Tan Hooi Ling loves not being the smartest person in the room. Which says a lot, because together with co-founder Anthony Tan, Tan has led the dramatic rise of Malaysian startup Grab from Uber challenger in 2012 to a reported $12 billion valuation in 2018.
Thirty-something Tan is the new face of leadership in Southeast Asia. Along with her co-founder and others like Nadiem Makarim, co-founder and CEO of Go-Jek, Tan has shifted the perception of what makes a good leader in the region. Yes, these leaders are often younger, being in their 20s and 30s, rather than their 40s and 50s, but age isn’t the critical factor.
The difference is in how leaders now need to use their experiences, whether they come from three years in the workforce or 33, to look at problems and work through them. It comes down to learning agility and it demands a new approach to talent acquisition and development.
General trumps specific
Organisations can no longer rely on experience as the key recruitment criterion. This approach doesn’t work when leadership is about how flexibly people can think about problems, rather than the rigorous application of a set of skills. Take Google’s example - new hires are famously chosen based on general cognitive ability and leadership first, with specific skills at the bottom of the list.
For startups, hiring based on learning agility has been necessary to maintain growth; these companies have to rely on potential as there simply isn’t enough experience in the talent market and they’re not waiting around.
But it’s not just startups looking to this new brand of leadership. As legacy businesses transition to digital sustainability, seek new territories and develop new offerings, they too must shift away from traditional views on what leadership means and embrace a new approach to talent.
This doesn’t mean discounting the rich experiences that individuals hold. It does, however, mean that leaders with longer tenure need to be able to constantly deploy those experiences in new ways, while new employees should be selected for potential. Experience alone isn’t enough.
The way that experience is shared within organisations is also fundamentally changing. Learning agility means constant learning, and so development can no longer flow one-way, from senior to junior or be locked into a rigid development plan.
People in more senior roles will continue to share their experiences with more junior colleagues, but they must also learn from their team members and across functions. Learning must also become an active goal state, with individuals and their managers always asking: what does the next learning experience look like and where will I find it?
These learning ecosystems are essential for feeding individuals’ learning agility. They push existing leaders forward while developing the next generation. And as the external talent market continues to rage, they’re essential for retaining your talent.
Breaking the talent mould
The examples set by Grab and Go-Jek don’t just herald an evolution of leadership in Southeast Asia, they represent a revolution. And talent practices have to change just as radically.
While this can seem daunting, even radical change can start with just a few simple steps:
- Assess your talent early: Don’t wait for specific milestones, know your talent, their strengths and their gaps, and tailor their learning from day one.
- Hire based on potential: Career pathways are no longer about climbing a ladder, but about participating in a learning ecosystem. So consider each new hire not just for a specific role but across roles.
- Create diverse experiences: Fuel constant learning by actively identifying new experiences for individuals without limitations based on tenure or hierarchy.