Asia has always been a lucrative destination from a commercial point of view, despite its vast complexities and regional variances. For HR leaders as well, Asia offers a number of experiences and opportunities for growth and experimentation.

Recognising this, we find many are keen on ‘ticking’ Asia off their checklist of the world’s best regions to work in. And why not? With the evolution in the function, the HR space in Asia is abuzz with different challenges.

Let’s hear it from these leaders themselves – why working in Asia has been so memorable and important to advancing their HR careers.

Having spent close to six years in Singapore, Renee van der Burg recently returned to the Netherlands. She cites her time as HR leader for NXP Operations as teaching her valuable insights: the ability to pick up your life and start elsewhere from scratch, the exposure to different cultures, the fact that key principles in HR on talent, people engagement, leadership and even compensation and benefits are universal.

But what makes Asia a “not-to-be-missed” experience? “The ever-present sense of urgency, the focus on performance and getting results, the dynamic energy and spirit, the can-do attitude that is so characteristic for the region,” she says, adding these made her a better HR leader.

No discussion on Asia is complete without a check-in with China, and we have the experience of Giorgio Davidoni to count on, vice president, human resources, Lilly China since October 2010. Asia is the third continent he has worked in, and he admits that sometimes Western colleagues ask him: “How is it working with Chinese people?”

Davidoni’s answer always is: “There is no difference. Human beings are human beings everywhere.”

But you need to pay attention to the details, he affirms, explaining with the help of an example: “If an American and a Chinese are thirsty, you know what to do – you need to give them water. To the American however, it is better to give a big glass with ice and water. To the Chinese, a small cup with hot water.”

“So the basic, i.e. water for thirsty people, is the same everywhere in the world, but it is the small details that make a big difference,” he adds.

Apart from this significant advice, Davidoni shares his experience in China has been great, owing to the important of this market for global companies. “Learning to operate in a fast moving economic system has helped me to learn different skills, better understand the ‘small details’ that make the difference. This brings me more opportunities to help local talent grow as world leaders,” he says.

In conversations with business leaders in this part of the world, what seems to hold true is, that to be an effective global leader, having an experience in Asia is a must. London-based Matthew Kimball, presently vice president of HR, at Shell Chemicals, attests to this.

“I have been fortunate to have had a truly international career with three great companies. Accenture, Merck and Shell have provided me with the opportunity to live and work in six different countries across four continents,” he explained.

Citing his time in Asia as pivotal to his development, he says: “Working in Asia both commercially and functionally you are continually confronting assumptions, problems and opportunities which you’ve never encountered before. All of these come at you at a pace of which you haven’t experienced before.” Kimball calls this “working in the grey zone.”

Additionally, Kimball says assumptions about “one Asia” are quickly blown out of the water as you work in the region, supporting all interviewees take on learning cross-cultural leadership. “Over time, you understand the deep cultural, religious and historical differences which underpin ways of working and impact the way we approach commercial opportunities.”

Innovation and new business models thrive in Asia, affirms Kimball. What does this mean for an HR leader’s development? “New differentiated employee value propositions, engaging employees in new ways, rethinking market rewards and benefits, and defining new development paths.”


This article was first published in Human Resources and is reproduced with permission. Original article can be found at


Why leading HR in Asia is a must for your career: HR heads weigh in