The Tortoise and the Hare
While a straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, successful careers rarely progress in such fashion…and this can be a good thing. Expat managers in Malaysia, however, will likely encounter a different local perspective when it comes to career development.
Few things in your management career are quite as satisfying as contributing to the career development of your team members. Helping them actively plan their futures and take the right steps toward achieving their career potential is a combination of insight, opportunity, timing, introspection, and a ‘means to an end’ perspective. Twists and turns, which career-wise may equate to lateral moves and forgoing promotions to build a better foundation, often allow employees to reach their career goals sooner and with greater ultimate success. However, this perspective frequently eludes Malaysian staff.
First, let’s review the basics of building a solid career foundation. At the risk of stereotyping, I have found that in the West, developing a foundation, in order to eventually advance one’s career, is seen as logical and wise. Oftentimes, a series of lateral moves (i.e., assignments that provide different learning, experience, and exposure, but are not outright promotions) help cement this career foundation. However, in Malaysia, lateral moves are too often seen as a wasted opportunity, even though when the time for a promotion comes, the lateral move could have made that employee better qualified, and most importantly, more successful once actually promoted.
Along similar lines, many of us have learned that virtually any type of relevant, developmental skills training, internal or external (even to the extent that the employee paid for it), is usually an investment that will pay off later. However, when I have suggested attending training courses to staff in Malaysia, I have often been met with questions such as, “Why should I do that?” As a result, career moves are typically considered only when there is a clear title or hierarchical improvement, but, once made, may actually hinder the chance of further growth as the foundation is lacking. Short-term gain, long-term pain. Plateaued employees are bad for themselves, bad for their companies, and very bad for you as their manager.
Secondly, perspectives on compensation often differ here. I have seen cases in Malaysia where employees have left companies and changed jobs for a very small increase in basic salary. Oftentimes, even a low single-digit percentage increase can lead to a jump. While somewhat understandable in the face of paying bills or saving money, such a minimal increase in basic salary isn’t always worth the trade-off. A new job often comes with its own unique uncertainties and challenges, even when in the same company. Again, short-term gain leading to long-term pain.
Benefits are directly related to salary and are an important part of compensation. I have seen employees jump for improved salary paired with a lower level of benefits. Although I’ve been told, “Salary is what I need to live, benefits are something that I may or may not need,” this can be a short-sighted and costly approach. When these benefits are needed, particularly with regard to health insurance, and have been reduced or eliminated, the employee’s expenses can easily outweigh whatever salary increase was offered. In other words, that small raise actually came at a huge cost.
1. You all know the story of the tortoise and the hare. At least initially, we all want to be the hare – fast out of the gate, leading our peers (in title, compensation, perks, etc.). But remember who ultimately won that race. Position it to your team members this way: leading at intermission or halftime is nice, but leading at the end is all that really matters.
2. Malaysia is a dynamic and evolving environment in which to work; much more so than many mature and developed Western markets. Because of this, and other influences like the weakened ringgit and increased housing prices, employees’ cost of living expenses may be increasing more rapidly. Such factors understandably lend themselves to a desire for short-term financial gratification.
3. However, while being sensitive to your team members’ financial needs is important, a big part of your job as a leader is to illustrate the benefits of creating a solid foundation, with comprehensive competence coming from broad experience and training, as the basis for a successful career. In a building structure, when the foundation is strong, solid, and firm, the building will outlast and outlive its neighbours. Careers are much the same.
In conclusion, what seems to make career sense on impulse often makes little or no sense upon further reflection and longer term thinking. Helping to guide your team members while Managing in Malaysia, possibly illustrating with the story of the tortoise and the hare, is wise, seasoned, career-related leadership.