We need to learn from Asia – but not by working harder


May 29th, 2012

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Gary Miles looks at leadership development in the UK and Singapore, in a blog first published on People Management online

William Hague’s recent pronouncement that Britons need to “work harder” to solve our current economic woes has certainly sparked an interesting debate. Mr. Hague had just returned from Singapore, where he delivered a key business lecture on “Britain in Asia” and met the country’s Prime Minister – emphasizing that our country was firmly set on a path of forging closer ties with Asia, “with a sense of equal partnership, respect and the desire to see opportunity and development for all”.

As someone who has just returned from a three-month secondment to Singapore, I believe it is the quality of customer service you receive and the stronger drive for efficiency in Singapore there that you miss as soon as you return to the UK. For me ‘working harder’ isn’t the answer, it is more about working smarter and having a pride in your nation that will enhance our productivity levels. Singapore is an exciting place to do business and a cultural hub for the Asia Pacific Region. For the last 18 months, we’ve been working with leaders across the government sector within a large number of ministries in the civil service. In contrast to the austerity measures being implemented in the UK’s public sector, the Singaporean government is embracing good quality leadership development. They see it as central to enhancing the capability of Singaporeans in their continuous striving to be the best in everything they do. It’s key to their drive to increase productivity and economic growth.

During the current global economic crisis, Singapore continues to command good economic growth, much higher than countries in Europe and the States. Singapore has recently been rated as the third most competitive city globally and the fourth most desirable place to live and work in the world. But while a number of Western nations have traditionally had influence on Singapore, most notably the USA in the area of leadership development, it is the modern, culturally sensitive and flexible British approach that is resonating strongly with Singaporean organisations today.

They are shifting away from the off-the-shelf, “this-is-the-only-360-you-need” type of approach in favour of genuine tailoring and peer group Action Learning Sets, which enable managers to support and challenge each other on the real life leadership issues happening inside their organisation. This challenging and thought-provoking take on leadership appeals to a highly-educated and sharp intellectual audience who value the new insights that this brings to themselves and their organisations.

As thousands line the streets to watch the Olympic torch weave its way around Britain and we prepare to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee, the Singaporean respect for our approaches to leadership development is something we can be proud of, particularly in today’s challenging economic environment. As we share our success in developing people in other highly culturally diverse nations in the east such as Singapore, I believe we can learn much ourselves from the Asian mindset and their own productivity success story. Development of their people is at the heart of that success story, even in a tough economic climate.