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Charisma, competence and foie gras: Leadership in China

Charlie Du Cane, the head of Clipper (Hong Kong), kicks off a regular new series looking at how to do business in China.

“It was hysterical, Charlie was barking orders at the waiter, who was getting more and more irate, and rude in return. I wasn’t sure whether they were both secretly loving it, or it was going to turn into fisticuffs.” My brother told this story with great mirth about our visit to a smart Parisian bistro. On reflection, it showed a classic failure of leadership across cultures, as I was using the staccato manner one talks to Chinese waiters to try and order foie gras from a Frenchman.

To me leadership is a mindset that should have at its core a series of attitudes that can be explained in a short sentence or mantra. Mine is applicable not only in China but also anywhere else in the world: Direction clearly communicated, reinforced by charisma and competence. So this is a reflection on how one effectively communicates to subordinates in China.

In China, especially in more traditional sectors like shipping the ‘mood music’ of employment is dominated by China’s state owned enterprises (SOEs). These gargantuan corporations grew out of the growth of the People’s Republic and the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. They are involved in everything from oil, to five star hotels and each one is a little world of its own, but they have common characteristics that need to be understood by leaders of businesses in China.

First, their own leadership structure is twin track. Having descended from the days of more orthodox communist rule in China, they have maintained a twin track management system of actual managers doing the work, and leaders who are essentially a variation on the party commissar of yore – interpreting instructions that come down from above, both business and political. Secondly, the huge size of these organisations has meant that they are very structured in terms of hierarchy and what each team is responsible for, and who can take decisions about what. It is rare to be able to get an entire deal across the line without engagement with multiple teams, often ferociously protecting their own territory. Finally we come back again to this idea of the SOE as a little universe. It is not just the case that these places can offer jobs for life. It is also that SOE staff often live their lives to a very great extent with its bounds, finding friendships, spouses, and recreation within company activities, even after retirement.

So how does this impact leading in China?

Hierarchy. I was once told by the owner of one of China’s first private shipping concerns, who was something of a mentor, that aloofness is key to management in China. The Chinese method of communicating to underlings often appears imperious and rude. It is expected that one will conduct staff meetings in a domineering manner, laying down the law and not looking for or receiving opinion or dissent.

However, if the foreign manager thinks that this is the only way they should communicate with their local staff, they have only understood half the art. Many years ago I read an article on how leaders build power bases in the Chinese political world. One phrase struck me particularly, saying that leaders connect downwards in a trellis like manner. This is a particularly good illustration of how one should lead in China, building connections that interweave all the way through an organization.

In Shanghai I had 30 people working for me, and was much closer connected day-to-day with the commercial department and only occasionally with the operations team and their work. Realising this to be the case, I gave my underemployed driver a junior job in the operations team sitting next to its head. Every morning and evening he would drive me to and from work, and I would encourage him to download the day’s stresses, gossip and general goings on.

Of course, a trellis is made of many parts, and I made sure that I spent time across the year in an informal context with as many members of staff that I could. This gave me access to their true thinking, and gave them the encouragement that they were key parts of the team.

One also must understand that the company is a way of life for your staff. A normal Western expatriate in somewhere like Shanghai will go to work, and possibly work very hard, but will then socially retreat into the expatriate community. A balanced life is vital for any one working in a place as demanding as China, but you have to make time for your staff socially. It is normal for Chinese staff to spend time together at the weekends and in the evenings, and to generally be a key part of each other’s social lives. Indeed, a lot of people will tell you that there is no distinction in China between private and public life, and that most people only have friendship groups consisting of their families, their classmates and their colleagues, and all three of these are closely intertwined. Have a roadmap on how you get involved in their lives.

As well as being the centre of their universes, Chinese staff expect to have a clear place in the constellation of their firm. Aspects of Chinese culture and practice make role definition a very tricky concept indeed. Chinese in the work place tend to over listen, over interpret and under question, and they will not generally challenge things that lie outside their remit. So for example a sales manager might sell a product, and see that it is being delivered by an operations team in a less than optimal way, but not challenge it because that part of the job falls outside of their team. Or in extremis certain jobs don’t get done because they fall outside of the specific remit of any team or individual. Of course part of the solution to this is the informal communication talked about above, where staff can raise issues in a private setting, but also it is about being very careful how you define people’s roles. It’s very important that you understand everything you need someone to do to execute their job successfully, and make sure you communicate it without over or under stating it.

Chinese culture and language has a representational quality to it, that means they are as used to looking for signs of things, and hidden meanings. This can impact very negatively on a manager if he does not understand that when communicating job specs to his staff. A good example of that is if you are musing in the back of taxi with a colleague on the strengths of such and such a person about his ability to undertake a certain task, they may interpret that as a criticism of their own abilities or presume that you have handed over the task to this person and they no longer need to focus on it. Equally job descriptions have to include minutiae of what they are responsible for, to ensure best results. This of course has to be set in the broader context of a clearly communicated direction that the business or team is taking.

We can boil all this down into one sentence. Communication is everything, and in China you have to think carefully about how, and on how many levels, you communicate to make sure you get the right foie gras.

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