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Commentary: How more Singapore talents can earn a seat at the global corporate leadership table

Singapore has long been recognised as a strategic hub for many multinational companies (MNCs) to tap into the markets and talents in Asia. 

Multitudes of home-grown local enterprises have been extending their wings successfully beyond Singapore's shores, says the author.

Multitudes of home-grown local enterprises have been extending their wings successfully beyond Singapore's shores, says the author.

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Singapore has long been recognised as a strategic hub for many multinational companies (MNCs) to tap into the markets and talents in Asia. 

Our strategic location along international sea and air trade routes, status as an international finance and legal centre, strong laws for intellectual property (IP) and copyrights and highly educated workforce that can traverse both Eastern and Western cultures comfortably are all distinctive factors in our favour. 

We are also regarded as a rare neutral ground amidst geopolitical tensions — this was amply displayed when Mr Chew Shou Zi, chief executive officer of TikTok, started off his Congress hearing in March with a short but unmistakable exposition of his Singaporean roots on top of his Western education. 

In fact, beyond MNCs, multitudes of home-grown local enterprises have been extending their wings successfully beyond our shores, leveraging similar advantages to tap global markets. 

Enterprise Singapore’s highly successful Scale Up programme, which supports fast-growth enterprises in doing just that is now in its sixth run and has created over a thousand and counting jobs for Singaporeans. 

With so much action happening across companies on our shores, increased attention on the quality of Singapore corporate leaders has naturally followed. Leaders who will not only be able to navigate the currents but also maximise the opportunities available for their organisations. 

Thoughtful observers of the local corporate scene will notice that more Singaporeans are taking up senior global or regional leadership roles based out of Singapore in a variety of sectors, from technology to fast-moving consumer goods, oil & gas and even financial services — but more needs to, and can be done.   

The importance of global-ready executives capable of steering diverse operations and harnessing talent in an increasingly interconnected world recently came into focus when Singapore’s Alliance for Action on Business Leadership Development — led by the Singapore Business Federation — launched a report just last month proposing six recommendations to help more local talents take on corporate leadership roles globally.   

As the world’s eighth most expensive city for expatriates, ambitious Singaporeans should capitalise on the non-negligible home-ground advantage we have as incumbents of the region, to punch above our weight and aspire to occupy corporate leadership roles based in the region. 

Ambitious companies that have their sights set on winning in the international markets already know that having global-ready leaders, Singaporeans or otherwise, ready to take on top roles is mission-critical in this post-pandemic world. 

So how should companies go about developing their own pipeline of global-ready leaders?

To answer this question, it is useful to first define what a good global-ready leader looks like. Doing so would also help us understand how to best support the development of local talents. 


It is important to note that developing global-ready leaders is not only about training them in advanced functional skills such as effective communication, programme or project management capabilities. These are important but insufficient in today’s Vuca (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. 

Instead, we find that more basic — but not easy to master — “human skills” like empathy, curiosity, foresight (connecting the dots forward), adaptability and resilience are equally, or even more pivotal for predicting future success in a leader. 

For example, the executive search firm I work at recently combined a variety of assessment methods for a healthcare client to validate its high potential talent and identify areas of development. We found that a big differentiating factor behind these talents was their agility. 

This trait was driven by purpose and ambition to create a positive impact in the world! 

In a post-pandemic world, it seems intuitive that the best talents of the client have found renewed meaning in their work, and making the connection to the larger purpose for the rest of their employees has now become a key focus area of the executive team. 


So how does one build agility in its leaders? 

The answer lies partly in identifying your most promising talents early and giving them ample runway and opportunities to flex and hone their agility muscles in different operating environments and contexts. 

This requires investment in and deliberate design of suitable talent management programmes that involve career pathway design, job rotations, overseas postings, externships/attachments, coaching and mentorships. 

The most progressive companies stitch these up in coherent milestone leadership development programmes that aim to develop their leaders systematically as they progress through the ranks. 

These programmes could even marry significant family milestones with those of the companies — for example, tailoring international assignments by making them available earlier and for shorter periods, or even providing support for their familial needs when they get posted overseas. 

The recent Singapore Global Executive Programme launched by Enterprise Singapore aims exactly to provide human resource support to fast-growth companies in management and growing their pipeline of future talents. 

However, getting the talent management structure right is just part of the solution. 


We find that companies that are talent magnets and consistently produce high-quality global leaders are those that are “culture accelerators”. 

And more pertinently, these culture accelerators are also those who win in business by being significantly more profitable than their peers. 

According to our survey, companies led by “culture accelerator” CEOs have financial performance that’s more than double that of other companies we surveyed.  

So, what is a winning culture? In a nutshell, our research tells us that a winning culture is one that is purpose-driven and drives both inclusion and innovation. 

Companies that have excelled in cultivating a winning culture were found to be purpose-driven with a focus on innovation. 

Typically, employees who are part of purpose-driven companies have a deeper understanding of how the work they do impacts the world around them.

This makes them more likely to work collectively and collaboratively to achieve the company’s goals, transcending differences and focusing on their shared purpose. 

An inclusive work environment also allows employees to feel more comfortable speaking up and sharing unique perspectives, ultimately promoting a culture where the best ideas can emerge and diverse viewpoints are considered. 

That is why it is unsurprising that Heidrick & Struggles’ leadership monitor survey revealed that 72 per cent of Asia-Pacific executives have changed their leadership style and company’s culture by a great deal or a lot to become more inclusive in the past year. 

When employees feel that their voices are being heard, they feel more empowered to perform at work and are hence more likely to think innovatively. 

This, in turn, fosters adaptability, enabling leaders to navigate challenges more easily with flexibility and enhance resilience during turbulent times. 

In essence, to develop global-ready leaders, we need to identify them early, give them enough runway to flex and hone their agility muscles and build them to be purpose-driven, inclusive leaders with the skillsets to lead and steer innovation. 

The more intentional and systematic we are in doing this for local talents, the better the odds of having even more Singaporeans take up global corporate leadership roles. 


Tonny Loh is a partner at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles’ Singapore office and a member of Heidrick Consulting.

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