A former global executive glimpses China’s future through an immersion at Sun Yat-sen Business School.
I am now more than half way through a gap year in China, teaching undergraduate, MBA, and executive MBA students at Sun Yat-sen Business School (SYSBS) in Guangzhou. A fascinating change from nearly 30 years working all over the world with the Procter and Gamble Co., my campus experience has been an incredibly local immersion into university and student life in China. It has also given me a glimpse into the not too distant future when these students will become future business leaders in China.
Sun Yat-sen is southern China’s top university. The business school is one of the oldest and most prestigious in China and it its stature has enabled SYSBS, and its MBA and EMBA programs, to partner with top business schools around the world.
From my first day teaching at SYSBS I was struck by the school’s mission and vision, posted in building lobbies, by elevators, and in every classroom. Their mission is “to enrich our students by providing a flourishing learning environment and integrating Chinese and Western management wisdom grounded in integrity, innovation and social responsibility.” The school’s vision is “to develop principled and talented leaders.”
I talked with a number of students and faculty about what the school’s mission and vision mean to them. They usually answer by talking about the integration of Chinese and Western management wisdom and the role that Guangzhou and Guangdong has historically played in China’s development as a window to the world, which accelerated significantly when China’s “reform and opening up” started in 1978. Guangdong was the location of the first Special Economic Zones in China and has been at the forefront of innovations in economic and social development since that time.
One of the school’s strategies to build student leadership skills is through its partnerships with foreign universities. These partnerships provide opportunities for student exchanges and enable frequent guest lectures and courses from foreign professors. Several students told me that they appreciate hearing different opinions from the foreign faculty and the encouragement that these faculty provide for the students to think independently and challenge the opinions of others.
This integration of Chinese and western approaches at SYSBS includes business practices and cultural values. Confucian values of respect, consensus, and collaboration with colleagues are encouraged through teamwork, group learning, and studying with classmates. Individuality, critical thinking, and the ability to express independent opinions publicly are encouraged through active participation in classes and individual and team competitions. In my lectures I was impressed by the number and depth of student’s questions, particularly from MBA and EMBA students who have had prior work experience, and who were not shy about questioning decisions that I shared in real world case studies of business in China.
This international perspective is also integrated into everyday life on campus and in the city. Many older people—retired or current faculty, as well as people who live in the neighborhood and come here to take advantage of campus facilities—spend time on the campus. These older people speak Cantonese almost exclusively, while the students and faculty speak Mandarin almost exclusively, and many of the lectures at the business school are in English—a truly polyglot environment.
The local government has invested heavily in higher education to support the city’s and Guangdong Province’s evolution from basic manufacturing into a service, research and development (R&D), and high-tech center. This will complement Hong Kong’s financial, management, branding and communications capabilities, and Shenzhen’s emergence as a high-tech center. Sun Yat-sen University has five campuses, four in Guangzhou and one in Zhuhai. Its largest campus is located in University City on Xiaoguwei Island in the Pearl River, and is one of 10 universities on the island.
It’s no surprise then that innovation and entrepreneurship are two themes that I consistently hear from students and faculty about the qualities that SYSBS instills in students. By design the school has a disproportionately high percentage of foreign faculty, typically visiting professors from top academic institutions around the world. These faculty members are encouraged to bring different opinions and challenge the students to think in new ways. A high percentage of students tell me that they chose SYSBS because eventually they want to start their own business and that the school provides the best training in China to equip them with the skills they need to do this.
The students I am teaching at SYSBS are impressive. They are well-rounded, articulate, have good critical thinking skills, are fluent in English, and have clear goals for the future. Their aspirations are straightforward. They want to be successful and they want success fast. They want a good job so they can afford an apartment and a car, which for them is the “Chinese dream.” This will earn them respect, or “face,” with family and friends. After earning their degree, many of them want to first get a job at a large multinational or Chinese company to continue learning about business operations. A significant number do not see working at a big company as their long-term career goal, but instead want to eventually start their own business and chose SYSBS to give them a foundation to achieve this goal.
[author] Chris Hassall, Ph.D. is an honorary professor of marketing at Sun Yat-sen University Business School in Guangzhou. He worked in a variety of positions for almost 30 years at P&G, most recently serving as the company’s global external relations officer. This is the second of a series of articles he will write about his years teaching, studying, and traveling in China. [/author]