Why Communication is the Cornerstone of an Effective Leader
Communication is key in every process, especially when it comes to leadership. Derek Goldberg, Managing Director of Asia Pacific for Aetna International, takes us through his enriching journey into the types of skills he has learned and picked up over various roles and cultures, transforming him into the leader he is today.
I started out my career in an entry-level, front-line role: answering phones, assessing claims and coordinating medical assistance cases. From there, I moved into project management then followed by managing claims and call centre teams that emerged from some of the projects I worked on.
Over the years, I moved on to roles in sales and account management, provider network development, marketing, product development, then eventually into senior management and executive roles. Across all these roles, I only ever applied for two jobs; in every other case the new roles “found” me.
There are two main lessons I draw from this in terms of my own path to leadership. First, being very hands-on in a broad range of roles early in my career gave me good perspective across the entirety of the business, and this broad yet deep experience served me well as I advanced. Second, by focusing on each role I held and striving to contribute as much positive impact as possible, I never had to worry too much about managing my career. The next opportunity always found me when the companies I worked for grew or I was recruited into open positions.
Although my path is certainly not the only one, I hope the next generation of leaders can find some useful career insights from this story.
Leading effectively in Asia
It may sound basic but it is worth emphasising how important communication is when navigating across cultures, and that it does not always come easily. There is a story I often think back to from when I was a university student and staying in the home of a Japanese family during a study abroad programme. The mother of this family had the impression that Americans eat a lot, but did not know what they ate, so on the first day she prepared a huge breakfast of sandwiches, salads, breads, pastries - you name it.
I had heard that it was rude in Japan to refuse food that had been prepared for you, so despite not being much of a breakfast person I did my best to eat as much of what she had prepared as possible. After being surprised by how much I ate, she served up even more the next day.
It was only after weeks of gorging on these massive breakfasts, when my Japanese language had progressed enough to comfortably have an honest conversation that we realised the absurdity of the situation. We had a good laugh over that! Back to the original point: a little communication goes a long way!
It has been a great opportunity to be based in Singapore and serving the Asia-Pacific region from here. While there are differences across cultures in people’s expectations and the way they respond to management,
I do not think these differences are as big as they are sometimes made out to be. In fact, I think the similarities across borders and cultures in what it takes to lead are far greater than the differences.
For example, in my experience, people want to feel that they are respected, heard, and treated fairly; they want to understand how their role fits into a bigger picture of the company’s strategy so they can know that they have an impact. They want to understand how they can be supported in their personal development and grow their careers with the company. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but by paying attention to these kinds of fundamentals of human nature while showing common sense and respect towards cultural differences, it is possible to lead successfully across a diverse mix of cultures.
Cultivating organisational culture
Cultivating the desired culture at Aetna International and growing rapidly are not incompatible. In fact, I would say the converse is true: that without building the right culture we will not be able to meet our growth objectives. One of my business role models often cited the well-known saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, meaning that having the right corporate culture can be a more important contributor to success than having a good strategy. A few words that reflect the culture we are building at Aetna in Asia would be: diverse, inclusive, empowered, engaged, collaborative, and customer-focused.
What is most exciting to me about 2018 is our plan for continued expansion into additional local markets in Asia. Since entering Asia more than a decade ago, we have established ourselves as a leader in high-end, global coverage, and our products are now available in eight Asian countries. We will continue to lead in the global segment, but 2017 was our first big step into local market segments with an acquisition in Thailand. We have plans to bring together our unique focus on the holistic health and wellbeing of our members and cutting edge capabilities to meet the needs of a much broader cross-section of the population - as we expand into more countries in 2018 and beyond.
Are you a leader interested in developing heightened self-awareness and a deeper understanding of business? Young Leaders Programme covers these topics and more.