LeadershipWatch

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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Hanneke SiebelinkHanneke 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.

East and West Perceive Authority Differently. And It Affects Your Cross-Cultural Team

Compass

When working with cross-cultural teams, especially teams where East meets West, team members can have very different perceptions of authority. Are you aware that these different perceptions affect the functioning of your team, and your role as a business leader?

In the year 1405, a Chinese eunuch named Zheng He decided to discover the great unknown: the West. In a series of six epic voyages the formidable admiral, commanding 300 giant vessels and a combined crew of 28,000, sailed via Thailand, Sumatra, Java, and Ceylon all the way to Africa’s eastern shores – an achievement comparable with, in Niall Ferguson’s words, ‘landing an American astronaut on the moon in 1969.’ ( The west and the rest, 2011, p. 32).   87 years later, Christopher Columbus left the Spanish town Cadiz and steered his comparably tiny ships (3) and crew (90) across the Atlantic. Aided by the stars and a Chinese-invented compass, he hoped to reach the continent he was just dying to discover: Asia. Columbus never faced up to the fact he found America instead.

While today the physical location of continents and countries carries few surprises, and Google maps ensures you don’t get lost even in places where you never were before, finding your way in the midst of unfamiliar habits and preferences can be a lot more challenging. Particularly when the successful functioning of your business team depends on it. In a globalized world where you increasingly collaborate with people across business units, different teams and cultures, cultural misunderstandings can lead to unforeseen setbacks (read one true story recounted by a business leader here). And because Asian (China, India, Japan, ..) cultural values often contradict our own (America, Europe), people can feel particularly lost in teams where East meets West.

People in the East and in the West Perceive Authority Differently ….

Consider these ‘West meets East’ pictograms developed by Yang Liu, a Chinese designer living in Germany. At the risk of oversimplifying (every European knows that the northern European countries are quite different from the south, just like every Chinese knows that northern and southern China are hardly the same):  do these pictograms ring true to you? If you lead cross-cultural teams: are you aware that such culturally-determined differences, how Asians and Westerners manage time for instance, and how they view you as a boss, profoundly affect the functioning of your team, and your role in it?

The ‘boss’ pictogram made me think of Carlos Ghosn, the French-Brazilian CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance.  Asked about his experiences managing Japanese team, he quipped:

‘Being a CEO in a Japanese company is absolutely remarkable.  I mean, I feel so good because you have the impression you can do anything you want.  People are so different towards authority; they respect what the CEO says. CEOs in Japan are not very talkative, they are very cautious about what they say, but when they say something it is done. Which is surprising for me because I am coming from a Latin environment where usually, when you give an order, people tell you ‘yes’ but they do something different. You spend a lot of time trying to bring them back to your decision. In Japan, no:  you say something and it is going to be done. Whether it is wrong or right, it is going to be done. Now if it’s wrong, people will say ‘Yes, but the boss said this’ and then they assume the consequences. I find it very refreshing. When you notice you are being taken very seriously, when every single thing you say is going to be done, you are going to be much more cautious about the orientations you decide to give.’

… and this affects the functioning of your team

How people accord status: it is an important cultural difference you may encounter in the teams you lead. Egalitarian western cultures, like the American and the Dutch, tend to accord status on the basis of concrete achievements. Eastern and more hierarchical cultures (China, India, …) tend to ascribe status based on age, experience, education, and so on. Be aware that these perceptions exist, and have an impact on the way your team members will respond to you (read more about cultural differences in Indian-Dutch business teams here).

Here’s a Useful Checklist You Can Use:

Effective leaders establish teams where people collaborate successfully despite differences in the way they deal with authority. Where people ‘own’ decisions reached as if they were their own. Below you find a useful checklist that will help you to deal with authority in mixed East-West teams.

What is the pre-dominant orientation of my team: achievement or ascribed orientation?

Achievement (for instance):

  • Focus is more on knowledge and expertise
  • Titles are less important
  • People will more easily challenge decisions
  • People like to receive space for personal input

Ascribed (for instance):

  • Focus is more on seniority
  • Titles are important
  • People will not openly challenge decisions
  • People will stick to your instructions

Is my team aware of this dominant orientation? Do all members feel equally ok with it? Is my leadership style fitting the team orientation?

