Filling the corporate affairs talent pool

eBay’s Steven Liew examines how to build and develop an effective cross-border corporate affairs team in a region as diverse as Asia Pacific

THE FUNDAMENTAL thing for a PA head is to invest in building and growing your people. The fun of working in Asia Pacific is that we have such a varied cultural, political and economic landscape across the region.

It can however be frustrating at times when, for example, we create a programme in one market and find it very difficult trying to replicate it elsewhere. But this a good challenge for everyone on my team at eBay. It forces us to find commonality when there appears to be none. It forces us to be creative in our search for economies of scale. It also enriches the final work product as the differences will force us to be more thorough in the way we formulate our policy.

There is no perfect way to resource a public affairs or government affairs team in Asia Pacific. Every company is different. Some prefer to outsource most of their work, while at companies such as eBay, we prefer to have a good balance of both.

In terms of apportioning my budget, we prefer to spend around 40 per cent on payrolls and 60 per cent on the actual projects or programmes we are running in the region to drive our GA goals. But, the one constant I have is I will staff a PA role only if the business needs make sense for us to have someone in-house.

It involves a huge investment and a personal commitment when we hire someone onto the team. Therefore, there must actually be a meaningful business (or potentially one in the short-term) for us to commit that resourcing.

Coaching and retaining

Personally I like to focus a lot on coaching, personal development and help new staff to plug the gaps in their portfolio.  At the same time, I am also constantly looking at new talents, talking to a lot of people to make sure I build a pipeline of talents I can bring on to my team should there be a business need for it.

It is not easy to find good people, period. The talent pool is small and the competition for these talents is huge.  Sometimes, you can find good people but they have problems communicating in English. Separately we find good English speakers but they lack the local knowledge that we want. And then, we will find someone who has both but doesn’t have the right ethical beliefs that we so value. To find all three elements present is extremely difficult. And retaining talent is also a big challenge and a never-ending struggle.

Between hiring and retaining talents, I prefer to spend more time on the latter. It is important to spend as much face-time as possible with your people. And when you are with them, you should focus on coaching, personal development and helping them to plug the gaps in their portfolio.  At the same time, you should constantly be looking for new talent.

Technology and PA

There are a whole range of technology solutions already freely available to PA professionals. Most news services now have free APPs on a whole host of platforms for us to keep abreast of all kinds of developments. But our key differentiator is that we are a team of GR professionals who enjoy talking to people. And we talk to people from across all segments of society.

It is this human-to-human interactions which give us more colors to a particular piece of news we have read on our iPhones. It is also through these interactions that my team has a network of contacts which they can call upon in times of emergency. Or just simply to pass along our views quietly to important decision-makers to hopefully influence the way they decide how to regulate us.

In this I am very fortunate that I work in a value-driven company. From the time Pierre Omidyar founded eBay, we have always had clear value statements which we all live by and are measured against.

This set of basic values helps me hire people who must subscribe to them and live them on a daily basis. So, even though we may approach a corporate affairs issue in a slightly different manner due to local politics and cultures, at a strategic level we differ very little.

As the regional head of government relations for my company, I spend a lot of my time communicating those values to my team and making sure they live by the values. I think it is very effective to communicate these expectations early and repeat them often.

The fundamentals

The fundamental thing for a PA head is to invest in building and growing your people. We are in a people business. Without good people, we are not going to succeed. You can’t wait until you are in crisis mode to start looking around for help. Relationship building takes time. If you don’t like to spend time talking to people, you should not ultimately be in the PA business.

Steven Liew is chief relations officer and senior director and legal counsel of government relations at eBay Asia Pacific

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