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Operating in emerging markets: seven successful leadership traits

8th Jul 2010
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Leaders in emerging markets need to adapt their leadership style to fit the demands and needs of the situation and the new workforce. Tommy Weir highlights the seven attributes that are needed for success.

The emerging markets in countries such as Brazil, China, India, the Arab world and Indonesia offer substantial business opportunities for organisations. But only if leaders are selected who can operate in a culturally-different business environment.

A leadership assignment in an emerging market is very different to one in the western world. The problem for many organisations entering an emerging market is that they try to ‘export’ their native and historical leadership practices. Typically they’ll select a westerner, with years of experience in the company, to head their operation. Although these individuals may try to adapt their management styles to fit the local cultural preferences, many still end up applying western-orientated models of leadership.

This is wholly understandable. It is easy to be distracted by the glitz, glamour and seemingly western ways that appear evident on the surface in many emerging markets. However, to become fully acquainted with the uniqueness of the new workforce and to understand how their leadership practices need to be adapted, leaders need to look beneath this surface. Consider these eight comparisons:

Euro-American Workforce v Emerging markets workforce

Individual orientation v group orientation

Business stems from corporate mentality v business stems from family mentality

Aging population v youth bulge

Formal learning v informal learning

Stable literacy rates v rising literacy rates

Guilt/innocence orientation v honour/shame orientation

Influence of the suburbs v rise of the city

Employee-centric v leader-centric

These comparisons highlight some of the challenges that need to be considered when leading an emerging market workforce.

Seven leadership traits 
There are seven specific traits that will not only help leaders to gain an objective understanding of the emerging workforce but will also enable them to operate successfully. These are:

Imagination. The emerging markets are expanding at unparalleled rates and this brings incredible opportunities, as new solutions and methods need to be created. As a result, leadership success in the emerging markets requires imaginative thinking.

Magnet. Leaders need to approach the issue of talent management with a different mindset. Globally speaking, highly talented employees - who are mobile and able to tackle the challenges of working in a fast-growth environment - are in short supply. Those who operate in emerging markets need to define the experiences, knowledge, skills, personal attributes and motivations they need in their employees - and they need to put in place a bespoke strategy to attract and retain these individuals.

Multilingual in one language. Leading in an emerging workplace means more than simply knowing how to shake hands and how to address someone respectfully. Just because everyone is speaking the same language, leaders should not assume that the common language means common understanding. The meaning that is attached to words varies greatly between cultures.

Achievement builder. All leaders need to be focused on helping others achieve. Leadership is about an individual gathering people around the same goal and motivating them to go beyond their initial expectations. Hence, building achievement in others is a key requisite.

Rapid talent development. The speed of growth in the emerging markets can sometimes lead to employees being promoted beyond their capabilities at a pace that is traditionally not considered appropriate. In light of this, leaders need to specialise in growing talent in a condensed period of time. They should also be ready for all of the excitement that a youthful workforce brings.

Integrity. Throughout history, fast-growth environments have been bastions for corporate corruption. While the temptations may present themselves, the jails are full of corporate leaders who tried to take advantage of the opportunities and failed. Successful leadership in emerging markets requires spotless integrity.

Navigation. Leaders in the emerging markets need to be like helmsmen on the open sea who navigate through the unclear and ever-changing waters. Leaders should understand the recent history and rapid growth of the region as this will open their eyes to the specific demands and expectations of employees. The ability to navigate through a fast-growth environment and respond to the needs of the market are critical.

By developing these traits, leaders will be able to lead successfully and create diverse but homogeneous work groups that are capable of performing as a team. As a result, they’ll be able to enhance organisational performance while at the same time building employee loyalty and reducing turnover rates.

Dr Tommy Weir is Managing Director of Leadership Solutions at Kenexa, specialising in strategic leadership for fast-growth and emerging markets. He can be contacted at [email protected] or via


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