The pace of change in China over the past decades has been staggering, and in spite of the recent economic slowdown, it looks set to continue. Responding to this ongoing change – and the challenges it will no doubt pose – will require strong leaders to guide the way forward. But finding globally minded and experienced business leaders is no easy task. As the Chinese proverb goes, “an army of a thousand is easy to find, but, ah, how difficult to find a general.” How can business leadership programmes in China help meet this demand and produce the leaders of tomorrow?
Business leadership programmes in China tend to be built around the traditions and values that have existed in the country for millennia. These traditions include the concept of guan xi, which teaches the importance of building interpersonal bonds and maintaining relationships and connections. Long-term thinking and determination are also key parts of business programmes in the country. In fact, in Geert Hofstede’s study of culture in the workplace, China ranked the highest for “long-term thinking”, demonstrating the importance of patience and perseverance when doing business there.
I have no doubt that the values and principles that have guided life in China for thousands of years are going to withstand the pressures of globalization. Yet, when we compare these values with those guiding today’s marketplace, the contrast could not be starker.
Today’s world is characterized by rapid technological advancements and massive amounts of changing data that affect every aspect of decision-making. Persistent changes, combined with economic, political and societal uncertainty, ambiguity and unpredictability, force us to react with unprecedented adaptability and flexibility. Modern business leaders are expected to constantly evaluate the evolving economic environment and make continuous course corrections. Compounding the uncertainty is that, in today’s interconnected world, the lines between countries, cultures and customs are becoming more and more blurred.
These massive changes have impacted every aspect of modern life in virtually every part of the world, China included. Therefore, if China wants to continue on its path of successful, balanced and sustainable growth, it needs to re-evaluate its traditional approaches to leadership and build development programmes on par with the demands of the 21st century. They will help it build a modern, home-grown cadre of globally minded, savvy business leaders capable of assuming leadership positions.
However, acquiring Western business competencies does not mean abandoning conventional Chinese values. On the contrary, Chinese business leadership programmes should integrate the best of the traditional Eastern values with modern Western management styles.
That means that while continuing to respect long-term thinking and patience, Chinese business leadership programmes should focus on developing their students’ capacity for flexibility, rapid decision-making and adaptability to the ever-changing environment. Taking this concept a step further, the Chinese leader of tomorrow should not only embrace change, and if required shift gears mid-project, but also help employees navigate ambiguity while maintaining a clear vision and common objective. The new Chinese manager will find a balance and harmony between a disciplined entrepreneurial mind-set and calculated risk, and the importance of building interpersonal bonds will be punctuated by a sharp focus on getting results. Equally critical for the new Chinese leader should be learning how to build trust within organizations and how to leverage the right talent to build and lead high-performing teams.
Creating a sustainable leadership pipeline in China requires careful planning and selectively adapting proven models. It means modifying the Western training modules so that they do not contradict traditional Chinese cultural norms, but rather capitalize on these existing values and complement them.
Only a well-thought out and customized approach to business leadership development in China, one that leverages the best of the Eastern and Western worldviews, will help develop the new model of a modern Chinese business leader, assuring China’s continued economic success.
Author: Jeffrey A. Joerres is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of ManpowerGroup.
Image: People walk in Shanghai’s financial district REUTERS/Aly Song.