Careers can really take off in Asia, outdoing any initial expectations of rewards or benefits. The trajectory Asia-based careers take – and the speed at which they develop and bear fruit – is sometimes completely in your hands. And with rapidly shape-shifting economies stocked with talented engineers and a well-educated workforce, there really is no predicting what the future may bring for Asia’s businesses, or for the corporate careers of expats.
Career take-off has certainly been the case for Laurence Smith, the experienced Managing Director of RBL Asia. Smith is a Singapore-based HR and Leadership Executive who has previously served as the Global Head of Leadership, Learning & Development for LG Electronics in Seoul, where he enabled the transformation of the South Korean firm’s learning organization. Technology in the workplace has certainly proven to be a game changer for Asian companies looking to compete globally, and Smith has harnessed both online technology and social media to better connect and keep employees informed in his practice.
Smith’s familiarity with Asia is regionwide, having also spent several years in Japan as Head of Learning & Development for GE Money Asia in Tokyo. In a five-part interview with AsianTalks, he spoke quite passionately about the ever evolving business scene in Asia. Here is his take on the continuing transformations taking place in the region.
AsianTalks: Where are you from, and as a management consultant, how do you view the vast transformations taking place in the Asia-Pacific region?
So a little background about me, and the transformation of Asia. Actually those two stories run together in an interesting way. I’m from the UK, but grew up an expat kid moving all over the UK, with a couple stints in Holland. So I think my longest living anywhere was four years. But I got interested in my late teens in Asia and my undergraduate was at Lancaster looking at Organization Studies but also looking specifically at what Japanese companies were doing so effectively in the late eighties, to win in the marketplace, and essentially decimate so many British industries: steel, cars, ships, electronics. I was asking then, “What is it Japanese companies are doing so well, and what is there also to learn from Western management and organizational theory?” And if we look at the best of both, is there something that as a fusion can be more effective than either one individually?
That’s been my organizing theme for the last 25 years or so: the synthesis of Western and Asian management and leadership thought. That and enabling technologies to essentially allow organizations to learn quicker, faster, and more effectively.
AsianTalks: And from your base in the UK how did you transition to Asia?
I worked in the UK for a few years, was very fortunate to join an American technology firm — actually what is today the world’s largest e-learning company, then called SkillSoft. I was sent out to Korea, in January ’94, where NETg (Skillsoft) had a partnership with Samsung Data Systems. It was my job to manage that relationship, drive the localization of e-learning and build presence in the marketplace.
I subsequently went to Japan — completely cold — to do the same there: to find a strategic partnership, and do the whole technology transfer initiative as well as managing the rest of Southeast Asia.
AsianTalks: You then took a brief Asia hiatus, even as your career was doing so well. What did you do?
So I did that for four amazing years, did sign a large, strategic partnership in Japan. Then went to the US for grad school, earned a Masters in Organizational Learning, consulted the World Bank on knowledge learning for six months, then was quite unexpectedly offered the opportunity to join McKinsey as an experienced hire in the Organization design practice, and looking at how they could leverage technology to serve clients over a longer, thinner service model, which was fascinating.
But I always wanted to come back to Asia and had the chance to do so with Accenture, and helped them launch their learning outsourcing business in Asia, which was based in Tokyo. Though less than two years later, quite unexpectedly, ended up joining their largest customer, which is GE.
So I was still in Tokyo as the Asia Head of Learning and Development at GE Money, did that for nearly four years, but then got a phone call, and the opportunity to become the Global Head of Leadership, Learning and Development, essentially the Chief Learning Officer, though they didn’t officially have that title for LG Electronics. And for me that was really the ultimate opportunity to put into practice what I had studied for 25 years — my passion of (in this case) playing a small part in globalizing a greater Asian organization, and being part of transforming HR to be both more strategic and to put in place the global systems and processes to allow growth. The vision was to go from a US$50 billion company to a US$100 billion company, and obviously attract and manage global talent to do that, as well as globalizing leadership. And that meant both globalizing the Korean leadership as well as putting in place local leaders around the world.
So in a nutshell that’s been the 25 years of my experience. And the focus has always been on really the fusion of the best of Western and Asian thought, stimulated and enabled by the latest technologies, and most recently of course social media.