East Meets West

A Frazer Jones Chronicle article: The Talent & Culture Series: Published October 2015


When Western companies with global operations evaluate their talent and culture challenges across the Asia-Pacific region, they usually attempt to identify differences between the West and East. They then try to manage these and the potential culture clashes that can occur. George Tan and AIA take a slightly different approach that is paying
dividends in the organisation.


George Tan is a Regional Director of Group Human Resources, responsible for human capital strategy design and execution, leadership development, HR transformation and governance. AIA is the largest independent publicly listed pan-Asian life insurance group represented in 18 geographical markets, with 21,000 employees and more than $160bn of assets. Established in Shanghai almost 100 years ago its listing in 2010 was the largest IPO ever in
the insurance sector. AIA share price is up 128% from IPO price and outperformed Hang Seng index by 120%.

Instead of focusing on the differences, George believes in focusing instead on the similarities. An admittedly simple and perhaps obvious change in approach, but one that many ignore. It is a change that shifts the focus from amplifying how these two cultures aren’t the same to amplifying shared goals and objectives and subsequently improving workforce effectiveness.

George began his career as an industrial psychologist and moved into HR in the 1990’s. This was at a time when assessments were at a new-found peak in Asia and organisations were investing heavily to ensure new hires were better understood and aligned to corporate needs. George quickly learned that there was little point in focusing on the differences. There will always be differences and some of these will always be difficult to overcome. However, there tend to be more similarities and focusing on these can be far more effective in achieving the results that the organisations are aspiring to.

This raises the question of what similarities there are between the East and West. Quite simply, we are all human and as human beings we strive for high self-esteem, we all want a level of achievement and success in various aspects of life. In a work context, organisations can unite employees from different cultures through three key
elements; shared mind-set, goals and clarity in role and responsibilities. This sense of unity can be achieved if employees have an understanding of their organisation’s place in the market, world and society and their role
in contributing to the organisation’s success. For employees, clarity in what to do and how to do it, as well as a clear understanding of how their performance contributes to something larger than themselves are key factors in
creating fulfilment in the workplace.

Uniting cultures through similarities is about having a clear picture of the organisation’s aspirations and establishing expectations of each employee. The organisation needs a clear vision, to set strategic priorities based
on this and then to communicate these on a clear and consistent basis. Communication in this case refers to translating the macro into the micro for the employee. It is communicating what is required from employees and how they can achieve this. This communication sets shared mindset and expectations.


AIA’s leadership has embraced this mentality and has invested a significant amount of time and resources to embed a culture focused on this approach. The organisation has focused on developing a high performance culture that emphasises care and respect, and that is built on the basis of AIA’s Operating Philosophy. “Doing the right thing, in the right way, with the right people, and the results will come”, This also acts as a guide to discuss and solve problems. AIA was listed in Hong Kong in 2010 and at this critical juncture of becoming truly global, made the conscious decision to invest in workshops, roadshows and development programs to embrace the increased diversity of its workforce. One of their key programs is for Senior Leaders, with support and involvement from the company’s Executive Committee, and looks at AIA’s operating philosophy and how as leaders they can use this to make decisions and resolve conflict. The business is also very focused on developing its next generation of leaders. To do so, they look for opportunities to provide critical experiences through stretch projects and internal mobility opportunities. Classroom learning is a small element of the company’s Leadership Development mix. One thing organisations in the East tend to stereotypically be better at than their Western counterparts is longer term thinking. Eastern organisations are renowned for thinking in generations, in twenty to thirty year frameworks as opposed to the Western comparatively short term two, five or ten year thinking. AIA’s focus in establishing a clear vision, translating and communicating that vision and developing a philosophy to drive unification is a strong reflection of this longer term thinking and investment.

Having a global foot print is nothing new but the world’s Talent is becoming increasingly more fluid as employees are embracing international relocation to secure the best opportunities. As such cultural diversity is on the increase. Organisations will continue their fight for the best Talent and a changed view on culture unification and a reminder to clarify expectations through vision and goal communication can only be another valuable differentiator
in securing and retaining the best.