The leadership challenge brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be understated. Personal wellbeing and safety have clashed with a rapidly changing business landscape, accelerating us into the future of work.

After such a tumultuous year, a year in which many leaders have stood up and found new ways to connect and engage their people, we wanted to reflect on the implications that 2020 has for leadership and business. 

Here, our leaders share four top priorities for APAC organisations as they prepare to rebound in 2021.

  • Productivity = Digitisation + Agility 

In a year where time seemed to slow down for individuals, many businesses experienced the opposite. To sustain and improve productivity, speed to market and organisational agility, leaders are rapidly acting to speed things up.

Many are finding their answers in digitisation. According to the Future of Jobs Report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), 84 percent of global businesses plan to accelerate the use of digital tools and video conferencing to enable remote work and 50 percent are accelerating the automation of tasks in response to COVID-19. 

But technology alone is not the answer. Productivity also relies on wellbeing and the WEF noted that many organisations are seeking to create communities digitally. Employee engagement, of course, remains critical.  

Alongside these measures, leaders need to find ways to create greater agility as it’s this, combined with digitalisation, that will really drive productivity. ‘Layers of bureaucracy will hinder speed to market and they will increase the time to customers,’ explains Satya Radjasa, Managing Director and Senior Client Partner at Korn Ferry Indonesia. ‘Response time must become much faster and this can only be done through nimble, agile structures. Crucially, organisations need to disband bureaucracies and instead empower their people to act.’ 

This change is cultural and needs to be approached as such. This will mean different things from country to country and organisation to organisation. As Junichi Takinami, Country Managing Director and Senior Client Partner at Korn Ferry Japan notes, ‘Japan has long enjoyed being a world leader in developing technologies, but internal business operations have not kept up. Japanese organisations must act quickly to adopt digital technologies as a key driver of transformation, or risk falling further behind.’

Despite being at the forefront of technologies ranging from imaging chips to electric vehicle batteries, Japan ranked 23rd out of 63 nations in digital competitiveness last year, according to the International Institute for Management Development. While a chronic labor shortage caused by the declining population was already spurring businesses to automate, the COVID-19 outbreak is pushing the transition to the digital workplace into higher gear.’’ 

In contrast, many local Chinese organisations have been able to take market share from global brands on the back of their ‘digital DNA,’ explains Claudia Wu, Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry, China. ‘Their innovation and ability to respond to consumers is amazing, powered by shorter decision chains. Their ‘trial and error’ cycle is much shorter and enabled by the digital environment in China.’ 

  • Future-proofing the workforce

The productivity gains on offer through digitisation are, however, only possible with the right talent, in a diverse and inclusive workplace. Organisations must develop a clear overview of their existing talent pool, benchmarked against the skills and talent mix needed for future success.

Future talent isn’t only going to be agile or digitally-savvy or entrepreneurial; they must be all of the above,’ says Prashant Chadha, Managing Director, Advisory and Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry Malaysia. ‘Pre-pandemic, many organisations had already begun the work of articulating competencies and leveraging technology to assess and understand their current workforce. But now closing the gap between the existing skill mix and the future skill mix as well as identifying potential successors to de-risk the business has become a priority as we accelerate out of this pandemic and into the new world. 

Future talent isn’t only going to be agile or digitally-savvy or entrepreneurial; it must be all of the above. Click To Tweet

This may also mean looking externally to bring in skills and talent. ‘Organisations are consciously hiring for the future, not just for today,’ says Navnit Singh, Chairman and Managing Director of India for Korn Ferry. ‘They’re looking for people who can navigate ambiguity and remain optimistic and resilient in the face of constant change. They're not just looking for someone who will stay with the business today and grow with the market. They’re really asking where can this person take us? How will we look three to five years down the road?’ 

  • Cost optimisation

As the global economy contracted, organisations naturally turned to cost optimisation as a survival tactic. But organisations can’t cut costs to the point where it dismantles employee engagement and enablement, thereby stifling innovation and employee development. There needs to be a balance. 

Organisations naturally turned to cost optimisation as a survival tactic. But there is a limit to what you can cut before stifling innovation and employee engagement. Click To Tweet

It’s those organisations that carefully balanced cost optimisation with targeted measures to increase efficiency – like optimising reward spend, reviewing operational models and tackling process efficiency – that will be best positioned to accelerate through the recovery. 

Many organisations have identified reward optimisation as a key focus area by going beyond base and traditional rewards. As Mr Chadha explains, ‘organisations are going beyond pay and benefits to aspects that include culture, value proposition, resources and brand. This helps organisations bring the full might of their purpose to drive the right behaviours and success.’ 

  • Leadership

More than ever, organisations need leaders who are agile, inclusive and bring their combined capabilities to influence and drive change. Alongside these traits, the events of 2020 have keenly demonstrated the need for leaders to be accessible and humble, capable of building connection despite uncertainty. 

‘Purpose-led vision is critical in mobilising the ‘esprit de corps’ during the challenging time,’ says Dr. Mana Lohatepanont, Managing Director, Korn Ferry Thailand and Vietnam. ‘Especially in these uncertain times, leaders must have a clear vision for the future and the capacity to articulate it to the people so that they understand where the organisation is heading 

Some countries, like Japan, have also experienced the accelerant effects of the pandemic on leadership reform. ‘This is perhaps the great opportunity for Japanese organisations coming out of the pandemic. The events of 2020 have created the platform for change that organisations need to shift the leadership culture away from the traditional hierarchical model and towards the agile leaders that Japanese businesses need to ensure future success,’ says Mr Takinami. 

‘Many companies have grabbed hold of the opportunity that COVID offers to right size and restructure their workforces,’ says Ms Wu. ‘This echoes the digitalization trend. Organisations need different ways of working, different talent profiles and in many cases disruptive leadership and business models to survive. In many ways, those who take the opportunity to plan ahead will emerge from this crisis much stronger and better shaped for the future. While coping with the epidemic situation, this is also the golden time to reflect and look forward.’ 

Learn how to transform your workforce for the Future of work. Download our new paper: Choose your own future. 


Dr. Mana Lohatepanont,
Managing Director, Korn Ferry Thailand and Vietnam
Satya Radjasa,
Chairman and Managing Director, Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry Indonesia
Junichi Takinami,
Country Managing Director and Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry Japan
Claudia Wu,
Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry China
Prashant Chadha,
Managing Director, Advisory and Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry Malaysia
Navnit Singh,
Chairman and Managing Director, Korn Ferry India


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