  • In the way I make clear to the team what I want to achieve and why?
  • In the way I make clear what I expect from them?
  • In the way I check whether decisions are really embraced by them?
  • In the way I invite people to share their opinion openly?
  • In the way I follow up on actions and results?

Asking yourself these questions may help you to spot potential areas of misalignment, and improve the quality of collaboration in your cross-cultural team.

Do you like to learn more about how to lead cross-cultural teams? Join me at the Sietar Europa Annual Conference where I will be sharing more insights in my keynote session.

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Co-written by Hanneke Siebelink


Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and leadership teams globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and our services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

5 Unusual Statements that Reveal how Alibaba Founder Jack Ma Thinks

Leadership Expert Series Logo in green with worldmap and compassThis post is part of the Expert Series investigating how high-quality collaboration helps leaders to build success when faced with complex change. Business leaders, experts and role models selected by Hanneke Siebelink explain how they did it and share valuable lessons they learned along the way. You can find previous LeadershipWatch Series articles here.


What is your first thought when you hear the name Jack Ma? The king of e- and mobile commerce? The richest man in China? Here’s what my Chinese teacher told me when I asked her: ‘Ma Yun (his Chinese name) has shown us that it’s possible to make a fortune based on new technologies and smart thinking, rather than on real estate and bribes. He is very symbolic in China. A source of inspiration. Did you know he used to be a language teacher?’

How did the founder and chairman of the Alibaba Group (Alibaba’s recent IPO was the largest in world history) build his success, and that of the countless people using Alibaba’s trading platforms? What lessons does he want to share?

Let’s take a look at 5 unusual statements Jack Ma made at Davos 2015, when he was interviewed by Charlie Rose. 5 Unusual statements that reveal how Jack Ma thinks:

1) I think crazy is good

’When I first appeared in Time Magazine, they called me Crazy Jack. I think crazy is good. We are crazy but we are not stupid! We know what we are doing.’

Jack Ma founded his business 15 years ago, when he discovered internet during a trip to the US, typed his very first search word (‘beer’) and was surprised to see that not a single Chinese beer turned up in the results. He came up with the name Alibaba while sitting in a San Francisco coffee shop. (‘I asked the waitress: ‘Do you know about Alibaba?’ She said: ‘Open Sesame!’ I said: ‘Good!’) Crazy? Probably. Open-minded and eager to learn? You bet.

2) I think we should get used to being rejected

Jack Ma knows a thing or two about not succeeding, and still staying the course. He received countless rejections – from the universities where he wanted to study, from the companies where he wanted to work – before being hired as a teacher (the job he held before he founded Alibaba).

In his own words: ‘I was rejected 30 times when I applied for jobs.’ I tried to be a policeman. They said: No, you are not good. When KFC came to Hangzhou, my city, 24 people went for the job. 23 were accepted. I was the only one who wasn’t. And I applied for Harvard 10 times. 10 times I was rejected. And then I told myself: One day I shall go there and teach (…) I think we should get used to failing and being rejected. We are not that good.’

Jack Ma understands that the fear of failure can have a crippling effect on business. His personal recipe when confronted with rejection? ‘Improve yourself, don’t complain and never give up.’ (Read more here on what you can do to improve resilience in your company.)

3) How to make our customers succeed, that is our philosophy

When we developed Alipay (the online payment service of the Alibaba Group), everybody told me: ‘This is the most stupid idea you ever had.‘ But I don’t care if an idea is stupid or not. As long as people use it. Now we have 800 million people using Alipay (…) How to make our customers succeed, that is our philosophy. ‘

To Jack Ma, the important question is not: ‘How can we get our customers to buy what we make?’ But rather: ‘What are the unmet needs of our customer that we can satisfy?’ Delight the customer, his motto is, and the company will flourish. This total customer focus has served Alibaba well. Alipay, for its part, is shaking up China’s entire financial sector. Find intriguing details here.

4) One secret of our success is that we have a lot of women

Jack Ma, out of the blue and with fire in his eyes: ‘One of the secrets of Alibaba’s success is that we have a lot of women. 47 percent of our employees are women. 33 percent of management are women, and 24 percent of senior management are women. We have a woman CEO, CFO, Chief People Officer… If you want to win in the 21st century, you have to make sure that you empower people . Then you will be successful. I find that women think about the others more than they think about themselves.’

