Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
May 13, 2019

Leading Global Operations from Singapore: The View from the Top

As multinational companies continue to grow their footprint further from home markets, they must be increasingly competitive on a global scale. Today, business is being conducted in a globalized market encompassing a variety of cultures, languages and time zones. As a result, leaders in global roles are becoming increasingly stretched.

According to the Economic Development Board, Singapore is home to the largest number of headquarter jobs from global Fortune 500 companies compared with any other key Asia hubs. The country’s track record as a trading hub goes back to the days when Sir Stamford Raffles and the British East India Company established their trading post in Singapore in 1819. Although this ‘little red dot’ occupies a small geographical area, Singapore’s strategic location has made it a vital cog in the global economy. 

To better understand these dynamics, we have spoken to global operations leaders who call Singapore home. Perhaps surprisingly, we found that most leaders we interviewed are based in Singapore at least in part for personal reasons. But they all acknowledged that, first and foremost, it also needs to make sense for the organization. As one global technology leader put it: “Decide on the role location so that it makes business sense. The fundamental business logic needs to be there. The other incentives should just be an added benefit”.

For many companies we examined, it makes good business sense to be based in Singapore since the center of gravity of their manufacturing operations is in Asia. Additionally, most global leaders we interviewed agreed that it was part of their business strategy to stay closer to their customers and suppliers in Asia and to leverage on the opportunities to grow within the Asian market. Other factors include the availability of skilled local talent (actually from across Southeast Asia) and a pro-business ecosystem created by the Singapore government. 

Is your company ready for a global operations role out of Asia?

Top questions to ask about your organization:

1. Is your company committed to invest for growth in Asia?

2. Are most of your suppliers and/or customers from Asia?

3. Are a significant amount of your manufacturing plants in Asia?

4. Are you prepared to invest in your global communications infrastructure?

5. Is your human capital strategy ready for it?

Part of the success of having a global operations leader located outside of headquarters depends on understanding whether the organization is ready to make that leap. It can also be a trigger to drive change. As one leader told us, “putting global operations roles here sends a strong signal to the organization — Asia can run the world”. It can also be a chance to develop new capabilities. That same leader pointed out that “Singapore is a great logistics and trade compliance hub and an incubator for new sectors like Industry 4.0”. Another executive highlighted that R&D and supplier networks are tightly integrated, and that clustering of activities powers innovation. 

On the flip side, some have voiced concerns that supply chains might become less globalized — for instance, the rise of distributed 3D printing leading to more local manufacturing. In addition, in recent years trade flows and policies have seen a shift toward bilateralism. Global operations leaders will need to keep a close watch on these trends so they can ‘think global and act local’ in the future.

Since HQ will be at least six time zones away, communication is one of the most critical elements when considering whether your company is ready for a global operations leader based in Asia. It is critical that the organization has, or invests in, appropriate technology infrastructure. All individuals we spoke to agreed that face-to-face communication and regular travel are required. As one leader with a CEO in North America put it to us: “There is no good way to go around a 12-hour time difference, no matter how much technology you use”. But leaders also found that state-of-the art videoconferencing facilities can greatly alleviate that issue.

As a leader, are you ready for a global operations role out of Asia?

Top questions to ask yourself:

1. Are you prepared to sacrifice a significant amount of your evenings?

2. Is your family ready for it?

3. Are you confident you can influence HQ decisions remotely?

4. Are you confident you can push back on HQ to limit travel?

5. Have you considered the impact on your future career development?

The requirements of a global leader, from any location, can seem daunting. In addition to being technically excellent, they need to develop the ability to deal with different cultures, manage a never-ending flow of information and make real-time decisions in an increasingly volatile environment, often with limited information and under time pressure. Doing it from Asia can add to that challenge — as one leader said, “You need to make sure that your function in Europe and the Americas is relatively stable, because Asia is so diverse and complex that it will take most of your attention”. Several leaders also mentioned that it helps greatly to have your HR and finance leader collocated in Singapore, as both functions are critical business partners that need frequent interaction.

Many leaders shared that managing time zones is amongst the most difficult issues to tackle. Being Singapore-based, most start their mornings late as they must frequently give up their evenings to communicate with European and US colleagues. This had deep personal implications. “You need a very understanding spouse, and probably need to make a pact with your family,” one leader observed, but it has to be give-and-take and recommended that you “set boundaries and carve your personal space in the calendar”.

Since face-to-face meetings are still essential, a large amount of travelling should be expected “otherwise you will miss the unplanned discussions at the water cooler,” according to one executive. But again, it must be a give-and-take. A leader shared that he tries to ensure that his travel plans are balanced between him going to HQ and other members of the leadership team visiting Singapore/Asia. He also feels it is down to him to educate and remind headquarter-based colleagues of his time-zone constraints. 

The two sides of the global coin
Locating global operations leaders in Singapore can provide exciting career development and personal growth opportunities for leaders. It can also enrich the top team’s business perspective. However, the individual global leader based in Singapore can, at times, feel disconnected from the rest of the team. Some felt that it may negatively impact their ability to influence key decisions, while others enjoy having a lot more flexibility and autonomy. Whichever side of the coin you choose to look at, there will be plenty of challenging opportunities to make a difference, for your organization and for yourself.

Special thanks to several leaders who helped contribute to this article:

  • Dyuti Raj Anshu, Global Head of Procurement, PZ Cussons
  • Dhaval Buch, Chief Procurement Officer, Unilever
  • Theo Kneepkens, Senior Vice President Global Operations, KLA Corporation
  • Jascha Ortmanns, SVP Operations Connectivity and Cloud Solutions, Celestica
  • Carlo Rovea, Global Supply Chain Director, Infineum
  • Bhavesh Shah, Chief Purchasing Officer, Firmenich
  • Vladimir Zhirnov, Director Global Sourcing and Procurement of Supply Chain & Transport, Essilor

Oliver McKenzie has lived in Southeast Asia for more than 15 years and is a member of Spencer Stuart’s Industrial, Financial Officer and Supply Chain practices. Reach him via email and follow him on LinkedIn