Everyone knows Microsoft and most people on the planet have used Microsoft products at some point in their lives. Like all companies, Microsoft has to constantly adapt to provide relevant and current products/services in today’s ever changing competitive technological landscape. With the advent of Cloud computing, this is a critical time in Microsoft’s development. For this reason, I thought it poignant and extremely relevant to get into the head of a very senior Microsoft executive.
Andrew Pickup is General Manager, Marketing & Business Operations, for Microsoft in Asia Pacific. Responsible for 12 countries across the region, Andrew supports Microsoft’s sales and marketing teams in South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. A vast array of cultures, languages, socio-economic conditions, political environments and much more, I thought he could offer a terrific perspective on succeeding in Asia Pacific. Here are Andy’s thoughts on achieving communication success in this dynamic and diverse region of the world.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for a US company operating at a regional level in Asia Pacific?
There is a tendency for some US and European companies to view Asia Pacific in a similar way to the US or EMEA. The reality is – there is no “united states” of Asia Pacific. This region is complex – economically, politically and culturally. The first challenge is how do you define Asia Pacific? Do you include Japan or exclude Japan? How about the other giants, China and India? Do you include ANZ within Asia Pacific? The major characteristic in Asia Pacific is diversity, and this includes the size of the market, technological maturity, social development and so on. We work with countries as diverse as Australia and Vietnam, Korea and Sri Lanka. Therefore a “one-size-fits-all” approach just does not work, and so you ask the question – how do you achieve predictable ad quantifiable outcomes in such a diverse environment?
The first step is to agree corporate level outcomes and drive through common goals across the region. At Microsoft, we use a balanced-scorecard approach. This is to help achieve the right mix of short-term deliverables, like revenue/profit, with longer-term strategic goals. Within that, we would include revenue, market share and competitive benchmarking. Bear in mind that, in the technology industry, sometimes market-share can be more important than revenue to help build a self-sustaining eco-system.
The second way we work to drive common outcomes in a highly-diverse environment, like Asia-Pacific, is by aligning employee rewards and incentives. We always seek to employ highly-driven, entrepreneurial individuals and we obviously incentivize our people through recognition, rewards and compensation models that align to our corporate goals.
Finally, having a set of consistent corporate values is a vital part of our strategy and success world-wide. At the end of the day, regardless of our location, we all work for Microsoft. As such, we are all driven by the same corporate values and everyone is expected to live by these values at all times. Whether you are working for Microsoft in a mature market or in a developing market, the values that drive what you do are the same, so I can walk into any office or subsidiary across the region and expect the same standards of behaviour in key areas, which also helps drive common outcomes.
You’re responsible for 12 countries, how do you adapt your communications for each of your countries? What do you need to be mindful of?
Working across 12 countries, with different languages, cultures and behavioural norms is both extremely interesting and challenging. I believe that the way to succeed is adopting a situational leadership approach, something that requires a high degree of self-awareness.
Take ANZ as an example. Australia and New Zealand are anglicized cultures, and as such, are often less formal. Antipodeans often have no issue questioning authority, they enjoy heated debate, and having a relaxed approach along the way is often a feature. When you go elsewhere in the region, people can sometimes be more deferential. So it is a vastly different experience compared to working with our team in ANZ. My advice to get the best out of people – to ensure I get the best ideas, creativity and innovation from my team – is to ask, listen and not dominate the conversation. Another important learning – never perceive silence as acceptance.
Face-to-face meetings are always the best forum; however, Asia Pacific is large, so regular communication is mostly via regional conference calls. To succeed, you must be wary of not letting people who speak English as a first language dominate, and people from more open cultures, who have no problem speaking up, need to be “controlled” so they don’t steam-roll conversation. When I say “controlled,” it’s more about managing the call to ensure everyone gets their say – making sure you ask everyone what they think. Some people will find it hard to follow the conversation, especially if they are not confident with English; therefore they may be quieter in group call situations. It needs to be managed delicately, and with patience, to ensure everyone contributes and feels empowered from the conversation.
The language challenge can be quite pronounced across this region, even within a country. For example, I was speaking at some events in Vietnam recently and I did the same presentation in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. In Hanoi, there were more headphones (i.e. less English-speakers) and when I asked if anyone had any questions at the end, no one put their hand up. In Ho Chi Minh, there were fewer headphones and 20 hands shot up when I asked for questions. So even within a country there can be massive disparity with language.
What would you consider your greatest communication successes with Microsoft in Asia Pacific?
When I first arrived in Singapore eight years ago I definitely experienced something of a culture shock. For example, in the UK I had established a ritual with all of my direct reports, where – during our monthly one-to-one meetings – they had five minutes to give me feedback and I had five minutes to give them feedback. The only rule was the other person was not allowed to say anything when the other person was speaking, and at the end, the only thing each person was allowed to say was “thank you”. I enjoyed these sessions, because I gained a lot personally and my direct reports appreciated what these meetings offered them. Everyone gained positive and constructive feedback – including me.
I implemented this when I arrived in Singapore and for the first three months, no one said anything J. The reality was, they had never had this opportunity before and it wasn’t within their culture to provide feedback “up.” It took time and patience on my part, but what I was developing was trust – once you gain trust, people really open up, but it’s not instant.
Another example of a communication “win” happened about four years ago when my business unit was established. Being responsible for 12 subsidiaries across Asia Pacific, the first thing I did was get on the road and speak to all of the individual country marketing directors, asking for their feedback on what the regional team could do to help them succeed.
When I returned, I took my regional team of 20 to an offsite. I gave everyone a yellow sticky note and asked them to write down what they thought the purpose of our team was. I then left the room. When I came back, all of the sticky notes were up on the wall and there was no real consistency in the ideas.
I then presented the feedback I had received from the country marketing directors, and with this in mind, we worked together on the vision for our team, our reason for existing, our values and the methodology for our approach. The conclusion we came to is that the regional team had a primary role/purpose – to lead, support and enable our subsidiaries. The main reason we succeeded at this offsite is we knew our purpose because we had already asked our “customers.”
It was definitely an “aha” moment coming to the conclusion that we were there to serve in a supporting and enabling capacity, and after this team offsite, I went on the road again and presented to the subsidiaries our added-value, key areas of focus and what we would deliver to support them. As such, we started immediately building trust by delivering to our “customers” (i.e. our subsidiaries) and that is the core of succeeding in Asia.
A peer is moving to Asia to take on a similar role – what advice would you give them to succeed in this region?
For the first month or so, be “sponge-like.” Listen, be observant, be receptive and work to understand the norms, behaviour, and creativity. I have seen many people come to Asia and immediately begin with overly prescriptive direction, prejudices, and the like. Essentially you need to listen more than you speak.
It’s important to set expectations with your team, up front, that you won’t be giving any grand vision in the early months. Tell them you will provide observations when you’re ready. So take it all in, try and understand the culture and sensitivities, and when you’re ready, give your observations and directions for the team. It will be appreciated.
I think success in Asia Pacific comes to people who are intelligent, flexible and culturally inquisitive. In my opinion, this is a strength for success in Asia Pacific.
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