by Natalie Cope
In 2014, Natalie Cope was awarded a BOSS Emerging Leaders MBA Scholarship for 2015 by the University of Sydney Business School and AFR BOSS. Natalie is Asialink's manager of partnerships and development.
I was 18; I had an adventurous attitude and a gap year ahead of me in China. In the first month, I found myself alone on a train and suffering acute appendicitis. I didn't know then how a week in hospital in regional China would change me forever. There I began understanding the complex and subtle differences between our two cultures; I forged relationships I maintain today; and I first recognised how far we Australians needed to leap if we were to be involved with a rapidly developing new world order – centred on Asia.
On the speaking circuit, I am regularly asked by undergraduate students: "Do I start my career in Australia? Or, do I take a chance and get experience in Asia first?" My response is simple: "Do you want a job or a future? If you want a job, stay in Australia, if you want a future, go to Asia."
There is no substitute for in-country experience. The knowledge, learning and skills to be gained are invaluable. In-country experience will lead to an appreciation of local business, political, ethical and regulatory environments. It will help build cultural sensitivity and understanding, and it will allow you to foster rich and meaningful relationships. Having local knowledge and long-term relationships based on trust and mutual understanding will be paramount to commercial success.
However, "Asia capabilities" will be redundant unless the Australian mindset changes. Were the case different, I suspect many more than 17 per cent (Diversity Council, 2014) of our Asian-Australian talent would be optimising their Asia capabilities in the workplace; more than a marginal 9 per cent of Australian businesses would be operating in Asia (PwC, 2014). At the very least, my near-daily encounters with returning Asia-based expatriates frustrated at being unable to utilise their skills and leverage their networks would peter out.
When I meet with businesses, they speak to the challenges; yet the suggestion of building both individual and organisational Asia capabilities is often mistaken as business etiquette – knowing how to pass a business card or where to sit in a meeting room. They quickly remind me they want to learn "real skills", how to identify the tyre kickers or negotiate a fair contract. My response to this is: Asia capabilities.
Among Asia capabilities is a sophisticated knowledge of Asian markets, including familiarity with political, ethical and regulatory practices. It includes an understanding of Asian cultural contexts and a capacity to deal with government. Perhaps most importantly, it includes the establishment and existence of long-term trusted relationships and networks.
With this expertise you will identify and select quality partners and navigate complex business communications. Your knowledge of local business practices will ensure you negotiate the best possible contract. The trust and mutual understanding with your long-term contacts will put your organisation ahead of the competition. Organisations equipped with Asia capabilities exceed business performance expectations in Asia (Asialink, Developing an Asia Capable Workforce).
FAST TRACK TO ASIA READINESS
These skills take time and resources to develop. However, while you begin the process of building capabilities, consider a cheat route that may hasten this trajectory to success: look under your nose. Open your eyes to the skills of your existing personnel. And look to returning expatriates: consider these young graduates, who have taken the plunge and can drive you forward. Leverage the intelligence, skill and knowledge of the 240,000-odd Australian expatriates based in Asia.
Many of the perceived challenges of doing business with Asia are real. The countries, cultures and markets of Asia are vastly different and we will continue to face trade and legal barriers, along with moral and ethical quandaries. No one will ever be able to prevent all mistakes and misfortune.
However, the opportunities presented by the growth in the Asia region are exponential, wonderfully exciting and extend far beyond the traditional sectors, such as commodities, that have dominated Australia's relationship with the region. Your ability to participate will hinge upon your willingness to start actively developing your Asia capabilities.
Indeed, given the amount of inbound activity, it will not be long before these capabilities will be a must-have, not just nice to have. So, I say to businesses, as I do to undergraduates: "Do you want your business to thrive or survive? If you want to survive, remain complacent, if you want thrive, consider Asia." The key to unlocking your future as one involved with Asia's growth is through putting your mind to developing Asia capabilities. Jiãyóu (go for it).
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