Jacques Rogge, Honorary President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), speaks with a surprisingly soft voice. I had the chance to meet him last week, when he – invited by The Antwerp Forum – shared his insights on ‘How to Work with the Chinese.’ A man who led the IOC for twelve years and co-organized the Olympic games in Beijing must have solid cross-cultural advice to share, I thought. Rogge did not disappoint. What really struck a chord with me was Rogge’s observation that – no matter how many top advisors you add to your negotiating team, no matter how many China books you read – it is the direct contact with your Chinese counterparts that teaches you the most. ’There is no substitute for that’, he said. Developing cross-cultural leadership skills is, more than any other thing, a people business.
So what should westerners be aware of when working with the Chinese? Three key things, according to Rogge. In his own words:
1. The Asian emphasis on finding a win-win
‘Win-win’ is not a concept only known in China. In every negotiation, you want to look for a win-win, and that goes for both the Western and the Eastern business world. But in Asia, I find, there is more emphasis on reaching a win-win situation. This has to do with the great respect that Asians have for each other. They always want people to save face (read more about the concept of losing face in Asia), so reaching a win-win situation is a specific goal for them.
It is a matter of respect. When you are negotiating, both parties should benefit from it, and you have to show respect for your counterpart. Showing respect is a quality that we all have, but a quality in which Asian and Chinese people excel to such a degree that it becomes important for us to be aware of it.
2. The collectivity of the decision-making process
Organizing the Olympic games is a very political issue in any organizing country. So we had to deal with political power in China whenever we had negotiations to conduct. I quickly learned that decisions in China were taken at the highest level: the standing committee composed of nine people. They decided everything. Our questions would go all the way up to the level of the standing committee. After a while, not too long, the reply would come. And then the implementation would be flawless. This is something special, at least for me it was. In China, decision-making can take some time, but implementation is immediate.
Time is valued differently in Asia and in China than it is in the West. We tend to have a linear view of time, and like to map out change processes upfront, using strict deadlines.
It’s not like that in Asia. In China, time is important, but the past time, what has happened in the past, is equally important and a basis for the future. They tend to see time as a circle and focus on the continuity of things. You have to take that into account (read more about this difference in time orientation).
Of course when organizing the Olympics in Beijing, taking account of this difference in time valuation was not always easy. The preparation of the games takes seven years, and there are deadlines and goals to achieve. This means a contract is signed between the host country, the host city, the organizing committee, and the IOC. The milestones and deadlines are spelled out in that roadmap, because we want to be sure that everything is finished on time.
I must say, and I commend the Chinese partners for that: in the end they were ahead of schedule. It shows the flexibility of the Chinese partners. They finished the venues on time, and not only on time but way ahead of time. When we realized the Chinese were running ahead of schedule, we had to ask them to slow down. This only goes to show: what happens on the ground is not always what the textbooks tell you.
What do you take away from Jacques Rogge’s experience?
· Do you recognize the 3 aspects he describes?
· How do you create win-win situations? When you are confronted with another culture, what do you change in your behavior to reach a win-win?
· How do you deal with a collectivistic decision making process? To what extent do you adjust your role in such a process?
· How do you reconcile a linear time perspective with a more cyclic time perspective?
What topics from your own experience would you add to the list of Jacques Rogge? Share your comments with us.Did you value this article? Share it with others using #LeadershipWatch. If you want to receive upcoming LeadershipWatch articles and news in your mailbox simply register at the top of this page. Your personal information will be kept strictly confidential. Photo: familymwr/Flickr (Creative Commons)
Hanneke is Research Partner and Writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books. One of her fields of expertise is studying leaders and the way they lead change in cross-cultural environments, with a special focus on China and East-West relations. She is also an experienced manager of book projects for companies and organizations. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS’ services. If you would like to invite us to your organization feel free to contact us here..