Per the New York Times, women still make up only 16 percent of directors at Fortune 500 companies, 4 percent of chief executives at Standard & Poor’s 500 companies and 10 percent of chief financial officers at S&P 500 companies.

5) The most important thing is trust

Jack Ma: ‘In e-commerce, the most important thing is trust. These past 15 years, when we built Alibaba, everything we did was trying to build trust. Today in China, and in the world, people do not trust one another, everybody thinks: ‘This guy is cheating.’ But how can you do anything online when there is no trust?’

‘Let me tell you how we created Alipay. It was a big decision. The first 3 to 4 years, Alibaba was just a market place for information. No bank wanted to help, convinced that online trade would never work in China. So I didn’t know what to do. Launching a financial payment system would be against financial laws (because you need a license). But if I didn’t do it e-commerce would go nowhere. Then I went to Davos, and listened to a leadership discussion. ‘Leadership is about responsibility and trust’, I heard. That’s when I called my friends and colleagues in my apartment. I said: ‘Do it. Now. Immediately. If something goes wrong, if somebody is sent to prison, Jack Ma will go to prison. Because it is important for China and the world to build a trust system.’

Building trust is crucial, and often underestimated. Recent events prove that it requires continuous attention, even by leaders like Jack Ma.

What do you think about Jack Ma and Alibaba? Share your views below!

Jack Ma was born right before the cultural revolution – a period he vividly remembers. He built the Alibaba Group, in his words, ‘without a rich father, a powerful uncle, 1 dollar from the banks’ and changed a lot of people’s lives in the process. Alibaba went public in September 2014. The company’s $150-billion IPO was the largest offering for a US-listed company in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. You can read Jack Ma’s inspiring life story here. And watch the full Davos 2015 interview with Jack Ma here.


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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, functions, teams, and cultures. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS services. If you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.

Collaboration that Generates Results: 5 Articles with Interesting Tips

LeadershipWatch Article about collaboration, yellow pen on an article

Not so long ago, I was asked by a client to help with the rollout of a large corporate transformation program. One thing quickly became clear: producing tangible results will in large part depend on the quality of collaboration between teams and people across company divisions. Even for highly technical programs, where detailed process management, planning and technical expertise are crucial.

In these times of relentless change, forcing even the best of companies to transform and future-proof themselves, the real challenge is: getting people to work together across company divisions and cultures in a way that generates results. Like increasing our agility and adaptability, attracting new customers with better services and products, taking better decisions, and solving problems customers genuinely care about.

Is there an ideal recipe, you might wonder? Is there a one-fits-all solution? Companies, challenges and people are way to diverse for one-fits-all solutions, and thank god for that – for wouldn’t life be boring if our actions and solutions were the same!

But there ARE some smart things you can do to improve the quality of cross-company collaboration and generate measurable results. Of all the interventions tested in the course of many years (and in various business settings), here is my personal top 4:

Work with the best. Invest in diversity

Work with the best people you can find. Like Andrew Carnegie did, who attributed his phenomenal success in business “not to what I have known or done myself, but to the faculty of knowing and choosing others who did know better than myself.” (source: Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie).

Read more here about the value of working with the best:

1) Building Your Executive Team: 3 Valuable Lessons from Andrew Carnegie

In addition, countless studies have shown that investing in diversity (personalities, skills, business experience, …) pays. A company like Philips, for instance, would not have become the multinational it is today without the complementarity of backgrounds and characters at the top. Read more here about the value of diversity in business teams:

2) A Powerful Story about Team Diversity by the Philips Founding Fathers

Build rhythm and focus

Start building rhythm and a collective focus right away, even when the details of the desired end result are not yet totally defined. Read here how a well-developed and regularly updated strategy road map can help your teams to find a steady work rhythm (like a drumbeat) and shared focus, reach results that increase trust, and take corrective action when required:

3) Strategy Execution, Why It Often Fails

Create Transparency and Openness

Pay enough attention to creating transparency and openness, particularly when your teams consist of people from different company divisions. When people born and raised in different cultures work together, pay even more attention: Dutch/American-style directness suddenly feels entirely out of place in an Asian environment, for instance. Read here what you can do to stimulate transparency and openness in your team. Careful listening, as a general rule, is always a good idea:

4) Leading Cross-Cultural Teams: How to Create Openness?

