Leadership and People Analytics – How is it different in the East?

The recently published Global Leadership Forecast 2018 highlighted that the biggest challenge facing the 1000+ C-Level Executives who participated in

Leadership & People Analytics: How is it different in the East? (David Green & Arun Sundar)
    Published on

David Green

Follow Following Unfollow David Green

Sign in to follow this author

People Analytics Leader | Conference speaker/chair | Board advisor: Insight222/TrustSphere | CEO: Zandel/davidrgreen.com

: The Global Leadership Forecast 2018, top 10 challenges (Source: Development Dimensions International, The Conference Board and EY, 2018)

The recently published Global Leadership Forecast 2018 highlighted that the biggest challenge facing the 1000+ C-Level Executives who participated in the study is Developing Next-Gen Leaders (see ). This study notably places leadership and talent above much more supposedly newsworthy issues such as political uncertainty, economic instability or even the threat from new competitors.

A similar finding was also identified in The Conference Board’s 2017 CEO Challenge report. The changing nature of the business landscape requires organisations to steer through uncertainties. No strategy can succeed if it is not backed by effective leadership.


Another significant transformation we are witnessing is the shift of economic power from the West to the East. Asia Pacific is not only home to more than 60% of the world’s population but has also enjoyed unprecedented economic growth and is therefore attracting a lot of interest and investment from businesses across the globe. With this comes the prerequisite of top notch talent in Asia, leadership being the most vital as it ultimately paves the way for future success. Indeed, research by renowned HR and leadership guru Dave Ulrich and Justin Allen into how talent delivers performance for Asian firms found empirical evidence that Asian leaders who invest in talent development will increase their organisation’s business performance.

Billions of dollars are spent annually on leadership development programs ($14 Bn in the US alone in 2014 according to Forbes). Asia is no exception. Yet research shows that most leadership development programs in the region fail to achieve desired outcomes. Why is that? Is there something unique about the way leadership is defined in Asia? How can People Analytics help?


To get more visibility on these questions and more, I spoke with Arun Sundar who has a deep understanding of People Analytics and experience in building and running businesses in the West and in the East. Arun is currently the Chief Strategy Officer of TrustSphere and the founder of The Social Capital Institute. In this interview in addition to providing an explanation of the differences associated with practicing people analytics when it comes to leadership in Asia, Arun has also invited comments from other experts in the HR and people analytics community in the region.

Contributors to this article (L to R): Arun Sundar (TrustSphere), Grace Yip (Accenture), Peta Latimer (Mercer) and Hunter Morgan Davis (Grab)

As such, this article includes contributions from Grace Yip Managing Director & Head of HR, Accenture ASEAN, Peta Latimer CEO Mercer (Singapore) Hunter Morgan Davis People Analytics Lead at Grab.

Q1: How does ‘leadership’ differ in the East compared to the West?

‘Leadership’ is essentially leading people towards a desired direction. This requires a vigilant interplay between the ‘people’ who are led and the ‘system’ that they belong to. Both the people and the systems are vastly different in the East and the West. Hence ‘leadership’ as a concept is also bound to differ. In the East, ‘the individual is a subset of the system’ whereas in the West ‘a system is a collection of individuals’. This difference, though subtle, is very profound. It renders itself in the expectations of a leader. In the West, the primary focus is on ‘individual empowerment and human capital optimisation’ while the East tends towards ‘group harmony, optimisation of the system and social capital expansion’ which in turn trickles down to the individual. Hence the objective of leadership and the ‘concept’ of leadership itself differs in the East compared to the West.

Having said that, this dichotomy may not be immutable, especially in organisations and communities where the Western values around libertarian thinking are gaining prominence. In effect, organisations in the East fall into a broad spectrum of ‘purely eastern’ on one end to ‘westernised’ on the other. Most reside in between; where the interchange of Western and Eastern influences co-exists to varying degrees. The expectations and the very definition of leadership depends on where the organisation is on this spectrum.

