Dr Kiran Chitta
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
In reaction to the human devastation in Ukraine, global companies are shutting down large operations in Russia with increasing speed.
There will be complex decisions for many global companies to make about how to redeploy key talent as a result of the catastrophic events unfolding in Ukraine.
As if that was not enough to handle, concurrently in Asia, there are also complex decisions to make about how to manage key talent in Hong Kong. Anecdotally, professionals are increasingly volunteering to move out of Hong Kong to other locations, such as Singapore.
Hong Kong is experiencing a surge of COVID cases and, tragically, deaths. It has also seen some of the most prolonged and rigid COVID restrictions anywhere in the world. In this context, HR functions of global companies need to be very agile. They are grappling with how best to deploy people in the Asia region, so that they can actually function. With that comes the question of the respective roles of crucial regional 'hubs'.
Clearly, we all pray that Hong Kong recovers quickly from its current situation. It is also inevitable that its business culture and its place in the world will not just snap back to its pre-COVID existence.
Hong Kong is and will continue to be a hotspot for business innovation and enterprise. It will remain a crucial gateway into China for global companies. China will overcome COVID eventually, and, the signs indicate that China seeks full integration of Hong Kong. This inevitably affects the situation of senior leaders in the offices of western MNCs in Hong Kong. It seems possible that the highest floors of Hong Kong's gleaming office towers will have fewer corner offices for seasoned expatriates.
Singapore's opportunity in this context is to be the main regional gateway into the whole of Asia Pacific, a role it already plays to a very fair degree. It is already the perfect place for regional HQ's to find a strong, stable, liveable and relatively secure base from which to lead business growth across a vast geography. It is a place which has managed to blend 'Asian' and 'Western' ways of thinking in so many spheres. Its approach to managing COVID is a very salient example, neither irresponsibly libertarian nor obsessively zero COVID.
A key issue HR practitioners and leaders of companies with operations in both Hong Kong and Singapore are grappling with, is when, and how to move key people across to Singapore. Some of this movement has already started, and it appears to be growing, especially for key talent. However, an equally interesting and important question, especially for Singapore and its citizens, is how much of this kind of movement should be entertained, indeed invited.
A nuanced approach is required here. Yes, people who genuinely represent exceptional talent should be actively encouraged to relocate here, and help to 'build back better'. Equally, foreign MNCs may be acting too reactively by just redeploying expatriates from Hong Kong to Singapore, as if it were their default option. This might be perceived in Singapore to be presumptuous. They also have the option to move certain roles across to Singapore. Companies might then invite free and fair competition for suitably redesigned roles within redesigned regional structures, in which, in turn, Singapore's role is, inevitably, enlarged.
The challenge for Singapore as a location is to keep growing its competitiveness and openness to talent, while always also making best and highest use of the talent pool in Singapore. With a strong pipeline of local and regional leadership talent, MNCs will continue to find Singapore is a great place from which to build their businesses and organizations, both regionally in APAC and globally, long into the future.
Even if companies do transfer displaced expatriates across to Singapore to cover immediate organisational needs, this is best done with robust leadership development and succession plans in place. Companies benefit from agile career development mechanisms and flexible pathways to develop an Asian talent pool to play leadership roles in Asia. This also helps build legitimacy and optics locally.
Global business have an amazing opportunity now to invest in their human development capabilities in Asia, with a view to building their capabilities across Asia. Some companies started on that process years ago already. My clients who have been most successful at being agile in this region over the long term have plugged the gap between rhetoric and reality. The current situation creates a moment in which we can give a wider pool of Asian talent the freedom to operate, and confidence to lead transformation, with the requisite coaching, support and upskilling that this may require.