What Western Business Leaders Learn in China

Shanghai City Skyline with view
The Chinese learn from us more quickly than we learn from them. Let’s reverse the situation, and use working with Chinese people to our advantage.

Jack Ma founder and chairman of the successful Alibaba Group, discovered the power of e-commerce when he was touring the United States. Xiaomi co-founder and president Lin Bin must have learned more than a few useful skills when he studied (Drexel university) and worked (Microsoft, Google) in the U.S. And where were most of China’s Top 30 Young Entrepreneurs educated? You guessed it. In the United States, and Europe (Click here for the inspiring Forbes list of young Chinese entrepreneurs).

I recall a conversation with a Chinese business student in Shanghai. Though he had never been outside of China (‘Maybe I need to save a little more’), he spoke remarkably good English. He knew what countries made up the European Union, described Paris, London, Rome. He quizzed me about our history, our habits, how we worked, what we liked. He had just finished reading Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to make friends and influence people’ – a book he clearly loved. I told him I was touched by how much he knew about us, his hunger to learn more. He replied with words I will not easily forget: ‘Thanks! And what do you know about us?’

“The fact that so many Asian people come to the West to study, and so few Westerners do so in Asia, is not a sign of the superiority of the Western mind and model. On the contrary, it impoverishes our mindset, if not our culture.” – Dominique Moisi

The Chinese learn from us more quickly than we learn from them. They graduate from the best Western universities, apply for jobs in western firms, or learn to understand the western mind by actively seeking interaction, like my Chinese friend did in Shanghai. Judging from the rapid rise of companies like Xiaomi and Alibaba, this approach clearly serves them well.

Let’s reverse the situation. Let’s stimulate our curiosity and learn to understand what is behind some unfamiliar Chinese/Asian patterns of interaction.

Let’s use working with Chinese people to our advantage.

Like these Western business leaders did. Here is what they say they learned in China, or by working with Chinese people here:

Seeing the big picture, including context and relationships

Joerg Wuttke , Chief Representative of BASF China: “Some time ago I was on a project with a Chinese team, who drew maps of influence, maps of personal and family and business relationships, then stood back and thought about things that could happen. And they saw the impact move from one map to another. They are masters; they showed me how to see the big picture. Although I now know the maps were not even that sophisticated, I can feel the many more hidden layers that come into play, of people, of interests, of long-laid plans. I can feel them like a seismologist and I have learned to play the existing forces.”

Improving negotiating skills

Jacques Rogge, former President of the International Olympic Committee: “In every negotiation, you want to look for a win-win: that is true for companies in West and East.  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 saving face), so reaching a win-win situation is a specific goal for them. It is a matter of respect.  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” (read more about Jacques Rogge’s China experience here).

Increasing flexibility by mastering different problem solving methods

Ton Buchner, CEO AkzoNobel: “I am generalizing here of course, but Americans and Dutch people typically see a problem, attack the problem straight on by dividing it into a series of smaller problems, then solve these one by one, then put it back together. Chinese people, on the other hand, first walk away from the problem, analyze the situation from a distance, then look at each other and jointly figure out a solution. The first method is not better than the second, but I have learned that, depending on the problem, one of both methods will be more effective. It helps me to lead this company.”

The conclusion seems clear. Working with Chinese people pays. Chances are that the experience will broaden your mind, make you a better business leader, and equip you with more tools to face the challenges ahead.

And it’s backed up by solid research too: China improves executives’ minds (here is a particularly nice study about it: ‘How China Transforms an Executive Mind’).

So what are you waiting for?

Share your own experience below! What have you learned from working in China, or with Chinese people here? What habit or practice did you find particularly useful, and did you incorporate in your work a business leader? Would you recommend actively seeking opportunities to work with Chinese people? Let’s share experiences here, and learn from the Chinese as quickly as they learn from us.

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Leadership Expert Series Logo in green with worldmap and compassThis article is part of our Expert Series in which Hanneke Siebelink shares valuable leadership lessons from a list of experts, researchers and role models she selected.

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Hanneke_actief2Hanneke Siebelink is Research Partner and Writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books. Her current research focuses on how leaders build successful organizations by increasing the quality and effectiveness of collaboration across companies, business units, teams, and cultures. She is learning Mandarin Chinese. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS services. If you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.

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