Teach a Man to Fish

By Pete Brunoehler

By Pete Brunoehler

Malaysia is but one stop in your expat career; in time, you’ll move on. As a result, your team here, along with your company, will benefit when you teach and delegate, not when you decide and do everything independently.

As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This is a good analogy for your time as a manager and team leader in Malaysia. To truly benefit from your time together, your team will need to learn from you. An effective way to promote this is through extensive delegation. Constantly asking, “What do
you think?” and some variation of “What should we do?” will make it clear to them that they can and should step up their own decision-making.

Let me begin with the story of a delegation experience I had when I started managing in Malaysia. This is not a negative commentary on the team involved – they were in fact very good at what they did – but rather a commentary on me, as the new leader, and how I misunderstood and subsequently
mishandled the situation.

My team had organised and given to me a thorough and detailed overview of actions they had taken to address a serious customer problem with one of our key products. This team included my Head of Sales, Technical Director, and Service Manager – all the key leaders needed to solve the problem that they had encountered. The good news was that I was really impressed at their efforts to inform me as to what they had done to begin to address the customer’s problem. The bad news was that I was not aware that they wanted me to tell them what to do next!

This sounds crazy, right? In hindsight, it was an amazing oversight. But at that point in my career, my experience had mainly been with Western teams, where I was used to subordinates who would directly tell me or ask me about the next step. This was a cultural difference further compounded by the team also feeling it was awkward and inappropriate to directly ask for my direction, thus (in their view) making me look silly for not having known
that they wanted me to provide this direction. So, after their update, nothing happened. No direction from me. No decisions from them. No action taken. The situation remained stagnant and unresolved.

Key takeaways from this experience:

  1. Your team in Malaysia will be expecting you, as their boss, to make many decisions that you may feel that they could and should make on their own. Further to that point, if you don’t tell them what to do, they may not ask
    you to do so.

  2. In your role as a leader who teaches your team how to manage their businesses, you need them to make decisions – or at the very least suggest suitable solutions. Phrases such as, “What do you want to do next?”, “What do you recommend we do now?”, “What do you think are the two best options going forward?” can be very effective – modified to fit your style of management, of course.

  3. When encouraging subordinates with empowering phrases like these, you may naturally feel some risk and possible loss of control over the decision. However, in a situation like this, you must always ask yourself “What’s the worst that can happen?” if their decision differs from what yours would have been. More often than not, it’s not going to be too impactful.

  4. Your job as an expat manager is to do, yes, but even more so, it is to teach. This is what your company expects of you. The reality is that many expat roles are increasingly being filled locally, and while it may seem illogical to further accelerate your own demise, your company needs you to produce results. Even more so, it needs you to teach others how to produce these results. Remember, you will likely move on; your team members will likely stay. Good short-term results are not enough if the foundation is lacking.

When you successfully develop your team through empowerment, it really is a “win-win-win” scenario – for you as an expat manager, for members of your team, and for your company. And while there may be an expectation from your
team and quite possibly a temptation from you to make more of the key decisions (or nearly all of them), fight that urge. Consistently ask for their decisions. Make it clear you will repeatedly do so. You can and should challenge the decisions, and in some cases (depending on the gravity and implications) modify or override the decisions, but let them generally be their decisions. The independence and confidence that will develop as a result are a lasting legacy that you can leave behind when you move on.

Pete Brunoehler is Managing Partner of AMark Consulting Southeast Asia, the first Asian office of US-based AMark Management Consulting. AMark partners with clients in a variety of industries to overcome internal and external growth barriers, and to maximize performance and profitability. For more information, please visit amarkconsulting.com, or contact him with no obligation at petebrunoehler@amarkconsulting.com.