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The Burden of Face: The Reality of Politics and Relationship Building within the Ecosystem

(From left to right) Christopher Quek, Casper Sermsuksan, Paddy Tan, and Geoffrey Handley

  • The panel discussion provided insights on the role of relationships in the business landscape
  • It covered tips on tackling the controversial issue of ‘face’ in Asia

May 23, 2019: Relationships are often heralded as golden keys in the Asian business ecosystem yet being notorious for its complex nature. Face is a very sensitive topic but an important one. Paddy Tan, Co-Founder of BlackStorm Consulting, was privileged to be invited to be one of the panellists for this discussion on “The burden of face – The reality of politics and relationship building within the ecosystem”. It was held on May 23, 2019 at the Echelon Asia Summit 2019 and was organised by e27. Together with Paddy, Casper Sermsuksan from Edaf, and Geoffrey Handley from Haitao Capital discussed about the complexity of navigating relationship building across different cultures. It was moderated by Christopher Quek from TRIVE.

Delving further into the details of the panel discussion, here are some of the interesting questions that were being discussed.

Q: What is the purpose of building relationships?

Casper shared that relationship matters a lot when it comes to building a company. It is relevant globally, not just in Asia. However, in Asia, relationships matter more than capability to a large extent. In a region where most countries are still developing, relationships are important because people cannot be trusted simply based on what they say. Building relationships provides credibility for future deals and propositions to be made.

Q: Why must there be a trust element in all business relationships?

Paddy highlighted that due to the wide range of cultures we have in Southeast Asia (with over hundred different languages) it can easily create frictions as what you think is right may not be right in another person’s perspective. Because of these differences, it makes it very difficult for people to trust one another. Furthermore, differences such as race and religion are extremely sensitive today.

“Finding a common ground is extremely important in building relationships as it allows people with differences to come together and agree on something,” said Paddy.

This forms the basis to start building relationship and trust, paving the way to forge partnerships despite cultural differences.

Q: How important is ‘face’ in Asia?

“‘Face’ in Asia is seen as a collective identity”, said Geoffrey.

A person’s words and actions represent more than just the individual, but the family upbringing and company culture that has groomed the individual. There is an increasing value put on where someone has worked and the background they come from. This works both ways, with investors and stakeholders considering how they will be represented by potential partners.

Casper added on that in certain languages in Asia, there is a seniority integrated in the language and culture. There is already a framework to respect the seniors before considering other matters. A senior who is disrespected might disregard economic benefits in their decision-making process. Understanding different cultures is crucial to respect the ‘face’ of others appropriately, while preserving one’s own ‘face’ for reputation.

Q: What are common incidents where relationship building is more necessary in Asia compared to western countries?

Paddy brought up an example about work-life balance conundrum where unresponsiveness was taken negatively by some Asian counterparts. Time differences also can cause tension if parties do not agree on how compromises can be made for video or phone calls. This tension between stakeholders resulted to many company failures.

All panellists agreed that setting the expectations between the relevant parties is important.

Q: “In Asia, it is about who you know, not about how good your company is run.” Discuss the statement.

Geoffrey felt that both are important, not just for Asian countries. What really differentiates good businesses is storytelling. Storytelling is an important skill to get through different phases of business, to be able to bring your product in front of the right people and to get them behind you.

Paddy shared his observation that some founders tend to spend too much time on social media, taking photos with investors. This may provide too much information to competitors who may capitalise on that information. For example, people may plant their employees inside your company, knowing that an expansion would require more staff, with the aim of obtaining company secrets and a competitive advantage.

While some relationships can be used to drive business forward, there must be a strategic consideration before flaunting relationships and deals on social media.

Q: What is your advice on building relationships for start-ups not from major cities?

According to Paddy, there are three purposes for relationship building:

  1. Getting connections to funding, getting more help and talent
  2. Shortcuts through past mistakes, finding out what not to do
  3. New market entry opportunities

Depending on your business stage, the purpose of relationships should constantly evolve. Understanding the stage of your business and what you are looking for in a relationship is important to define the relationship. This lays out assurance that both parties are able to help each other to achieve their respective goals.

On a general note, relationship building is a complex and necessary task that every business needs to undertake on its road to success. The primary difficulty businesses face in Asia is the different cultures all around the region. In order to build relationships effectively, businesses must understand these cultures and learn how to find common ground to overcome these differences. Map the relationships you need to achieve your goals and take a step to build them.

Video on the whole discussion can be found at https://youtu.be/JCLZgRGx_5k.

About BlackStorm Consulting

BlackStorm Consulting (http://blackstormco.asia/) is a regional growth consulting firm specialises in innovative scaling and technology deployment strategy in Southeast Asia. We help organisations scale through our extensive knowledge in venture building, business transformation and crisis management as well as our wide network of industrial connections. We encourage innovation by maintaining an ecosystem for our stakeholders to communicate and collaborate. Our clients and connections are internationally present and range from small and medium sized businesses, corporate, to government agencies.