Preventing a leadership crisis in Asia’s talent pipeline

Why are MNCs operating in Asia particularly at risk, and what can they do about it?

By Charles Moore & Rosemary Goater



Succession planning and developing a pipeline of prospective leaders are both vital to any company’s people strategy. Turning to the talent pool to plug leadership gaps at the last moment is a high-risk move that could cause damaging uncertainty if critical positions are left unfilled, even temporarily. Worryingly, there are signs that the talent pipelines of some multinational corporations (MNCs) in Asia are inadequate for the challenges ahead.


The Asian talent we need


As Asia’s economies mature, businesses will require more adept and locally informed leaders who can succeed in complex organizations in larger, slower-moving economies. Senior management teams and boards need to better understand the landscape and unique attributes required of leaders in the region. However, demand is outstripping supply. Instead of relying on expatriates and returnees, MNCs must develop local talent pipelines capable of taking on senior leadership roles in order to succeed in the longer term.


The evolution of Asian leadership


The overall quality of local executives has improved significantly over the past 30 years – education and language ability have progressed, MNCs have entered various markets, and local companies have increasingly gone global. Inevitably, some industries can better manage the talent pipeline challenge. For example, companies that can sell generic products globally with minimal differentiation have had little incentive to develop local talent with the cultural insights necessary to develop market-specific business lines. Yet, low-margin businesses have been forced, for reasons of cost, to develop local talent, rather than rely on expensive expat or returnee managers.


Visionary MNCs that recognize the increasing importance of Asia to their businesses are adopting the following strategies to ensure an adequate supply of future talent:


Put leadership on the management agenda


MNCs must ensure that developing talent with a view to filling future senior leadership roles is a boardroom agenda item for both the global CEO and the Regional Chief Executive. Our research shows that in this hyper-connected, continually changing world, CEOs must attract top talent from various backgrounds and countries to build a truly diverse senior team.


Rejuvenate internal talent programs


Visionary companies in Asia are adopting innovative strategies to rejuvenate their internal talent development programs:

1.       Fast-track and enhance management training

Accelerated, personalised management training that includes an element of geographical and operational mobility is vital to build a robust leadership pipeline and address talent gaps. Asian leaders will increasingly need to run global operations, and will require sufficient experience to do so.


2.       Develop leadership metrics

On an operational level, it is vital to define metrics to identify high-potential talent. This could include creating a robust pipeline by identifying the necessary skills for talented staff, identifying talent gaps, and providing training to help upskill prospective leaders.


3.       Provide an inspiring career path

The key to retaining and developing high-potential employees in Asia is to ensure that their ‘view to the top’ is clear. Consequently, some organisations are trying to build clearer career paths and are focusing on developing high-potential people to address their lack of local leaders.


4.       Build diversity in the workforce

To identify the potential of high-achieving employees, talent management executives must look broadly, and deepen the pipeline in terms of gender diversity, ethnic diversity and diversity of thinking.


Revamp external talent programs


Ensuring that talent searches outside the company are sufficiently innovative is also crucial to addressing pipeline deficiencies in Asia. This begins with expanding graduate recruitment programs, while visionary companies are also adopting the following innovative strategies:


1.       Look beyond traditional markets

For markets where potential talent shortages are of most concern, graduate recruitment could focus on overseas universities to develop potential returnee talent. For example, some 20,000 Malaysians go to Australia each year to study, suggesting targeted recruitment programs at universities there could pay dividends for the Malaysian leadership pipeline in the future.


2.       Identify strategic mid-career hires

Current economic conditions in Asia give companies an opportunity to bolster their leadership pipelines with qualified mid-career talent. For example, astute companies can hire experienced mid-career talent when their competitors scale back certain business lines and operations in Asia, and staff become available.


3.       Cultivate rehires

It can be beneficial to formally track mid-career employee alumni as they progress through their careers – with the view to potentially approaching them for senior leadership positions when they have obtained relevant experience. A dedicated alumni program can reap long-term leadership pipeline benefits.


4.       Investigate crossover hires

Monitoring and mapping potential talent should not be restricted to a company’s core industry sector. Sourcing ‘crossover talent’ could be another viable solution to the leadership pipeline challenge, especially given the likelihood of increasing career mobility for senior executives in the current economic conditions. 





Charles Moore is Partner-in-charge of the Singapore Heidrick & Struggles’ office, leading the Healthcare and Life Sciences Practice for the Asia Pacific and Middle East region. Rosemary Goater is a Partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Hong Kong office and a member of the Financial Services Practice. For more information visit