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  • Writer's pictureTommy Chan, Ph.D., PCC

Coaching in Asia (CIA): Desire

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States, in name alone, is a point of fascination to the public, perceived to have secrets, intrigues and clandestine activities. Like the CIA, the latest practice of executive coaching, especially in Asia, is filled with misinformation and half myths. At the suggestion of colleagues and former clients, this psychologist-turned-coach is pleased to contribute a 4-week summer insight series on the subject of Coaching in Asia (CIA), based on his over 15 years of coaching experience and related business intelligence in the US and Asia. The weekly entries will be posted on LinkedIn beginning the first week of this August. The series aims to de-mystify the coaching practice and its unique dynamics in Asia, hopefully shed some light about coaching in the Asian context, and stimulate insightful feedbacks from its readers.

The first topic for this week is Desire. Others weeks’ entries will address coaching success factors, particularly in Asia such as: Authenticity, Executive Courage and Determination.

It is commonly reported that most successful C-suite executives and entrepreneurs worldwide observe that productive high-potentials and contributors in any organizations tend to be clear about what they want; and more importantly, why they want what they want. Without a keen awareness of what one's desire or motivation is in one's career, it is analogous to the V-6 engine in a new, red Mustang convertible (which this author had the privilege to turn many heads on the day of his 50th Birthday) being filled with gasoline with the lowest Octane rating, instead of the maximum available 92 rating with premium fuel additives, to maximize its engine performance. In other words, when one does not have clarity on his/her motivation and desire, it is comparable to driving on a foggy highway with low visibility. One has to drive defensively and will not go fast.

In Asia, senior executives may not be as clear about their desire or reasons for success compared with their international counterparts in the corporate ranks, or at least not as willing or capable to articulate what they want in their careers and why. There are subtle work dynamics that explain these differences, and one may miss this intangible phenomenon when one fails to understand its origin and neglect to listen and observe. For fear of “showing off,” which is largely a less desirable cultural trait in Asia than in the West, especially in board room settings and among colleagues, Asian executives are often at risk of not projecting a purposeful and charismatic impression with executive presence, thus possibly curbing their visibility or professional recognition among their Western counterparts. In addition, Asian cultural values and daily practices tend to highly focus on problem-solving and executing concrete solutions of the here-and-now. Asian executives may fear that thinking on and detailing one's purpose and intention could come across as esoteric, overly far-fetched and non-pragmatic, work traits that may be perceived as less desirable in Asia. Third, lacking early education and family nurturance on free and independent thinking among Asian executives may compromise one's confidence and comfort level in recognizing and expressing one's desires. To extrapolate from a common cultural practice, it is not uncommon that as a young child in Asia, at least three or four decades ago, one was taught implicitly not to say no or refuse food being offered by the host family. (This coach recalls reluctantly eating an apple pie when offered by the host family over a Thanksgiving holiday in Michigan even though he detested the texture of cooked fruits in a starchy pie and its taste. Just out of courtesy and not wanting to offend, he ate it with a smile even as a supposedly confident doctoral student in Michigan!) Seemingly minor cultural nuances and practices as such, when repeated over time in multiple social settings would unknowingly train someone to be less clear and less assertive about one's personal desire. When such overly respectful traits are manifested in the senior corporate team setting, these executives can be operating at a disadvantage among his Western peers.

One last comment worth noting on the subject relates to the stage of economic development in Asia. Many economists and political scientists agree that real economic reform to become a market economy with continuous growth did not happen until 1992 in China. In a mere 25 years or less, China and its citizens have transformed her lifestyle and mindset from "survive-to-thrive," being at the cusp of overtaking the US at the top spot as the world's largest economy. For example, Asian senior executives who are currently in their 50's and 60's and who grew up about four to six decades ago in Asia literally may not have the comparable exposure to role models and mentors who were able to articulate their personal dreams and aspirations, let alone coming up with their own. All the while, their Western counterparts were enjoying relative prosperity during the post-WWII period, as a child or teenager, and were more likely to live in an environment where one could see role models who dreamt big and they could be more likely to be encouraged and expected to go far. Such contrast in upbringing and exposure in the 1950's, 60's and even 70's between Western children and adolescents and their Asian counterparts could dictate their trajectory in the area of career desire and motivation. Western executives, on the other hand, would tend to gravitate toward their career directions based on goals and aspirations, more so than their Asian peers. Nevertheless, as the aggregate of private wealth in Asia-Pacific exceeds that of North America for the first time, as reported just a couple of months ago, this dynamic contrast may gradually fade or no longer apply in this generation of young people who are incubated to be future global business leaders.

At the risk of over-generalization about coaching in the Asian context, one could draw some, though not exhaustive, implications to the effective practice of Coaching in Asia (CIA):

1 Clarify what the clients want to achieve as a priority, especially at the beginning phase of coaching.

2 Facilitate clients' articulation on the underlying reasons for their desire and specify benefits of this focus with case examples.

3 Assist clients to couch and visualize their desire and aspirations in pictures with full Technicolor, music, sound, smells or symbolism.

4 Accept clients' doubts and uncertainties and encourage them that it is a journey to discover and not a examination grade to pass or fail, as they may be accustomed to in Asian education, if one does not readily define their career desire and motivation.

5 Facilitate the coaching conversation with credibility and direct feedbacks, instead of being vague and open-ended, if one indeed has mastery over the subject matter. Clients in Asia typically expect coaches to be more directive and offer expert guidance in order to solicit buy-in and see the value of coaching. In addition to playing the role of an intelligent and well-informed sounding board, coaches in Asia could explicitly explain the relevance and utility of clear career desires and aspirations by illustrating with business cases across industries.

Until next week's insights on CIA, let us coach with business intelligence!

Author's Profile:

Dr. T. Chan is a Michigan State University-trained Chinese-American business psychologist with an integrated cultural and commercial background. He regularly coaches senior executives in Asia to transverse and narrow the gap between the Western multinational business mindset and Asian approaches in business performance in his private firm after holding senior posts in Korn Ferry and CEB/SHL. Fluent in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, he is a highly sought-after speaker, workshop facilitators and senior executive coach for over 20 years in Asia and the USA. Based in Hong Kong and Atlanta, USA, Dr. T. Chan could be reached at:

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