Senior Client Partner
6 Vital Traits for APAC’s Future CEOs
Your next CEO will need to navigate ambiguity, show vulnerability and lead with curiosity and conviction. Here’s how to cultivate those traits from within.
enSkip to main content
6 Vital Traits for APAC’s Future CEOs
Great leaders are crucial to building great companies. And in a world where challenges show no sign of abating, CEOs and future leaders know they need to up their game.
“They need to re-set, find new sources of energy, and broaden their perspectives to sustain the momentum for change,” says Stephen Johnston, Senior Client Partner with Korn Ferry.
In what historian author Yuval Noah Harari describes as an ‘age of bewilderment’, no one expects the CEO to know all the answers. But only the CEO can speak to the entire organization. Their role underpins future business success. And leadership development teams play an increasingly important part in building their resilience to do just that—in a way that empowers and engages everyone.
When asked what defines a successful CEO in the Asia-Pacific region, Johnston describes the fundamental attributes they need to manage—in themselves and in others.
“Their role is fundamentally different to any other role,” he says. “They can’t get bogged down in 1,001 different things. They need to focus on clarity of purpose, building capability, motivational energy, and holding themselves and others accountable.”
He describes clarity as being a ‘meaning maker’—helping people understand their role in the organization’s purpose and journey, and how that guides decision-making. Looking within, it also means being clear on what their personal purpose is as a leader.
“It’s the same for building capabilities, they need to be aware of their own strengths and gaps,” he explains. “If they can spend time on these four dimensions for themselves and others, it’s very powerful.”
Our research has identified the six fundamental capabilities that future CEOs will need to succeed. Underpinning all these traits, according to Johnston, is a tolerance for ambiguity.
“The world is not black and white, and the really good CEOs will need to draw on curiosity and conviction to navigate this,” he says.
Curiosity helps them distinguish fact from fiction, and continuously test their perspectives against other views and knowledge. Conviction, in the face of ongoing scrutiny, helps them make the right decisions for the right reasons.
Here are six ways your leaders can harness their inner curiosity and conviction and steer their teams through uncertainty.
In our eBook on APAC leadership, APAC CEOs said the courage to make big or difficult decisions, as well as the ability to empower and delegate decision-making, are both critical leadership characteristics for future CEOs.
They can only do these things if the leaders and their teams are very clear on their organization’s purpose.
“Effective leaders look at purpose through both a visionary and strategic lens,” says Johnston.
He gives the example of a major insurance group in Australia. “They make every decision based on whether it will contribute to making their customers’ world a safer place.”
This level of clarity helps leaders to galvanize their teams into action.
Our research into how APAC leadership styles changed post-pandemic found people can adapt quickly when given clear direction and reasons to change.
“We have to expect that the world is not going to be linear and benign. And that requires us to take the world as it is and to adapt to it,” said the CEO of a holding company in Singapore.
However, Johnston notes agility can feel evasive when organizational structures are complex.
“We hear in our coaching conversations about the need to simplify and streamline, so we can be more responsive,” he says.
In the post-Royal Commission environment in Australia, there is a strong focus on having honest conversations in the financial services sector. Johnston describes this as “liberating the culture around speaking up.”
“Leaders need to be more constructive in the way they challenge their teams,” he says. This also requires a safe environment to call out issues—and can be more challenging in some Asian cultures where there is a fear of falling short of perfection.
Current CEOs are being challenged to continue sustaining the momentum for change, and at the same time, they often need to make decisions without always having all the information. That takes courage.
“One CEO told me, ‘I have to start breaking things I built in the last few years. That’s the type of self-disruption we need as an organization,’” says Johnston. “And that’s hard, but it inspires others to keep innovating.”
Successful CEOs are building collaborative capabilities within their organizations, as well as external networks to collectively problem-solve and share fresh thinking.
This can be especially difficult in the hierarchical or authoritative structures that are still prevalent across the Asia-Pacific region. It means decentralizing decision-making, and some CEOs will find it hard to relinquish control.
As the CEO of an industry association in Singapore told us, “Business is a continuous moving target. This requires leaders to be more hands off, to delegate more, and to let the regions and the local people manage.”
It’s time to dispel the myth of the hero CEO. “Leaders are not superheroes. Leaders are just like others, not more important,” the CEO of an Australian financial services company said.
That means showing up in an authentic way and admitting you don’t have all the answers. It’s a genuine style of leadership that 61% of APAC CEOs say they value. And while showing vulnerability is challenging, it results in greater employee connectivity and engagement.
So how can you help your future leaders develop these skills and mindsets? Johnston says individual coaching is more effective than a mass activation.
“A lot of it is held deep within, in their world views and beliefs,” he says.
Reflecting on the collaboration, curiosity and conviction expected of leaders today, he says being a CEO is very much a “contact sport.”
“I’m working with a CEO at the moment, and he is surrounded by four different coaches, all working on different areas of mastery to help him reach a higher level of performance,” he explains. “It’s like being an athlete at the top of their game—they need an advisory panel of coaches.”
Coaching can also alleviate the pressure on leaders to believe they need to know everything.
“Being the CEO can be a lonely position. We need to work alongside leaders to help them be more comfortable with vulnerability and ambiguity. The next generation of employees will expect that of their leaders. They want to know more about their values, personality, and beliefs.”
How future-ready is your leadership team? Explore more insights on leading through change.