Marco, you decided to leave for Singapore in 2016. How difficult was this choice?
Very difficult. I was not familiar with Asia. I had never been to Singapore and I would be covering a different role, albeit in the same company. There were many unknowns, but at the same time my manager trusted me a great deal. I was curious about fulfilling a new role and the chance to start a "new life", practically from scratch: this was my motivation for taking a chance. To date, I still believe it was the best choice I've ever made. Both from a professional and a personal point of view.
Can you tell us what your role is and what you do?
Currently my role is commercial controller for the Chinese market.
After two years in Singapore, where I was dealing with the markets of Southeast Asia (mainly Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia), now I concentrate exclusively on the Chinese market.
I am based in Shanghai and see to collecting, analyzing and presenting data to top management to facilitate business decisions. Basically, my task is to ensure the constant monitoring of company performance, from sales to contributions, and, if risks or deviations are identified, with respect to the corporate growth objectives laid down by top management, to evaluate or suggest the actions to be taken.
The identification of the risks, which impact the company's performance, therefore not only includes ex-post controls but also the implementation of procedures and control instruments that make it possible to act on certain factors that can influence business in advance.
What is the added value of being a controller working directly in the territory you are responsible for?
Contrary to common belief, my job cannot be done "remotely", especially when it concerns markets that are distant from the headquarters. Constant contact with local management and with the sales and finance teams is essential to being able to work with proper timing and in accordance with the pre-established targets.
For example, unlike other "mature" markets, China is constantly changing and the changes occur much faster than in the Western world. If I didn't work in such close proximity to this scenario, I would not be able to perceive the speed of transformations and, thus, the need for quick answers.
A further key aspect is to understand the needs of both the local team and the market. In this case, direct contact and human relationships must be created in order to collaborate, thereby establishing a relationship of mutual trust that allows the constant exchange of information.
In which way did the Asian culture influence your life?
I must say that it was easy to adapt to the workplace in Singapore. Culturally, I consider the country halfway between an extremely American/Western culture and a Chinese one (given that most of the population is of Chinese origin). I was influenced differently by China. At the very beginning, the culture shock was very strong. But after an adjustment period, I must say that I have no problems relating to my colleagues now.
Their values and habits are clearly different from those in Europe. I immediately understood that what matters in Asia is the "face". Therefore, often also in terms of work, information must be filtered in order to precisely understand the real nature of the messages communicated. In China, there is a tendency to tackle a problem only when it can no longer be prevented, and people tend to provide an "optimistic" view of a potential risk up to the last second. As a foreign manager, I think openness is necessary to understand these differences, accept them, and to win their trust and complete the job in the best way possible. In my case, communication and coordination are essential to let them understand that my role is to identify problems before they occur.
Is your role becoming more and more strategic for the company?
When working in markets that are so far from the corporate offices, not only do I often carry out peculiar tasks, but I am regularly asked to play a role as a business partner. They need me to be a facilitator and mediator in the implementation of headquarters’ requests. I perform a support role in the local decision-making process and act as a spokesman for both local and group needs, in accordance with company objectives, by trying to harmonize the processes between the different countries where the company operates.
What characteristics must a controller have to undertake an experience like yours?
The curiosity to investigate, discover, change and learn. Firstly, you need to be open-minded and accept new cultures, new ways of thinking and working. Moreover, drawing inspiration is essential to improve one's approach, without constantly positioning oneself in a critical position to those who have a different path from your own. Secondly, you have to be patient, because often, especially in periods when pressure is skyrocketing at work, cultural differences involve delays. But one must not lose heart or succumb to anxiety.
After all, these experiences are not a challenge with others, but with ourselves!