As Asian nations open their doors to the world to increase their economic growth, more multinational companies are expanding to the local markets, seeking opportunities in new and larger markets. On the other hand, local businesses also diversify overseas to enhance competitive advantage.

Both types of companies are seeking ambassador leaders who can act as bridge between headquarters and overseas offices while leading both the business and people successfully. Effective ambassador leaders are difficult to find, and more difficult to grow. The first step is to understand the challenges they face.


What Are the Key Challenges Faced by Ambassador Leaders?

In a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, ambassador leaders often find themselves juggling multiple needs. The conflicting demands, when pursued jointly, are often referred to as paradoxes. Paradox has provided a new perspective to understand the challenges faced by ambassador leaders.

I interviewed ambassador leaders working in Signapore and identified 6 key paradoxes.

Three of these paradoxes are leadership challenges are also faced by domestic leaders, but arguably with a higher level of complexity for those operating in a global arena — the challenge of managing the 3 paradoxes referred to as do and manage; empower and control; and short-term and long-term.

The remaining 3 paradoxes are unique to ambassador leaders — being adaptable and being yourself; central decision and local needs; and being independent and being dependent.

A Macro View: Do and Manage

“Do” means to take actions at the micro level, while “manage” refers to the strategic planning at a higher level. In a dynamic business environment in Asia, leaders often find themselves dealing with daily commands that keep arising. But too much doing takes up time for strategic thinking. If leaders focus on doing and neglect to manage, the imbalance will ultimately hurt the organization due to a lack of clear direction.  

Leading People: Empower and Control

Leadership comes with power. Yet 2 seemingly contradictory approaches to use power are controlling power and sharing power, or empowering.

Ideally, we should encourage leaders to empower subordinates, because when subordinates are empowered, they are more intrinsically motivated. When employees have the autonomy to make decisions, leaders can focus on strategic thinking.

But the extent to which a leader can share power also depends on employees’ readiness and willingness to take on the responsibilities that come with autonomy. In many Asian cultures, not unlike Western ones, employees are used to the controlling style of leadership; they hesitate to take initiatives and tend to wait for guidance and instructions. Hence, delegation becomes a big challenge and ambassador leaders need to find a balance between controlling and empowering.

Decision-Making: Short- and Long-Term Focus

Using resources to build for tomorrow constrains the ability to produce results today, but if decisions focus only on today’s results, the organization’s potential will be compromised.

The paradox of short-term versus long-term is a critical one for ambassador leaders, as well as the organizations that employ them. Many ambassador leaders are sent overseas for short assignments. If they are evaluated on their performance during this short period of time, which is often the case, they tend to make short-term decisions that may have negative long-term impact on local employees, and ultimately the organization.

Dealing with Cultural Differences: Adapt and Be Yourself

Cultural differences may be the first lesson that many ambassador leaders learn when they assume leadership positions. Some differences can be observed at the workplace and directly affect ambassador leaders’ work. Differences outside of work can also affect ambassador leaders’ relationship building.

The paradox for ambassador leaders is when to adapt and when to be themselves. These two poles are not static, but dynamic. When exposed to a foreign culture for the first time, ambassador leaders may need to make conscious effort to adjust and adopt new behaviors. After a while, they will be more comfortable with these new behaviors, and as a result, what is considered “being yourself” expands. Many ambassador leaders have cross-cultural experience that helps them leverage the paradox.

Managing the Organization: Central Decision and Local Needs

A key challenge faced by many ambassador leaders working with multinational companies is the paradox between centralization and localization. As one ambassador leader explained: “It is about how to balance local needs and global economy of scale. Because global impact means you focus on economy of scale, but economy of scale means your products lack local uniqueness.”

Relationship with HQ: Independence and Dependence

For ambassador leaders managing regional offices outside of headquarters, part of their job is to decide and/or influence the relationship between headquarters and the regional office. This paradox goes beyond the central decision/local needs paradox, which is about how ambassador leaders manage the regional office within the existing organizational structure. The independence/dependence paradox is about how ambassador leaders can influence and shape the broader power structure. This paradox presents a higher level of challenge for ambassador leaders. They need to be the connector, catalyst, and change agent.

For example, one ambassador leader shared that in her organization, innovation has traditionally been driven from headquarters, and the regional office used to “receive a lot of guidance” from headquarters. Since she assumed the role, she has been trying to build an ecosystem that can encourage more innovation from the region that can be sent back to headquarters and implemented in other regions as well. “I need to do a lot of influencing and networking,” she said.

4 Lessons Learned for Leveraging Paradoxes

Almost all the challenges faced by ambassador leaders can be seen as paradoxes. They are not problems and cannot be “solved.” These 4 lessons will help leaders navigate these paradoxes:

1. Be Aware

To leverage paradoxes, ambassador leaders need to be aware of them. This is the mindset-shifting step. It’s the most important, and most difficult. When receiving conflicting demands, instead of feeling drained and trying to “fix it,” how would it be different if you welcomed a paradoxical perspective?

2. Balance

Two extremes often form the power to pull each other apart. Although each extreme has its positive impact, over-focusing on either extreme has negative consequences. Hence, ambassador leaders need to pay attention to both extremes and maintain a balance of power.    

3. Prioritize

The 2 extremes of paradox aren’t always equal. The dynamics keep changing and many factors affect which one is the priority. Prioritizing the two poles can be like an art. Ambassador leaders need to consider the mission and vision of the organization; the political and economic environment; the current financial situation of the organization; the interest of the stakeholders; and the possible outcomes and consequences.

4. Resource Management

To leverage the paradox, ambassador leaders need to be clear about the resources they have at hand and optimize them. The resources include ambassador leaders’ personal time; financial capital of the organization; talent pool; support from headquarters; and stakeholders’ buy-in. Leadership competencies and skills are required to manage existing resources or receive more resources.

While traditional multi-national corporations — whose headquarters are in the West — will continue seeking more business opportunities in developing countries, it is predicted that by 2025, almost half of the world’s biggest companies will be based in emerging markets, profoundly altering global competitive dynamics.

Our research has implications for both types of global organizations that aim to develop more ambassador leaders in Asia. To be successful, leaders working in this part of the world need to be aware of the paradoxes they are facing and develop a dynamic and global mindset to navigate the challenges. Remember that paradoxes represent opportunities rather than threats, and that leveraging paradoxes ensures the long-term effectiveness of ambassador leaders.

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