The unspoken corporate cost of poor individual communication skills

  • Business
  • Saturday, 19 Nov 2011

AN investment banker helping an Asian company to list on a European exchange recently recounted the story of a delay caused in part by a senior finance manager, a Malaysian. Technically competent but soft-spoken, he struggled with handling questions on the fly from advisers and lawyers. The bankers feared he would fumble during investor roadshows, leaving the deal dead-in-the-water.

A few weeks ago, the manager resigned as he could not handle questions confidently on conference calls with the advisers. Because of the resignation at the eleventh hour the company had to scramble to find a replacement another Asian, with more self-confidence.

This delayed the IPO and the missed opportunity to raise funds is one of numerous stories of the heavy cost to corporations because of technically competent executives who lack basic communication and rapport skills with a wider range of audiences, usually beyond their office and comfort zone.

Because of the rapid economic growth in the region, many Asian corporations and MNCs have been promoting people quickly to C-level positions, with the usual pre-requisite of work experience and track record. But often, these executives lack self-confidence and the ability to articulate with partners, customers and investors at a time when the higher position often demands it.

The costs to an organisation of a poor communicator in a high position are difficult to quantify. Failure to acquire new customers in new geographies; a crisis which was allowed to escalate because no one had the guts to bring up problems or warning signals; or business partnerships which floundered because the relationships broke down due to issues not being addressed early on? Think of the many stories of counter-suits months or years after the initial celebration and ribbon-cutting among joint-venture partners.

Having worked with many MNCs with decades of international experience, a good number of CEOs have fed back that they could have grown a lot faster if they had addressed some basic communication issues.

To remove or reduce organisational paralysis attributable to communications and team dynamics, seven major issues need to be addressed.

First, Asians often lack the ability to articulate points of view succinctly or clearly. A new partner or a prospect simply does not get what the executive is trying to say and the relationship or business is lost.

Second, beyond a point of view, lack of confidence often prevents the Asian manager from speaking up or communicating sufficiently to build a relationship or win a deal.

Third, because of these aspects of reticence, there is no trust built up with new stakeholders, or even their own staff. Surveys have shown that the trust level in many Asian MNCs trails that of mature MNCs where different points of view are encouraged. In fact, some organisations deliberately set one team against another in an internal battle of wits. In Asia, this would be taboo and a huge loss of face for the “losing” team.

Fourth, Asians lack the ability to connect at all levels within an organisation. They tend to spend time with superiors and peers. They neglect junior staff who are expected to respect and obey you. Western corporations do not work this way hence, raising problems with such customers or business partners, or Westerners hired to join an Asian team.

Fifth, a fatal issue for many Asian corporations is that no one wants to convey bad news. Feedback is poor because problems could embarrass the boss or partners. This leads to a state of denial, with problems being swept under the rug until they blow up into crises.

Sixth, Asian managers have a greater tendency to shun responsibility, leaving decisions to the bosses. Hence, major issues are sat on for months and bottlenecks build up.

Finally, recognition and mentoring are lacking. Asian bosses need to encourage young managers regularly instead of waiting for the annual dinner awards. Young leaders want instant recognition and gratification. When the bosses give that and mentor them, they will groom a cadre of leaders who can chart the next wave of growth.

Asian bosses may want these skill sets, but how often do they assess these facets among their staff? In a recent talk to a group of leaders at an American Business Chamber I handed out a checklist of the seven facets and had the senior group rate their top three Asian staff on a scale of 1 (ineffective) to 10 (outstanding). They frowned and shook their heads before feeding back that scores among Asians were low and insufficient attention had been paid to address the problem.

Shortage of staff with these seven “Globally Effective Mindset” skills can lead to paralysis at different levels, costing corporations directly and indirectly, with problems surfacing only much later. Equipping and empowering your key staff with the confidence to share the good, the bad and the ugly internally or externally will help you secure opportunities, build lasting partnerships and develop a great team to lead future growth.

Stephen Krempl, a Singaporean, was until recently chief learning officer of Starbucks based in Seattle, United States. He is CEO of Krempl Communications and the developer of the Global Executive Mindset programme.

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