Make your team embrace accountability

People pulling a rope, accountabilityIs it possible to build teams where people do not hide behind one another? Where people feel ownership for the team’s objectives, and feel personally responsible for their contribution to the team’s success, and to reaching the desired results? Is it possible to make your team embrace accountability? I know it is, and you can maybe take away some interesting insights from what I have seen working well:

5) Four Tips to Make Your Team Embrace Accountability

Let me know:

What do you do to improve the quality of collaboration between people and teams, and generate results? Share your own experiences and tips below!

Co-written by Hanneke Siebelink

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Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and leadership teams globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and our services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

Leading Indian-Dutch Business Teams: 3 Insights that Help Create Results

Indian Flag with small pictures in it

A couple of weeks ago, I advised and facilitated newly formed Indian-Dutch business teams – this in the context of a recent acquisition of a Dutch and very innovative SME by an Indian multinational in the pharmaceutical sector. I (myself born and raised in the Netherlands) coached the Indian-Dutch teams in tandem with a partner born and raised in India – an approach that I would recommend to anyone.

In this article I like to share 3 key insights that came out of the team sessions. 3 insights that helped the teams to tackle the challenges they faced, and helped them to collaborate more effectively, despite the cultural differences.

I was struck by what the Indians themselves refer to as ‘the new India’: the young and tech-savvy generation, often educated in the West, who look at India with different eyes than their parents and grandparents do. A clear sign that the cross-cultural differences we all love to box and map are evolving, an are growing towards one another as the world we live and work in turns more global.

People change and therefore cultures change. Knowing and recognizing key differences between cultures certainly helps (books that do a particularly good job here are Riding the Waves of Culture and The Culture Map).

But in the end the key to working effectively across cultures is not learning about cultural differences. It is being able to adjust your behavior to take those differences into account.

Back to our Indian-Dutch business teams. Working with the teams, what were the main cross-cultural differences at play, differences that – if not addressed effectively – were sure to create friction and would slow down or even derail strategy execution? What proved to be the best tips to overcome existing differences and create concrete results?

Here we go: 3 insights and tips that will help any of you working with Indian-Dutch business teams to create results.

1. Time and planning

What clearly proved to be an issue between Indian and Dutch team members was their different approach to time and planning. The Dutch, similar to Americans and Northern Europeans, have the tendency to see time rather as something linear, and spend much time drawing up sequential (first A than B) plans, plans that people need to follow. In their view, this structured way of working is highly efficient. It also guarantees that all stakeholders are involved.

Indians, on the other hand, have a more synchronic time orientation. In their view, time is not something that can or should be controlled. Time is something that allows you to explore how to increase effectiveness, reach deadlines, and build closer relationships. The relationship is always more important than the plan (find here useful details about how different cultures value time). Imagine the frustration when the Indians and Dutch started to collaborate.

The Dutch viewed the Indians as ‘inefficient’ and ‘chaotic’ because they continuously overruled the agreed planning. The Indians, on the other hand, thought their Dutch colleagues were ‘rigid’, ‘inflexible’ and ‘afraid of change’. In the words of one Indian team member: ‘Sometimes new information comes in quick succession and things change. In India people are more used to multi tasking and adapting. Sticking to your plan can be very inefficient.’ In the words of one Dutch team member: ‘If you keep on changing the agreed plan you create chaos and rework, all very inefficient.’

Tip: Tackle the time and planning issue head-on, and have a thorough joint discussion about your team’s expected results. Clarify which results you exactly want to achieve. Maybe your Indian colleagues have a more holistic view? Maybe your Dutch colleagues see it more focused in smaller steps? You may just find that both approaches have their merits, and find a way to combine Indian-style effectiveness with Dutch-style efficiency. That’s what our Indian-Dutch business teams did.

2. Who’s the boss?

In Dutch companies, every person from the secretary to the managing director is a member of the team, and Dutch bosses generally know better than to issue anything that might be taken to resemble an order. In Indian companies, well, the boss is still the boss (find more on how hierarchy is perceived across cultures). More than once I observed some friction related to this different take on hierarchy. Indian team members, in particular, could not understand why the Dutch kept volunteering their opinions, without showing respect for existing hierarchy (you insult me because you did not take account of my function). Leaving the Dutch person puzzled, because she/he thought that speaking up showed true commitment to the team!

