The power of immersing yourself in the local culture and market – Global Insider Interview with Peggy Fang Roe

Peggy Fang Roe

“You have to push yourself to learn what’s really happening on the ground. You have to ask a lot of questions and dig really deep.”

Peggy Fang Roe, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, Asia Pacific, Marriott, Hong Kong

Peggy Fang Roe is an American global brand and marketing executive with a passion for understanding consumer behavior and creating experiences. We interview her about leadership and how she drives sales, marketing, brand and revenue management across the Asia Pacific region for Marriott International. She and her husband are raising their two sons in Hong Kong.

What were some early influences or role models when you were growing up?

My parents. They were born in China, grew up in Taiwan, and moved to the US for graduate school. They came to the US with very little and worked their way through school and life giving my brother and I the most wonderful and happy childhood while also getting us through college and graduate degrees.

My father started a company over 30 years ago which he and my Mom still run today. Their sheer will and ability to accomplish all of this with so little to start and in another part of the world has always been a driving influence in my life. Because of what they have done, to me, nothing seems too insurmountable.

What values did you learn growing up in your culture to which you would attribute some of your current success?

It’s hard for me to know whether these things are inherently part of my culture or just part of my family upbringing. But what I attribute to my success thus far is 3 things: 1) the desire to achieve and the work ethic to get there; 2) the ability to stand back and look at things without bias; and 3) the focus on consumer insights and behavior to drive decision making.

Has being ethnically Asian helped you assimilate and do business in Asia?

I was born and raised in the U.S. so when I came to Asia Pacific for this job, I really wasn’t sure whether being Chinese would provide any benefit at all or whether being American and looking Chinese would actually make things more difficult.

What I have found is that being Chinese does in fact provide a first level ease of connection in many markets. I never felt like I didn’t “belong” in the U.S.A. but in some ways, I often feel like I “belong” even more here. I find that my background and culture facilitate ease of conversation, common understanding and sometimes even a feeling of “family” right when I meet someone.

How has your leadership style evolved while working across a range of cultures?

For me, leadership is about motivating people. For each team or leader I work with, understanding what motivates them is key and adjusting my style to ensure I do so is what is required. Easier said than done. In Asia Pacific (APAC) I have been challenged with a global workforce that includes expats from all over the world and local leaders spanning Asia Pacific, which is diverse in itself. I do my best to try and understand and adapt to local cultures while also cultivating a dynamic that works for a person or the team.

What have you noticed is different about leading in Asia than in the US?

While every individual in any environment is different, in a highly culturally diverse organization, there can be even greater variation of styles and how people like to get work done.

Working amongst a mix of cultures, some cultures tend to be more top down and directive while others tend to be more open and entrepreneurial. Age/generational mix can play a factor as well. Here. I have experienced much more variation than in the US and feel I have to flex my style more to meet the needs of others.

My natural style tends to be less formal, so sometimes I feel this schizophrenia – should I be directive or should I leave things open? In the US it tends to be more about collaboration and giving people room. Here you can sometimes leave people lost because they’re used to more direction. And sometimes it’s easier telling someone what to do, but you don’t always get the best outcome. The key is knowing when to flex and who to flex with.

What tools or resources have helped you leverage national culture?

Team building activities that help people see the similarities in their work and personality styles are the most powerful. The Myers-Briggs assessment is a long standing and simple tool, but many local leaders in APAC have not necessarily been exposed to it. Showing people their similarities and differences based on how they like to work removes and sometimes helps explain some of the cultural barriers.

What approaches have you used to leverage organizational culture?

Having a pool of global leaders to choose from makes designing teams really exciting. For our Area Directors of Sales and Marketing across APAC, we look to hire local talent: leaders who understand the culture, speak the language, live the day to day locally as they are leading and executing our go to market strategies and we need intel that’s close to the ground so we can be relevant to customers.

What have you learned are keys to influence at the highest levels of an organization?

To influence at senior levels, you must be reliable, credible and willing to have a strong point of view. It’s a critical skill to be able to summarize at a high level but also know the details. It’s important to have a point of view with strong reasons to back it up and to not be afraid to express it – especially if your role is out in the market vs. headquarters. It’s especially important to bring market experiences and needs to life in a credible way without sounding like you’re complaining or just trying to be different.

What advice do you have for leaders transitioning for the first time into new international or global roles?

Working in a global environment requires having a lot of patience, being agile and flexible and willing to listen and learn. Languages, currencies, cultures make communication and collaboration more complex. What makes sense in one culture may be completely illogical in another. It’s important to take time and immerse yourself in each culture. You have to push yourself to learn what’s really happening on the ground. You have to ask a lot of questions and dig really deep. Rely heavily on your local talent and leadership.

For example, in my first year in APAC, I visited each of our markets and held these sessions called “Keeping it Real.” They were open ended sessions for our area leaders to tell me what was on their mind. These sessions helped me really understand how people think and feel about the work they do every day. It has given me great context for how I communicate and the decisions I make for those markets.

Looking out 3-7 years, what challenges do you expect global leaders will have to face?

There will be more global competition on products and services and talent. In APAC, consumers first decide whether they want a local or foreign brand, then they decide from there. Increasingly as source markets become more global, local talent will be needed around the world and those leaders with the ability to flex will win.

What has been your darkest hour and what steered you through this?

The work in my first year on the ground in Asia was hard. Trying to move my family including 2 young kids to the other side of the world, re-engineer my team while also just learning a new part of the business and establishing myself as a leader was definitely like drinking through a fire hose. The support of my managers, my peers, my team, and my family is absolutely what got me through it.

What roles do listening and silence play in your leadership?

I do my best to try and be the last one to speak in some meetings. It doesn’t always work. I learned early in this role that as soon as I provided a POV, everyone else’s tended to lean that way too. People generally want to please their leader but as a leader, one’s role should be to tease out the different points of view so there is a better decision. It’s a balance. Sometimes you’re pressed for time and you see the direction you want to go in and you can’t help but try and move people there faster. And sometimes people want that too. But, I do believe that to get to better execution, you need to allow for time and patience for those doing the work to get there on their own.

How has your expat experience impacted your family?

Moving half way around the world seemed crazy at the time. But because my parents did it at a young age, that gave me confidence we could do it, too. And actually it was not that hard. My parents are delighted we are being exposed to this part of the world. The kids acclimated very easily and are loving life in Hong Kong and learning Mandarin. I know they will be more open-minded because of this experience.

Thank you, Peggy. We appreciate you sharing your insights with us and other global leaders.

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