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The question of why so few local managers can be found heading up the properties of international hotel groups was the final discussion topic at the Hotel Management Thailand Summit in Bangkok last week, and although the debate focused specifically on Thai personnel, the topic remains one which will resonate with leaders across the Asia-Pacific region.

Representing the local perspective were two Thai GMs – Sukanya Janchoo of the Dusit Thani and Titiya Chooto of the Anantara Siam Bangkok – while the ‘international’ viewpoint was provided by Leanne Harwood and Anthony McDonald – Vice President of Operations at IHG South East Asia, and CEO of Bespoke Hospitality Management Asia, respectively.

The pipeline of talent is the thing that keeps me awake at night,” stated Leanne, setting out the situation facing the major hotel groups. The supply of capable hospitality management staff already falls short of demand, and with an increasing number of new properties slated to open in the near future, this presents an enormous challenge. When expat managers cannot fill the void, and both costs and work permit issues can be factors here, the obvious solution is to promote from within the local talent pool. However, in light of the fact that it took Four Seasons 42 years to appoint their first Asian female GM, this doesn’t seem to be happening as readily as it might.

Sukanya duly provided a number of candid insights into why this might be the case, with her first point focusing on the nature of the relationships between Thai staff and their bosses. She recalled an episode where an employee knew of a vacancy for a higher position for which she was qualified, but did not put herself forward because she expected her bosses to recognize her ability and offer the position if she was truly capable. When the invitation did not come, she sought employment elsewhere, doubtless leaving her expat managers confused at her apparent lack of ambition. As for the question of who might be to blame, Sukanya noted that “we expect you to understand our culture, but actually we don’t understand international culture.”

Anthony reported something similar in cases where Thai staff had perhaps not perceived their relationships with superiors positively in his organization. Underperforming staff would choose to leave, sometimes much to his relief, only to subsequently achieve great success somewhere else. It is easy to infer that culture might be the obstacle when this happens, rather than ability.

Sukanya added weight to this notion by stating that Thais who were raised and educated in Thailand seemed to face greater problems in getting ahead, while those who had studied overseas or been brought up outside the country already understood the ‘international culture’ and were therefore better equipped to succeed.

The cultural divide also seemed evident in the way Thai staff responded to ‘challenges’. To a westerner, the word suggests an opportunity – something to be welcomed and embraced – a chance to shine; yet Anthony had found that many Thais seemed unexcited by situations which enthused his expat managers. The willingness to accept posts overseas, invest time in personal development and move beyond their comfort zone seemed to be missing.

One explanation, according to Sukanya, was that Thais often seem to mature much later in life – in their twenties they can enjoy an almost child-like reliance on their families, so if work becomes too demanding they have no real need to stick it out to support themselves.

Listening to the discussion, and writing as an educator with many years’ experience in the country, it would be easy to conclude that Thais would do better if they would just stop being so Thai. It was also clear, however, that many Thais already have the ability to succeed, and there may be more positions available in senior leadership than there are people to fill them. Furthermore, the international hotel groups would like nothing more than to promote local talent. It may well then be the case that when the current generation of Thais, already more worldly than their seniors, begin to follow in the footsteps of Sukanya and Titiya, the cultural gap between Thailand and The World may begin to close, to the benefit of both sides.