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Is Asking ‘Why?’ a Barrier for FP&A Professionals in Asia?

  • By Brian Kalish, FP&A, Director of FP&A Practice, AFP
  • Published: 12/1/2014
As Asia experiences unprecedented, explosive economic growth, it offers some of the greatest opportunities for financial professionals to build successful careers as well as shift the function into an increasingly important business discipline.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Asian economy is expected to grow by nearly 7 percent per year into 2018. That growth is creating a need for finance professionals on a scale unseen in the rest of the world. But people looking to expand their finance careers in Asia must understand important aspects of the culture.

Unlike in the U.S. and many other Western countries, Asian culture is highly hierarchal. In his 2008 book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell pointed to a series of Korean Air crashes that had nothing to do with mechanical failure or improper crew training. Instead, Gladwell wrote, in one case, the tendency to avoid questioning authority led to a series of missteps in which the copilot was reluctant to alert his captain of potential trouble, leading to a fatal crash.

While Gladwell’s premise generated its share of controversy, there is an underlying truth to it. In Asia, it is highly frowned upon to question why. However, the reality is that a large part of financial planning and analysis (FP&A) is premised on the ability to ask why. Without that openness to question the status quo, financial planning becomes simply number crunching and fails to help advance a business forward.

Understanding and adapting to this type of culture may be unfamiliar to many FP&A professionals. It is not easy, and it takes a willingness to change, to do things better and to shine a spotlight on where performance is slumping. It is a culturally sensitive issue, but there are constructive ways to incorporate the “why factor” into Asian FP&A practices. It takes a positive disruption to shift the culture, and this is one of the remarkable opportunities Asia offers an enterprising financial professional.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once defined effective leadership as the ability to get people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it. This concept would be extremely difficult to execute in Asia where senior-subordinate relationships go back generations and are more traditional. Instead, the focus should be on trying to get the people in charge to accept your ideas as their own. This takes no small amount of tact, deference and diplomacy, all qualities highly valued and respected throughout Asia.

A way to ask why without inadvertently appearing disrespectful or irreverent is to show a genuine interest in gaining a better understanding of what someone wants to improve, whether it’s analytics or budgeting. Saying to a superior, “Help me understand why you do what you do—not because I believe you’re doing it wrong, but because I don’t understand it,” opens the path to real dialogue that can lead to better methods of undertaking a number of tasks—and, ultimately, higher financial performance.

The ability to build strong business partnerships is probably more important in Asia than in any other part of the world. Trust is highly valued, but it also must be earned. Getting around the “why” taboo is a matter of diplomatically asking someone to help you understand why ‘A’ works but ‘B’ does not.

Finding ways to make FP&A a more integral part of the business, rather than simply a bean-counting function, promises enormous benefits for financial professionals looking to tap the Asian market. There are certainly plenty of opportunities. In Asia, the pool of talent is simply not big enough. Demand for FP&A professionals is dramatically outstripping supply. Certified FP&A professionals have an even bigger advantage in Asia, where very few people are credentialed compared to the U.S. Getting certified is a positive step forward. Understanding best practices raises up entire businesses.

Two factors are playing into adventurous FP&A professionals’ hands. First, is globalization—China is now the No. 1 economy in the world, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Clearly, Asia is the growth machine for the world’s economy.

Second, FP&A in Asia is moving away from looking where they’ve been to where they’re going. They’re asking how they can make better decisions and learning to ask why. Competing in a global environment lends itself to questioning why. Is your goal to thrive or simply survive? In the end, those with the desire to thrive win the biggest prize.

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