Grace Yip a good friend and Managing Director and Head of HR, Accenture ASEAN is one of the few HR leaders who appreciates this difference, in her words;

“The main difference between how leadership is viewed in the East and West lies with the perspectives that we grow up with, and the role models we hold close to our hearts and who inspire us. I find that in today’s world, there is more of a meeting in the middle, and an appreciation of different perspectives. Leaders now need to flex more across different situations instead of being rigid to a single approach. In a time where innovation is propelling our world forward, pivoting our leadership behaviour towards one that is more agile, adaptive and more context sensitive is becoming more important than ever” Grace Yip, Managing Director & Head of HR, Accenture ASEAN

2. That’s a fascinating insight. The importance of leadership development cannot be over emphasised across the world, including in Asia for sure. How do you think People Analytics can help?

As I mentioned earlier, organisations in the East are not uniform in the extent to which they are influenced by Western thinking. Understanding where it stands in this spectrum (of East and West) is very important. This is where a discipline backed by science and data such as People Analytics can help.

It goes even further. Understanding what traits are critical to a leader specific to that organisation and its culture, then measuring those traits together with measuring the effectiveness of programs for the enhancement of these traits are areas where People Analytics can help.

Let me explain with an example.

“The need to upskill, reskill and redeploy the workforce has caught the attention of most Executive teams across Asia due to significant investments in digital transformation. Many leaders understand the extent of change required but appear to have less of an appreciation of what they themselves need to start doing differently. This is particularly prevalent in Asia where leadership is often associated with positional power, hierarchy and tenure” Peta Latimer, CEO Mercer (Singapore)

We know that ‘power distance’ is viewed differently in the East and the West. This is a vector that can reveal where the organisation lies in the spectrum of Eastern values to Western thinking. Understanding the extent of ‘power distance’ that is acceptable (sometimes it is a requirement in certain cultures) is crucial in leadership development. In a system where power distances are very high, the social capital distribution of leaders will mirror the organisation chart with limited skip level relationships. Techniques like Organisational Network Analysis (ONA) can help uncover these patterns, by helping to identify future leaders and programs that could be built to develop these leaders.

Peta Latimer, CEO of Mercer in Singapore,has a ring side view of the state of leadership development in Asia, I agree with her views when she says;

Figure 2: A framework for people analytics (Source: Arun Sundar and Dipti Gulati, TrustSphere)

3. Given the definition of leadership itself is different in the East, does the approach to People Analytics also need to be different?

David, you will recall in our previous interview I made reference to the framework of People Analytics (see below):

“I find that the dimensions of culture (e.g., power distance, time orientation, etc.) do impact the approach leaders and their organisations take to People Analytics. This helps explain the different values that companies and their respective cultures place on factors that impact the entire people analytics lifecycle. Do we keep data anonymous or confidential? How do we want to share data and insights across the company? Culture drives how leaders answer these fundamental questions, which then impacts the type of data you collect, how and where you store it, and then what you can do with your data after. Finally, ensuring that these values and the approach to people analytics are aligned are critical to the success of people analytics teams” Hunter Morgan Davis, People Analytics Lead at Grab

All of the four stages above are nuanced for every organisation as each has a different culture. In hierarchical organisations, communication is formal and gets captured as most interactions are official. Informal communications tend to be higher in the more ‘westernised’ organisations. Data is created differently, depending on the culture of the organisation. Not only data creation but also the subsequent stages of data collection, analytics and consumption of analytics vary from one to the other. However, the biggest fluctuation comes at the ‘data collection’ stage. Which data points matter and by how much would change from one organisation to another, as would the expectations and perceptions of leaders vary too.

