To Be a Leader, Put People First, Your Position Second, and Pride Last

Asian culture is very big on tradition. Sometimes it’s harmless, but sometimes it’s not. And there is one tradition I absolutely do not agree with in the office: top-down hierarchy.


This tradition has many names: guanxi, “giving face”, even the euphemistic “respect for elders.” Frankly, I don’t see the point in the workplace. Within your business, be mindful of tradition, but also be aware of where it detracts rather than adds value. Just because I am older than most of my team doesn’t mean I am by default any wiser. In fact, it probably implies I should be learning as much as I can from them.

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I would attribute the success and vibrancy of SAP Concur in Southeast Asia to our blatant disregard for traditional hierarchy. I’m proud of it, and I actively cultivate it at every opportunity that I can. This counter-cultural approach to management is not my own idea: I learned it from how various mentors of mine also encouraged their teams to speak up, be honest, and treat everyone no matter their “rank” with respect and compassion. Here are a few tricks to make this nontraditional approach to management work:


1. Treat your people like people

A collaborative non-hierarchical environment, promotes putting people first, and position second. This strengthens an organization with trusting, mature, and inspired employees. Take each opportunity to interact with everyone within your business – especially your juniors – to foster a healthy respectful, open minded culture. This is not hard to do, either. The simplest way is to ask everyone from the most junior staff to your top leaders “how are you?” when you arrive at work – and take the time to genuinely listen to their answer. Set the example, and others will catch on.


2. Encourage real conversations

Honest, candid conversations with my people, where they can express not only what they think but also how they feel, are priceless. In Asia, we tend to gloss over our feelings and emotions because they either make us vulnerable or they’re not deemed “useful.” But we need to acknowledge them if we want to build healthy workplaces free of politicking, personal agendas, and other wastes of time. One way I try to encourage this is by testing my thoughts and plans with not just my top leadership, but even junior staff who may not feel as empowered to speak their minds. Doing so sends a clear message that everyone’s opinion has value, and that you shouldn’t think you’re above listening to others because of your job title.


3. Take the pressure off

Often in traditional hierarchies, the leader at the top puts pressure on those below to perform. From my experience, it should be the leader’s role to shield their people from unnecessary pressure – so that they can perform to the best of their ability. In the SAP Concur team, we have a WhatsApp group where anyone can ask questions or request help on certain things, even personal ones. Others will quickly step in to assist and take the pressure off. Sometimes, I find myself lending a hand with things I’m not even that familiar with! But it all starts with how we as leaders model that sort of behavior to those around us.


When we let people be themselves, and align who they are to our bigger goals as an organization, we see them reach their full potential. Start from emptying the workplace of ego – beginning with yourself. If there’s one thing business leaders might learn from our success at SAP Concur, I would say it’s this: put your people first, their positions second, and your pride last

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