Tip for the Dutch (and other people from egalitarian cultures): Show you are aware that hierarchy is treated differently in Indian/Asian cultures. Instead of volunteering what you think, start by asking the right questions. By asking questions that encourage openness you can show respect for hierarchy, without losing your own preference for open and participative discussions. You can find examples of good questions in this article on how to create openness in cross-cultural teams.

Tip for Indians (and other people from hierarchical cultures): In flat, egalitarian cultures like the Dutch the risk of offending somebody is minimal. There is no need to worry about saying the wrong things! Dutch people are also open to feedback. ‘Very refreshing’, one Indian team member thought, and ‘something India could really learn from.’

3. How far to get involved?

Last but not least. In some cultures, like the Dutch culture, there is a clear dividing line between work and private time. Work is work, weekend is weekend, and colleagues who work well together are not automatically close friends outside the office. In India there is no such dividing line. Indian people (just like the Chinese and the Japanese for instance) are also very relationship-oriented. Getting to know the person is crucial if you want to build the one thing no successful business team can do without: mutual trust.

As a Dutch team member shared with me: ‘Two weeks ago I received an invitation from an Indian colleague for his wedding party in India. I don’t know what I now do best. Is he expecting me to fly over for his wedding? Quite a cost, and I do not know him that well… Can I decline? Will he be offended?’ In the Dutch culture you send an invitation like this to those who are close to you. And the invitation is not something you easily decline. But as the Indian colleague explained later: ‘Of course I send an invitation to all my colleagues in Holland. Not inviting them would show disrespect to our relationship. I understand they will probably not be able to come, that is ok. But in this way I include them into my life’.

Probably the most important tip for people from cultures that are more task than relationship oriented: Invest time and energy into getting to know your Indian colleagues outside of the office. Visit your colleague at home when you are in India, meet the family, and certainly go to the wedding if you are around. It may turn out the best ‘business’ decision you have ever made.

Co-writer: Hanneke Siebelink

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Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and leadership teams globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and our services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

Leading Change: 3 Key Tips from Wi-Fi Pioneer Cees Links

Human Hand holding a Wi-Fi symbol in the air

Leadership Expert Series Logo in green with worldmap and compassThis post 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 and talked to. Read all LeadershipWatch Series articles here.


Did you ever hear the story of how Cees (‘Case’) Links, whose boyish face lights up behind his glasses when he recounts it now, convinced Steve Jobs to embrace Wi-Fi, the wireless internet technology he co-invented? ‘The whole idea for Wi-Fi came about at a McDonald’s in the Netherlands where we managed to link our cordless phones together’, Links explains. He then proceeded to spend almost a decade pursuing the idea, which nobody thought particularly useful. Until finally, in 2000, the tipping point arrived. Steve Jobs called ‘unexpectedly’ and invited him to give a presentation in Silicon Valley. ‘With Jobs it was quite easy: you put your slides on the overhead projector and then he started to talk. From time to time he said: ‘Next slide.’ Until no slides were left. He said he rather liked it. From then on it was drinking from a firehose.’

Cees Links, father of five and now CEO of chip company GreenPeak Technologies (www.greenpeak.com), invented a groundbreaking technology, and managed to turn his vision into reality. And yet, not many people know him. Links, currently pioneering Smart Homes and the Internet of Things, clearly does not seek the spotlights. ‘I attach little importance to it’, he says when asked if he would like to be more famous. Reason enough, I thought, to look at how this 57-year old operates and leads. Which 3 key things can business leaders learn from Cees Links?

1. Look far into the future. Look further than the rest

When Links and his team thought up Wi-Fi and created the first wireless LANs (Local Area Networks), he asked his wife to sew a laptop in his jacket so he could ‘illustrate that, in the future, people would carry their computers everywhere they went. It is good to see that really happened.’

