Have Leaders Forgotten How to Ask Questions?


Asia Research 2010 Year End Staff Satisfaction Survey reveals that ‘Leadership’ in agencies is paramount, but often overlooked

The overall leadership of an organization ranks as one of the most important factors to staff satisfaction among employees working in market research agencies in Asia.  This outranks working environment, hours worked, quality of training, and even the promotion prospects in the company.

Based on Asia Research’s annual staff satisfaction survey that was completed in December 2010 by 301 researchers from 13 countries, over half of researchers spanning all management levels rated this as ‘highly important’ to their overall satisfaction with the company.  The only exception was among the more junior staff where job variety and training ranked as more important.

Middle management, particularly Project Directors and Research Managers who say quality of leadership is even more important are also the most dissatisfied with this aspect of their employment.  In fact if you are dissatisfied with the leadership in your company you are three times more likely than average to say you will leave your company within the next year.

While research agencies are pre-occupied with trying to sort out operational issues such as resourcing levels and bottom line, they have perhaps lost sight of the importance of leadership and how this impacts overall staff satisfaction.

Some of the feedback from the survey highlighted concerns about the management style in some market research firms such as ‘top down’ dictatorial leadership rather than a two way consultative approach.  Some cited a simple lack of vision in their company.  Dissatisfaction with leadership was particularly high among global market research agencies, where over a third of staff is dissatisfied with the leadership of their organization.  One respondent commented that what was important to their company was the perceived senior management competence and leadership in the industry at large.

Others commented that head offices outside of Asia believe that senior managers can be left to their own devices, and do not need any senior management vision or advice.  But in reality those who have reached the top of their career and can confidently run businesses, still need inspiration and leadership to motivate them otherwise they will lose interest in their company.  The importance of training which is usually associated with the needs of junior staff becomes important again when people become Managing Directors.  This implies that mentoring through leadership is an important element of employment with those heading offices, for example where they report into a regional or global CEO.  Two-thirds of MDs also state that their organizations’ commitment to ‘innovation and progress’ is ‘very important’ – far higher than other senior managers, middle or junior management.

Asian Agencies still do it better in Asia:

Satisfaction levels among local research agencies (those headquartered in Asia) has been consistently higher than for foreign companies, either the Big Four agencies or other global groups headquartered outside of Asia.  Asian agencies are helping to build staff satisfaction by understanding staff needs and local market conditions much better than foreign companies.  For example 68% of staff in Asian agencies is satisfied with the hours worked compared to around 50% in foreign agencies which is even lower among the Big Four agencies (Nielsen, TNS, Synovate, and Millward Brown).

But Asian agencies also seem to know better how to manage their staff – 65% of staff in Asian agencies is satisfied that they are being appreciated by their company compared to just 44% in global agencies and 51% among the Big Four agencies.

Asian agencies also outperform their peer group in staff satisfaction with their direct line managers, the working environment, job variety, working hours, and promotion prospects.

Among those working client-side, there has been a marked increase in staff satisfaction in the last year.  The importance of the various aspects of employment among researchers working client-side and those working agency-side are remarkably similar.  But those working client-side are far more satisfied with remuneration, having enough resources, and most significantly the hours worked.  Client-side researchers report working on average 49 hours a week compared to an average of 53 for those working agency side.

Despite this, there was actually little correlation between overall staff satisfaction and the hours worked – while those working for Asian agencies were more satisfied with their hours, they actually work just as many hours as their counterparts in the global and Big Four agencies.  This demonstrates that where there is enough job variety and an interesting range of projects, hours dedicated to the research business becomes less important particularly where flexible working arrangements can be offered to staff such as the ability to work from home.

Research Support Industries:

A fifth group of employers covered in this survey were the market research support industries including on-line panel companies and other fieldwork companies.  These companies returned the highest satisfaction across all employer types.  Sometimes viewed as the most progressive companies in the research business, the panel companies (making up half of the support industries covered in our survey) have implemented many initiatives to attract and retain talent in their companies.  They score particularly high for ‘being appreciated in their company’ (remuneration is also good!), having sufficient resource, training, and of course that all important leadership factor where 79% are satisfied with their employer compared to an agency average of just 56%.

(For more details on some of the staff benefit initiatives that on-line panel companies are implementing, please see Asia Research’s interview with Research Now at:  www.asiaresearch.com.sg/blog/?p=167).

Are the leaders going?

Asia Research surveys at least 40 Managing Directors each year in this staff satisfaction survey.  Over the last three years, their sentiment has swung more wildly than any other management level.  At the end of 2009, there was a significant increase in satisfaction over the previous year.  The hypothesis was that at this point in time, the worst of the recession was over and the impact was not as great as expected.  The sentiment at the end of 2009 was perhaps a reflection of more optimism about the year ahead.  But in the latest survey, satisfaction among MDs has fallen to its lowest level, with 12% expecting to quit their jobs in 2011.  It will be challenging for one-in-eight market research firms in Asia to find new leaders with the right leadership skills in the next year.

The fine balance:

While leadership ranked high in importance in the Asia Research Survey, independence and autonomy also ranked high.  While this might seem like a contradiction, this actually gave further insight into what constitutes good leadership in a market research agency.  Generally, people in research agencies expect to be trusted to do a good job, and for managers to be trusted to make good judgments about their business and the markets they operate in without too much interference from head office.  But leadership is required to provide a vision and sense of purpose to researchers and business managers, leaders are required be good sounding boards, to motivate staff through showing appreciation for work done and also the leaders need to help drive innovation.

Ironically most of the leaders in market research have built their careers on asking questions of respondents.  But how many have a good enough dialogue with their managers?