Hunter Morgan Davis is one of the most enthusiastic practitioners of People Analytics in the region, his views in this context are interesting;

4. Can you give a specific example?

There are a few interesting examples that come to my mind. I know for sure that ‘Tenure’ is a hugely important vector in leadership in the East. The more Eastern an organisation the more weight is placed on ‘tenure’ as a data point in quantifying for leadership potential. There are certain cultures where irrespective of capability tenure is a must for a leader to be recognised. A simple Bayesian algorithm to calculate an individual’s capability for leadership will essentially assign a high weightage to ‘tenure’. Classifying this weightage, will also reflect where the organisation stands in the spectrum and how important is the vector of tenure to its leader.

5. Could you give any broad advice/suggestions to organisations that are embarking on their People analytics journey on leveraging it for aspects of organisational leadership?

My primary advice is “Do not presume”. While the difference between the Eastern and Western cultures is not ‘chalk and cheese’, the understanding of the subtle nuances is important when one is looking at ‘leadership and its traits’. Organisations need to review and be sure that the very essence of leadership is clearly defined in its own context. Even the same organisation would have different expectations in diverse regions. Therefore, be sure of the premise, then look at data to solve or better it!

In essence, the journey to leverage People Analytics for leadership should start with a whiteboard to define what ‘leadership’ is to your organisation.


Thank you, Arun. Very insightful, as ever.

With this century touted to be an Asian one, and the world’s economy and people development heavily reliant on Asia, the importance of leadership development in Asia is clearly high-priority.

The DDI, Conference Board and EY study referenced in the introduction of this article substantiates this where the development of Next-Gen leaders ranks above more traditional concerns such as political instability, fears of a global recession and competitors; this holds true for the 1,000 C-Level Executives who participated in the study.

However, an approach to leveraging People Analytics for leadership development in the east without appreciating the differences outlined in this article could not only be ineffective but also be detrimental. There is no ‘one size fits all’ format and as such, global organisations with operations in Asia Pacific would do well to take a unique approach that is best suited to the region. This must be applicable at all stages through the People Analytics journey, right from collecting, analysing and gaining insights from projects undertaken in the region.


Thanks to Arun, as well as Grace Yip, Peta Latimer and Hunter Morgan Davis for sharing their knowledge and insights in this article. Also, a special thank you to Dipti Gulati for supporting Arun and me with research, insights and project management. Stay tuned for further articles in this series where Arun and I will talk about other aspects of East versus West and the nuances it brings to undertaking People Analytics in the Asia Pacific region.

Also see Part 1 of the series: People Analytics in Asia Pacific: Why is it different?



Arun Sundar builds and drives the strategic road map, and business ecosystem for TrustSphere across the globe. He also leads initiatives for enhancing visibility of the technology with industry visionaries, customers, partners, academics and futurists worldwide. Arun is a regular speaker and opinion leader in the Asia Pacific technology space. He has built, led and advised many technology businesses both in the region and world-wide. In his personal capacity, Arun is an eminent champion of and commentator on the trending subjects of People Analytics and Machine Learning. He also serves as the Founding Chairman of the Asia Analytics Alliance, a Board Member with Asia Cloud Computing Association, an executive committee member of Singapore IT Federation, a Charter Member of TiE (Singapore Chapter) and an advisor to multiple technology ventures and initiatives. Connect with Arun on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.

David Green is a globally respected speaker, advisor and executive consultant on People Analytics, data-driven HR and the future of work. He works with HR practitioners and organisations to leverage analytical insights from employee data to drive business outcomes, increase performance and improve employee experience and well-being. Prior to launching his own consultancy business and taking up board advisor roles at Insight222 and TrustSphere, David was the Global Director of People Analytics Solutions at IBM Watson Talent. As such, David has extensive experience in helping organisations embark upon and accelerate their People Analytics journeys. Connect with David via his website, on LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter, subscribe to his Data Driven HR Newsletter and read his blogs on LinkedIn Pulse, Data Driven HR and UNLEASH.

People Analytics Leader | Conference speaker/chair | Board advisor: Insight222/TrustSphere | CEO: Zandel/davidrgreen.com

Article by channel:

Read more articles tagged: People Analytics