Western education doesn’t always work in an Asian context

Buddhas in Thailand: wisdom comes in many forms. Photo by Brand X Pictures/Stockbyte / Getty Images
Buddhas in Thailand: wisdom comes in many forms. Photo by Brand X Pictures/Stockbyte / Getty Images

A lot of the things that are taught in Western business schools just do not make sense when transplanted to the collectivist, patriarchal cultures of Asia. The upshot is that many young members of Asian family businesses go to business schools in the UK, Europe and America, but they have a significant challenge in adapting the tools that they are given to their own contexts.  

For example, when I talk to my students about succession and sitting down and having “the conversation” with your parents about what will happen to the business when they are retired, or dead, there is always an almost physical reaction in the room from all the students and they will all say, “there is absolutely no way I could even contemplate having that conversation”.  

But the fact is that it is far easier to have that conversation if you are from the West than if you are in China, Thailand or India. In those cultures to literally sit across the table from your parents and talk about their death is just an absolute no-no, in fact to talk about your parents leaving the business can be just as challenging to address. 

A number of the core issues in family business leadership development and succession planning, simply don’t take consider the fact that addressing these areas directly can be viewed as hugely disrespectful in some cultures. 

Most of the work and research that looks at family businesses is based on the model of a Western family business, and it doesn’t map onto an Asian one. For instance, it is far more difficult in Asian businesses to identify who the stakeholders are, and who the chief decisions-makers are, and so governance structures for decision-making don’t always easily adapt the complex family systems in Asian cultures. And the idea that the son will take over and the father will leave the business – a theme that is fundamental in much of the discussion about succession – is a Western one that doesn’t make sense in some cultures.  

Women in family businesses open up other avenues of complexitiy in certain countries, take the issue of women on board positions in family businesses in, say, Pakistan. You have men there saying, “we don’t want women, we reluctantly use women on the board if we have to because they are family members and you need family members” but the subtext is that they don’t want women anywhere near the boardroom.  In other areas daughters are still actively discouraged from joining the family businesses located in manufacturing or masculine industries.

Given these cultural barriers the way a female family business member in the classroom thinks about her role in the business, and the things you are teaching her, is very different to the way a European or American one does. We have to understand that, and encourage her to think about how she will flex the tools we are giving her.  

Another issue is that we are teaching next gens to be assertive in their leadership styles but if you are going back to a family business where you have to defer this can be very difficult. They have been taught to push, and sell, and pitch, and deliver honest feedback to people; they have been told their job is to change things and that they have the tools to do so, but when they get back they have a patriarch saying, “we don’t do things that way”, and that can be very frustrating.  

Why does this happen? Simply because most of the family business research originated from the USA and Western Europe. There is increasingly more research looking at Asian countries, but there is much less and it has less gravitas than the Western ones, partly because of the way the academic and research publishing world works.  

What we need to do as business schools is to understand that, yes, some of the overarching themes for might be the same for family businesses the word over – people find it hard to talk about succession, they find it hard to say no if they don’t want to being the business, they want to find where they fit – but the critical point is how they apply their learning in their business environment.  

All too often the cultural lens is missing. Students need to be encouraged to think and talk about how they will apply their learning, and how to adapt the tools we give them so they benefit from their learning and build the flexibility to adapt their leadership to different contexts.  

Dr Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj is an associate professor at Henley Business School, a co-founder of Boardwalk Leadership and a member of a family business, her book, co-authored with Kitty Chisholm, on ‘Championing women leaders: beyond sponsorship’ is due out later this year