Blending Chinese and Western management styles can help business leaders operate effectively across borders.
In a global business environment, never has the need been greater for business leaders to be effective and authentic in culturally diverse markets. Today, companies seek and need well-rounded, transcultural leaders if they are to get ahead and stay ahead. These company executives need to be people who can combine hard skills, such as memorization of facts and answers, with soft skills, such as communication and teamwork. This is a true blend of eastern and western management styles.
For the past 22 years, 15 of which were in China, I have worked with multinational companies to develop international managers and leaders. I do this by offering solutions to onboard Western executives in China and relocate Chinese executives to a company’s headquarters in the United States or Europe. Here are a few tools Chinese and Western executives can use to adapt management styles to a multicultural corporate environment.
Ask the right questions
The ability to ask relevant questions forms a significant part of becoming an effective global executive. Chen Luyu, who currently hosts the talk show, A Date with Luyu, on Phoenix Television asks the right questions in a non-confrontational way. Dubbed as China’s Oprah, her interviews include numerous Chinese and international celebrities and political figures, including Hillary Clinton. She develops a safe environment for her guests by quickly building trust. She connects her understanding of their sensitivities through active listening and reflection skills. This has gained her an audience in the tens of millions over the past 15 years.
Chen serves as an example of how to ask questions of others. While many American companies take a nonhierarchical approach to management, this is not widely practiced in China, where a strict hierarchy is preferred. Challenging questions are rarely posed to superiors. How, then, can you ask pertinent questions and present your points without offending others?
- Be confident Confidence is being assertive without being arrogant. Combining assertiveness with non-verbal communication cues, such as a poised posture, active rather than moderated vocabulary, and a secure tone, will ensure others take your questions and input seriously.
- Be clear and brief While elaborate language is common in Chinese business, international business professionals value concise, to-the-point speaking. Less is more. A message becomes complex and difficult to understand when using too much detail and technical jargon. Communicate using vocabulary your audience knows with clear and concise statements rather than long explanations. It is easy to elaborate on topics one is passionate about, but speaking for more than two minutes is too long.
- Be ready Answering questions is part of a dynamic conversation. Ask well thought out, open-ended questions that further a conversation. Prepare some questions beforehand. This will increase your visibility and credibility. Remember to keep the questions relevant to the conversation and be prepared to answer tough questions using clear and concise statements.
Embrace collective leadership
International leaders today face the unique challenge of a global workforce. Transcultural leaders effectively influence those around them, inside and outside an organization. This holistic view is part of collective leadership. Through curiosity, building a strong network, and generously offering one’s time, unique business opportunities will naturally present themselves.
Robin Li, founder of Baidu and one of China’s wealthiest businessmen, embodies collective leadership. He began his career as an entry-level computer engineer in Silicon Valley, but he was not content with being just an engineer. Li’s curiosity drove him to develop new types of programming. By improving operations for various companies, thus building a strong international network of experience, Li quickly propelled his career upward. Li’s innovations form much of the basic framework for Baidu today.
He applied his own distinct formula to take his career in a direction many would never have dreamt. He made his vision a reality. Although each leader is different, there are common characteristics each will possess.
- Curiosity Successful leaders constantly seek information because they yearn to know more beyond their current understanding. This desire extends beyond business, and beyond China, through interest in hobbies, sports, food and personal relationships. They read books, international newspapers, attend conferences, and talk to strangers. They are unafraid of not knowing the ‘right’ answer. Most importantly, they ask questions. Social leaders like Li are open, receptive, and aware of what is happening beyond China’s borders because they are curious.
- Networking People prefer to do business with those they like and trust, and networking helps build a wide net productive professional relationships. By making yourself available to answer questions and support other’s needs, they in turn are available to help you. Networking can expand your reputation as a person that creates memorable connections. International companies seek leaders who are able to bridge divides, especially the “China-to-foreigner gap”—the cultural differences between Western and Chinese business practices. In my experience, networking as defined above is a new mindset and methodology in China. Meeting new people beyond one’s industry, university, or family, as well as using social media tools like Linkedin, is often misunderstood. I am often asked: “What do I say? How do I make small talk? Why would I want to know them when I can’t get anything from them?” In many Western countries, professionals learn early on to network to meet new people and foster relationships. The same thing happens in China, but in a different context. Both are right. For Chinese leaders to be considered internationally influential, developing relationships beyond China’s borders is a deciding factor when being considered for promotion and assigned to an international post. Being aware and sensitive of cultural differences will assist Chinese and Western leaders in connecting quickly when meeting someone of a different background regardless of the method.
- Generosity Being generous with your knowledge and your time is part of developing a successful team and an international presence. It is the habit of giving without expecting anything in return. It can involve offering time, assets, or talent to aid someone in need. Generosity creates visibility for your efforts and promotes excellence in an organization. Management strategist Seth Godin calls it being a “lynchpin.” Through generosity you expand your personal and professional business acumen, network, and supporters.
Confront the ordinary
When leaders start to ask relevant questions and become socially open, the status quo is challenged. Asian companies commonly frown on challenges to authority. Multinational companies, on the other hand, reward pushing boundaries to create innovative, cohesive solutions.
Wang Shi, the visionary leader, founder, and chairman of China’s largest residential real estate developer, Vanke, is known to challenge leadership conventions. An entrepreneur and mountaineer, Wang has climbed the world’s seven highest peaks and trekked to both Poles to bring attention to the environment, an issue close to his heart.
In developing your curious mindset, stay engaged. Pay attention to detail, but keep a bigger picture in mind. Above all else, never be content with average. In doing so, the intention is to build a better organization. This is a perfect attitude for challenging the status quo.
- Speak up Highlight gaps in strategy, duplication of work, and cross-functional issues impeding business results. Do this while providing a solution to remedy the situation. Be the catalyst for that change. Have data and resources ready. Be prepared for the unexpected. If you don’t say it, someone else will and your moment for impact and influence is lost.
- Be one step ahead Be a thought leader. Ask yourself, how often do people from multiple levels in the business seek your opinion. Thought leadership simply means you are an authority on relevant topics. You can become one by delivering the answers to your target audience’s biggest questions. What is your industry doing and where it is going? What are the global trends relevant to you and your role? Being one step ahead helps differentiate you as a trusted resource in a business.
- Allow challenge Different opinions create different views. These can then develop into creative solutions. Fostering an environment that gives people permission to challenge each other regardless of their level is vital to innovation. A single person generally cannot solve complex ideas alone. By exploring alternate views, the discussion naturally evolves using people’s experience and insights.
For anyone working overseas, be it foreigners in China or Chinese abroad, a blended leadership approach is the route that will achieve the best results. Specifically combining softer skills with the fact-based, linear traditional Chinese mindset will create the dynamic, game-changing combination of the transcultural Chinese business leader.
[author] Mary Rezek ([email protected]) is the founder and principal consultant at Saatori, Ltd., a leadership development consultancy headquartered in Shanghai. She has over two decades of expertise in designing and delivering leadership development and corporate learning experiences. She specializes in inspiring leaders and teams who can be effective in the world’s largest and fastest growing economies—China, the United States, India, and throughout the Asia Pacific region. A pioneer in her field, Mary was one of the earliest learning and development experts to arrive in China in the late 1990’s and has been based in China for the past 15 years. [/author]