By being often stuck in the traffic jams of ASEAN metropolises, one can easily misinterpret that things move slowly in the region, with limited opportunities to innovate. However, as I dove deeper into Indonesia, during Part 2 of the ASEAN Leaders Programme, I saw that it was refreshingly different. We noticed how innovation does happen in government – not only making things easier for its populace, but also creating growth in new sectors – as well as in private organizations. What became clear to me, during the visit to its capital, Jakarta, is that many are driven to innovate in the region. And if you find the right group of people, the right organization and the right motivation, you can make exciting things happen.

So, what would you need to work well and happily, in the ASEAN region? At the top of your toolkit would be your cultural lens. The business environment here is very different from that in the US, UK, Beijing, Hong Kong, (or even Singapore) - all places where I have either resided, studied or worked. In most of the region, you need to remember at all times, that things are always going to be slightly different – and you will constantly need to find the right approach, because you speak to a different audience every day. In addition, everything must be tailored to your audience; phrasing the way you communicate, and what you communicate.

Each city within the ASEAN has its own cultural geography. The same words have different meanings within similar markets, subtle inferences that don't necessarily translate. The message would also need to change with different clients - what worked with one client may just not resonate with another - and sub-texts are vital.  Additionally, the visual cues that I was used to, were no longer the same, and I found myself needing to be more explicit, and more detailed, to ensure affirmation and that nothing is lost in translation.  To work successfully across ASEAN, you must learn to navigate the cultural, industry, and generational differences, all at the same time. 

Initially, I took my cultural intelligence for granted, being more aware of it growing up. I had done my schooling in Hong Kong, UK & the US, and had worked all around the world. I have always had friends from diverse cultural, and racial backgrounds. I thought I could shift the lens very quickly, whether it was a work or cultural situation. But moving to ASEAN and working here every day, the complexity significantly increases, and does not automatically lend itself to simplification. I know now, I can never take CQ for granted.

The ASEAN region is vast, and understanding how best to work within its cultural diversity, and differences is absolutely essential. It is not easy to cover the wider gap here in Asia, but constantly expanding your mind, and learning to wear the right cultural lens makes the leap easier.

Complete your leadership learning with Cultural Intelligence: the ability to cross boundaries and thrive in multiple cultures at the ASEAN Leaders Programme 2017.