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3 Ways Southeast Asian Bosses Empower Their Teams

Learn to balance structure and flexibility

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BY Marishka M. Cabrera - 08 Jul 2016

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

In Southeast Asia, a hierarchical work culture prevails. But while common, this culture can hinder employees from generating creative ideas and solutions—a scenario that start-up founders should take great lengths to avoid.

“I think the hierarchical work culture is by far the most dominant form in Southeast Asia,” says Paul Rivera, co-founder and CEO of Kalibrr, a Philippine-based online job-matching platform for companies and jobseekers.  

He adds that most organizations in Southeast Asia are family-run, which means that this creates a “natural hierarchy within the organization based on familial ties.” Be warned that this can limit the talent pool to only those who can thrive in this kind of work culture, while those who enjoy flatter, more dynamic structures would not last long. “You want structure, but you also need flexibility,” says Rivera.

“I think many companies can unlock more of their organizational potential if they can enable their employees, not to break rank, but to not be afraid to question or challenge decisions from the top if they disagree,” he adds.

Farouk Meralli, founder and CEO of health technology start-up mClinica, says, “We have an incredibly flat structure and have created a truly meritocratic environment.  Some of our best ideas have come from the youngest members of our team.  We let the best ideas win regardless of who generated them.”  He manages around 45 individuals across Southeast Asia.

Here are three ways in which these Southeast Asian bosses empower members of their teams:


1. Delegate

“Founders normally find it very hard to delegate work, but basically it just boils down to trust in the execution capacity of the individuals,” says Ashwin Jeyapalasingam, co-founder and COO of Malaysia-based CatchThatBus, an online booking portal for bus tickets on routes across Malaysia and Singapore.

In addition, Jeyapalasingam says founders must first hire strategically, rather than “reactively.” He says that founders often spread themselves too thin when running a company, and the moment they feel overstretched they scramble to hire a senior manager to take on the role.

“This sometimes will create some issues where staff, who previously felt very close to the founders [and then] suddenly finding a new layer, may feel neglected or not as connected to the brand or company as they were before when working directly with founders,” he says.

For Meralli, “The key to delegation is identifying people who you can trust.  Founders
tend to be obsessive, so to delegate, they must be able to find teammates who they can rely on and who will be equally, if not more, obsessive than they are in carrying out the task.”


2. Let their voices be heard

Rivera, who manages around 50 individuals in his team, says everybody can question anybody as long as they have a valid reason or they have the data to back them up.

Same goes for mClinica. “We believe in creating an enabling environment for our team where each person is able to express their ideas on the basis of merit alone. Creating this attitude starts from the beginning when we hire the team,” Meralli says. He adds that everyone who works at mClinica is both “smart and hungry,” and the company finds that this combination tends to create highly motivated and versatile team members who are able to express their ideas with confidence.

Founders, Rivera says, must learn to balance the need for structure and hierarchy with flexibility.


3. Hold them accountable

At CatchThatBus, selected employees are given OKRs (objectives and key results), a method of defining and tracking objectives, to help align those of the organization with their own. The company also assigns quarterly projects where mid- and senior executives are accountable for the outcomes.

He says the company operates a fairly flat structure, which normally works well with new hires and millennials. However, it can be counter-intuitive to industry hires who are at the mid-management level, because confusion can sometimes arise as to what they should be doing themselves and what should be delegated, as well as the amount of expectation placed on them. Some may not be used to this in their previous organizations, where they might have had a safety net due to multiple layers of approval.

Jeyapalasingam says, “We operate on a simple premise: Is this something that you, personally, would put in front of a client or customer? What would you do if it were up to you and not your manager?”

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