It can get lonely being in top management, especially in Asia.
Due to the lack of support from peers, senior executives leading multinational companies (MNCs) in Singapore can feel left out professionally. Not to mention that if they are in a regional role, they can feel left out from their headquarters (HQ) as well. This is why when looking for a solution for executive loneliness, executives should look to long term and prioritise building support structures.
According to the Economic Development Board (EDB), Singapore has the greatest headcount of regional executives in the region as 46% of Asian Regional Headquarters (ARHQ) are based in Singapore. Unfortunately, the leadership team at HQ sometimes fails to appreciate the unique challenges faced by the executives leading the outposts.
An American research journal published in 2020 by health services organisation, Cigna, has found that executive loneliness is at an epidemic level with 57% of senior executives feeling as if they had no one to turn to and 70% felt that no one really knew them well.
I, on the other hand, have conducted qualitative research as a study for a book I am writing regarding executive loneliness and have spoken to 55 Regional Directors based in Singapore in order to understand their own experiences. I have found that 30% of respondents are currently or have been suffering from depression and 82% found it difficult to talk about stress and depression in their company.
Navigating Cultural Peculiarities
Of course, Singapore does provide executives with a high standard of living—ease of access to the rest of Asia, excellent medical care and great despite being costly education for kids. However, the one key area that Singapore ranks poorly on international rankings is a work-life balance.
Singaporeans are used to ‘showing face’ and ‘presenteeism’ by staying in the office well beyond regular working hours. Many of them also call or message their superiors or colleagues in evenings and on weekends to demonstrate their ‘always on’ approach to work and expect an immediate response as well.
There are still cultural peculiarities despite the low cultural barriers to entry in Singapore between Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei, Laos and Cambodia for regional executives to grasp even if they have been raised in Singapore.
Due to the lack of understanding of cultural etiquette, executives running the Asian operations of international companies may feel alienated from colleagues at head office. The counterparts at HQ may not understand how business is conducted in Asia and as a result, regional leaders tend to feel isolated as they have no one to turn to for valid advice or informed second opinions.
The challenges are far greater for expatriates. These executives that moved to Asia are typically the sole provider. This means that they are responsible for their family’s housing, schooling and healthcare. In order to keep the status quo on an even kneel at home, the breadwinner is often reluctant to bring their workplace challenges back home and thus, compounding feelings of isolation.
Curbing Loneliness with Support Structures
Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) go through significant challenges as it was revealed from PwC’s 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey 2020 that there is an increase in pessimism among CEOs across the Asia Pacific. This is due to them having to deal with uncertain economic growth, trade conflicts, geopolitical uncertainty and many more.
Psychologists are also worried that there are signs of a loneliness epidemic spreading across most developed nations. In the United Kingdom, for instance, research done by the New Economics Foundation estimated that the problem was costing UK businesses £2.5 billion (S$4.33 billion) per year.
Regional firms should prioritise building a support structure for their executives. To do so, they could include social and professional networks, greater autonomy in decision-making processes and regular communication with head office on local issues.
At the same time, CEOs and directors coming to Asia should be given orientation or “pre-empts” as to how isolation can impact both their personal life and performance at work. They should be given the space to build connections and time to create a support network for themselves.
It is important for multinational and regional companies to build a tone of tolerance and understanding of the different cultures to minimise the feelings of isolation.
As the Managing Director with EGN (Executives’ Global Network) Singapore, Nick believes in assisting senior executives to help each other face challenges and identify opportunities. Nick has worked across Asia, Australia and Europe representing major international firms and acquired international general management, direct sales and marketing experience. He has also been entrusted to serve as the Vice-Chairman of the Nordic Chamber of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh City and the Vice Chairman of the Direct Selling Committee Vietnam. On top of that, Nick is in the middle of writing a book surrounding this topic, which he plans to publish it this year.