4) You'll learn about new people, new places. The great thing about gong to a new country is that everything is new. Even something as mundane as grocery shopping at the Hong Kong Park and Shop becomes interesting when you’re confronted with fruits and vegetables you‘ve never eaten before and fish swimming in a tank waiting for you to make a selection. The most mundane business trip can have some adventure built into it when you can visit the fish market at 5am in Tsukiji or the flower market in Bangkok at 2 in the morning where for just a few dollars you can bring back flowers for 30 people in the meeting room. Many meetings have as many nationalities as there are people in the room – which results in a great diversity and lots of fresh perspectives. The world just opens up and you can discover something new every day.
5) Top corporate leaders like AG Lafley, Mary Minnick, Bob McDonald and Carlos Ghosn have all worked in the world's big Asian geographies. You will be a lot more qualified to speak to them or their successors about this part of the world if you have "hands on" experience.
6) When you come to Asia, you get a glimpse of the future. We tend to think of Asia as a developing region – because for the last 30 years it has been "catching up" to Western modernity. But that is no longer the case.
Japanese and Korean cell phones have more features and are more cutting edge than what you can get in the US. If you want to see what is inspiring Paris and will appear on the runway in two or three years then stroll around Shibuya. The weight of Asia in the world economy is increasing, and it has more and more cultural influence among young people. Manga are now found in the Sunday comics, Shanghai Tang is in New York, Gwen Stefani is backed up by the Harajuku girls and Ang Lee from China won the Oscar for best director. The direction of cultural flow is turning. You can read about it in Thomas Friedman's book, The World is Flat or you can experience it on a daily basis.
7) You'll learn a lot about America and Americans. You'll see first hand how people outside of America perceive it, your own views will be challenged and you'll learn about the limitations that people who’ve only ever been in America have in their viewpoint about the world. You’ll also appreciate the things that are good about America, where you don’t have to think about whether the Western owned hotel you are staying at in Bali could be a bombing target, or whether you should delay a trip to the Philippines because a state of emergency has just been declared.
8) If you come to Asia, you'll learn a lot about yourself. It’s not easy to leave friends and family, to live and work abroad in a foreign culture, where nothing is familiar. It can be tough on your spouse and your kids. Isolation and loneliness vie with new friendships and experiences. But at the same time, you’ll be forced out of your comfort zone, pick up a new language, and become a better manager and leader. You’ll have completely new experiences and develop a broader perspective on how companies and brands operate in the global arena. Working in Asia will not only change the way you work, it will change your life and the way you view the world.