How to Lead in China

Harvard Business Review

February 10, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

MG: Bill Byham, a respected entrepreneur and author, has just published a book on this subject called Leadership Success in China: An Expatriate’s Guide. As CEO and Chairman of Development Dimensions International, Bill has been working with companies on their leadership strategies and their efforts to globalize their leadership practices. I asked Bill if he would share some insight on this. Here is his response:

BB: I understand your frustration. The culture in China is very different, shaped by a long cultural heritage, the impact of more than 50 years of Communist rule, and most recently, dramatic changes in the expectations of young professionals, what I like to call Generation Y on steroids. You will find that some leadership practices that apply in the West also work in China, but many do not. Here are three challenges you may face, with solutions:

1. Understand how your role as leader is different
In China, your followers will expect you to deal with them almost like a guardian or parent would deal with their children in a family setting. In return, they will be good followers–doing what they think you want. Once your leadership is established, there will be a much stronger personal relationship between you and your team than you’ve probably experienced in Western countries. For example, you’ll be expected to show interest in the personal life of your team members.

You also need to understand some distinct cultural traits, like their need to save face. Some individuals perceive asking for help as a sign of incompetence or weakness–so they’ll avoid sharing a problem or issue with you. If you want to know how things are really going in their role, you’ll have to prompt them for detail and use your best fact-finding skills.

2. Develop the leaders who report to you
One of the first challenges that you’ll face is that China’s growth has forced organizations to place many potentially good candidates into leadership roles too early. Our research at DDI has shown that at least 25 percent of leaders are weak in critical skills including motivating others, building trust, retaining talent, and leading high-performance teams. Developing your subordinate leaders will be your most important task in most organizations.

You will have to adapt your style between younger and older leaders. For example, many older Chinese leaders lack leadership skills and have little exposure to Western management practices. Some will be resistant to change, which you’ll have to overcome by arousing their pride in what they bring to the team and the benefits the change will bring to the group.

In contrast, if young Chinese leaders are not coached and developed, they tend to acquire bad management habits, including excessive reliance on the use of power derived from their rank and poor delegation skills.

3. Overcome teamwork challenges
You may be surprised to know that teamwork doesn’t come naturally in the Chinese workplace, and you’ll need to work harder for cooperation within and among groups.

You can teach cooperation skills by establishing a “team contract” and spelling out some rules that should be observed by your team. These can include accomplishing team goals first, utilize one another’s skills, supporting each other, listening to others, and executing team agreements. You need to be clear on your expectations and be sure that there is real cooperation happening. You need to model teamwork as you deal with other parts of your organization, and when you witness great teamwork, celebrate it.

While the cultural differences are dramatic, you can arm yourself with the skills to adapt to this environment and turn this assignment into a rewarding experience.

MG: Thank you Bill! Readers if you would like to learn more about leading in China, visit the DDI website. As always, any comments, reflections, or ideas you have are much appreciated.