Unlocking the APAC lockdown: is now the time to empower local leaders?

21 May 2020

Unlocking the APAC lockdown: is now the time to empower local leaders?

As Asia Pacific HR Directors consider the “bounce back” from the pandemic, local leaders will play a vital role in a successful recovery.

The term “bounce” certainly sounds positive and optimistic. But in discussion with APAC HR Directors, the reality is more complex and uncertain, although there are some clear lessons for a successful return to a post-COVID-19 world.

As one HR Director put it “shutting down will seem easy compared to the challenges of opening back up”. 

This discussion revealed that we are getting into a period of higher complexity and risk. It confirmed the increasing divergence between countries making up the APAC region. This divergence ranges from the health and economic impact, but also in the effectiveness of different governments to contain the crisis and their clarity and consistency of the leadership or the lack thereof.

The clear message is that, for the foreseeable future, there will be “no one size fits all strategy”.

All of this has a direct impact on leaders and leadership. There appears to be a greater requirement to empower lower levels of leadership across the region, devolving decision making to leaders who understand the detail and can make decisions based on real-time developments. Finally, there was consensus that the crisis calls for CEOs who are visible, connected to the workforce and are seen to be leading from the front.

The discussion focused on the following areas:

Global standards, local strategies

Devise strategy country by country and follow government advice. Then, where government standards are insufficient, apply an “upper layer” of standards to meet corporate standards.  

“APAC is leading the way on this. Lessons have been learned and passed on from colleagues in China. We shall pass those lessons on to the rest of the world in time.”

As we move forward, distancing and safety risk will be a constant focus until we have a vaccine. So, effective, commercial HSE professionals will be an important resource for some time to come. 

Visible leadership works

Be visible. Wartime leadership analogies are all too common at the moment. However, at a time when people are feeling fragile, vulnerable and, at times, lost, those analogies ring true.

Even in times of social distancing, good leaders are visible.

Good leaders  “move toward people“ and bring compassion, empathy, and a sense of purpose.

Devolve decision making

Each country is diverging rapidly in terms of health impact, government response and regulations. Corporates tend to set global guidelines but, in this case, practical strategies have to be localised and adapted country by country. No one size fits all.

Empower local leaders

Centralised decision-making will stall action at a time when immediate decision-making, based on fast changing local conditions, is crucial.

Everything should be done to enable local leaders to respond, with authority, to local real-time information and sometimes daily changes in government advice and regulations.

“Ambiguity tolerance”  means the regional leadership cadre will have to get used to having less day-to-day control. Companies should adopt a greater level of trust in local leaders, establish a broad road map and then “let them get on with it”. 

The new normal: more questions than answers

Generating cash. Just how hard will the financial impact eventually be? The longer we are locked down, the more acute the financial impact will be. Cost management is only one element to survival. Revenue generation in the “new normal” will be different, but must be adapted immediately.

V, U or W recovery? Cost management and flexibility will be crucial to survival. “Expect to feel the financial hit in two months”. Leaders need to be laser-focused on cost, cash management and revenue generation.

People, place, performance and culture. How best can leaders introduce opportunities to transform ways of working while reducing cost. The “triumvirate of HR, IT and Real Estate” need to come together to re-purpose work and the workplace.

No easy bounce-back

APAC HR Directors discussed “the bounce” with an even mix of concern and relish, knowing that they now face their greatest challenge. The bright side is that businesses can get back to business, connecting with clients and re-energising teams. Revenue generation which, in many cases, has been paused for months can now restart albeit adapted to new conditions.

However, the return to the so-called ‘new normal’ will present complex challenges. What if people don’t want to go back to work because they don’t feel safe?

What if we are looking at a “W” recovery and not a “U”?

Many questions remain. How much more cost needs to be taken out of the business?  How can we design a level of flexibility into the organisation that will enable us to react effectively?

Local leaders, local answers

What is clear from our round table discussion is that the answers to these questions will be found at a local level by leaders who are on the ground and face-to-face with the daily realities.

Now is the time to empower local leaders. Regional and global leaders must learn to trust them to deliver.