Leadership & talent

The secret weapon in ASEAN's war for Talent

11 January 2017 by Lucy Sutton
Jonathan Bernstein, general manager and executive director of Interbrand Singapore

The recent ratification of the AEC spells good news for the region’s workforce. The International Labour Organization estimates that ASEAN integration could grow the region’s economies by 7.1 per cent by 2025 and create 14 million more jobs.

As of March 2015, eight skilled professions were already covered under Mutual Recognition Arrangements, allowing people with these skills easier movement across ASEAN borders.

“These Mutual Recognition Arrangements allow professionals to pass only one exam for their education and working experiences to be recognised across all 10 member countries,” says Jonathan Bernstein, general manager and executive director of Interbrand Singapore. “These initiatives lower the barrier to human capital flow within ASEAN.”

Skilled workers will now have greater choice for where they want to build their careers. They can cross borders between member countries at will in search of new and more lucrative opportunities, better work-life balance or even a better climate.

This increased worker mobility introduces new challenges. Companies need to be able to differentiate themselves from the competition to attract and retain the best talent in the region.

The secret weapon

Fortunately, companies have a sure-fire method to ensure they are able to compete for the best employees in a growing field.

“Company brand is a powerful weapon in the war for talent,” Bernstein says. “We know that people want to work for companies with strong brands: the learning, training and growth opportunities are often better, and having a strong brand on the CV enhances the overall marketability of the candidate in the longer term.  As a result, there are direct savings to the business in terms of recruitment and retention costs.”

In addition, a strong brand differentiates a company from the competition, giving the company a personality that customers and employees alike can identify with. When a company’s brand matches up with a potential employee’s personality, he or she feels proud to work for that company.

Bernstein lays out three key strategies companies can adopt as they work to build a strong employer brand.

1.     Start with purpose

Firstly, Bernstein urges, align your brand strategy around a clearly defined purpose. When you do so, current and potential employees feel like they’re part of something special.

“Corporations that espouse core beliefs such as ‘Don’t be Evil’ (Google), believe in a ‘Shared Planet’ (Starbucks) or follow a ‘Buy One, Give One’ business model (TOMS Shoes) not only stand out from their competitors, but also tend to attract talented people,” Bernstein says.

“Employees want to work for companies that embrace an ethos they can get behind and have created a culture in which they can comfortably take part. It’s an effective tactic used by leading Thai companies such as Siam Commercial Bank and Bank of Ayudhya (Krungsri), who have made social benefit, centered on youth and community development, a core part of who they are and what they stand for. As these banks have begun to expand into the adjacent markets of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, having a purpose-driven proposition becomes a powerful recruitment and retention tool.”

2.     Link purpose to action

Secondly, Bernstein stresses the importance of living up to the brand promise in everything the company does.

“Employees and customers very quickly appreciate whether a business is delivering on its purpose,” Bernstein says. “In order for employees to be motivated to act as external ambassadors for your brand, your purpose must be credible. Everyone inside the organisation must understand what their individual role and responsibility is in delivering the brand. Further, the organisation’s efforts to deliver on its promise must lead to positive results, both inside and outside of the company.”

When employees feel like they’re part of a worthy purpose, Bernstein emphasises, their engagement and motivation levels rise. “Internal cultures begin changing for the better, and consequently customer satisfaction soars.” And motivated and engaged employees are the best brand ambassadors, further inspiring others to join and demonstrating in a real way the benefits of working for a particular company.

3.     Align your internal teams

Thirdly, Bernstein says, it’s important to foster collaboration between the different functions in an organisation and the HR team.

“Our experience is that the different functions (like marketing) and the HR function are typically siloed, particularly in traditional organisations,” he says. “Given how important employees are to delivering a strong and positive brand experience to customers and potential employees collaboration between marketing and HR is essential.”

Similarly, “HR should be actively involved in the overarching and strategic company brand journey right from the start, so they can understand how the company’s brand is a powerful asset to attract and retain talent.”

Bernstein further points to the importance of gathering insights and expectations from different functions in the process of developing the employer brand strategy so the company can demonstrate a common and shared vision and values to potential employees.

Embracing social media channels

Part of attracting and retaining talent is ensuring the youngest generation – millennials – is able to engage with your company.

Anything a company can do to make it easy for digital natives to apply for relevant positions is time well spent in the war for talent. More than a third of Southeast Asia's population is active on social media. Those social media networks can be valuable outlets for a company to showcase its culture.

“Companies cannot afford to ignore the importance of maximising LinkedIn as a talent networking platform,” says Bernstein.

“Externally, companies can use various touch points to showcase the company’s culture,” Bernstein says. “LinkedIn is great for showing thought leadership. The Coca-Cola Company and Tesla Motors are two companies that have a large following on LinkedIn and regularly publish articles that reflect their brand and thought leadership.”

“Instagram is great to show behind-the-scenes insights into the inner workings of the company,” he continues. “The use of hashtags such as #LifeAt is useful in providing a glimpse into the working culture of the company. Starbucks and Marriott International even have dedicated career channels that clearly showcase their respective company cultures.”

Certis CISCO is one Singapore company that Bernstein calls out as being particularly adept at employee branding on social media. Its pages on FacebookTwitter and Instagram are dedicated to sharing its brand stories and attracting the best talent in the region.

“Existing employees across different departments are featured as brand ambassadors, sharing personal stories on various aspects of Certis CISCO,” Bernstein says.

“The company also has a separate Certis CISCO Sports & Recreation Club Facebook page. Meant for existing employees, this Facebook page is purposefully kept public – effectively serving as both an internal engagement and external branding platform at the same time.”

Winning big in the ‘war for talent’

From an employer brand perspective, economic integration affords companies across South East Asia a unique opportunity to better compete in the ‘war for talent’.  It’s critical to integrate a sense of purpose into the brand promise, which is of particular relevance for the millennial generation. Additionally, it requires a commitment to aligning internal behaviour around this promise to ensure that the brand delivers a consistent experience to all its stakeholders. This will ultimately result in better business outcomes through a more satisfied customer base.

Edited by Kritika Srinivasan and Goh Wei Ting