Now here’s a man who consistently thinks years (say 10) ahead, understands technological developments, and keeps his eyes on the horizon as he turns his strategy to action. An important skill in these times of relentless change. Links, whose current firm produces Zigbee chips (‘a kind of Wi-Fi but for Smart Homes’), on where we go from here:

‘I think a Smart Home is actually the first chapter of what we call The Internet of Things. Just like how WI-FI started with the consumer in Apple Airport and iBook and now you see it everywhere, I think that once the sensor and the technology concepts are well understood, it will become industry hardened. I envision this to go out into any industry – into building automation, into agriculture, into cattle management, into logistics, and even into retail. A Smart Home, even as big as it can be, it is just phase one of the Internet of Things, which will again completely change the way we communicate with each other, as well as with our environment.’

Learn from Cees Links and educate yourself on technological developments. Understand what they mean for your business, and keep your eyes on the horizon as you navigate.

2. Execute!

Links: ‘Having an idea is easy, execution isn’t. You know you need to cross the ocean, but you can never do it in one go. You’ll sail from island to island; sometimes you will get it wrong and will have to turn. Dreaming is not difficult, figuring out what the rights steps are to turn the dream into reality: that is difficult.’

Good ideas are useless if they are not turned into concrete results. Creating a good strategy roadmap – one that creates a kind of rhythm, like a drumbeat, in your company or organization – can help you and your team to focus and refocus in the execution phase. Read this strategy execution checklist to further stimulate your thinking.


Leading Complex Change

Find more about our Leading Change and Strategy Execution Services.


3. Never Give Up

When Links invented Wi-Fi, nobody believed that it would be a working, reliable resource with any useful application. Until 2000 when Apple implemented this technology in their Airport and iBook products. Wi-Fi became a reality only after a decade’s worth of effort.

‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal; It is the courage to continue that counts,’ Winston Churchill once said. Cees Links chose as his most important motto: ‘Never give up, there is always another chance.’

Quote of Cees Links on Green background

So take these men’s advice to heart and cultivate a Link-like stubbornness: ‘If it turns out I took the wrong road, I just try again.’

Thoughts?

Sources: Elsevier Magazine (Reed Business Media), Interview by Wouter van Noort of 17 May 2014. / Wireless&RF Magazine, March 2014. / Twitter @CeesLinks.

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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 divisions, companies and cultures. In the Expert Series she shares valuable leadership lessons from a list of experts and role models she selected and talked to. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS services. If you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.

Cross-Cultural Leadership: How to Stimulate Your Asian Team Members to Speak Up?

Intercultural Communication, text balloons in green and orange

In today’s globalized economy, the odds that you will lead or work with global business teams (including westerners and Asians, for instance) are clearly on the rise. In such global teams, team effectiveness is not only impacted by personal (people’s characters and temperament) and organizational (level of team alignment from the start) elements. There are important cultural elements at play as well. Cultural elements that can, if not understood and properly addressed, quickly lead to frustration and ineffective teams.

Imagine the following situation.

You are an American manager leading a global HR team from your company headquarters: London. One of your team members is Chinese – let’s call her Wang Xiaomei. She is both competent and kind, and masters the English language well. You have noticed a recurring pattern, however. Ms. Wang does not easily express her own opinion. Whenever discussions in the team get heated (the other team members – Dutch, American, and German – love heated discussions!), Wang Xiaomei literally draws back. Even when she has her own opinion. Even if she silently disagrees with what her colleagues are proposing. As a result, the problem surfaces too late. The other team members are getting increasingly frustrated about this.

Do you recognize this?

Situations like these regularly happen, in my experience. Not only when people born and raised in Europe or America negotiate and work with Chinese people. I have seen the same issue pop up in business teams where west meets east (Japan, Korea, India) in general, and hamper team effectiveness.

Why does Wang Xiaomei not speak up? Is she just shy or could there be another explanation?

Directness of speech, or the degree to which people feel comfortable communicating in a direct and no-nonsense way, differs across cultures.

Specific versus Diffuse

Cultures like the Chinese, Indian or Japanese are often referred to as high-context cultures: communication in those cultures tends to be indirect, nuanced, and layered, with listeners depending on a detailed understanding of subtle verbal and non-verbal cues within the given context to read between the lines.

Cultures like the American, German or Dutch, on the other hand, are generally perceived as low-context cultures: communication tends to be direct, explicit, and precise, and messages are generally taken at face value.

(The terms ‘high-context’ and ‘low-context’ were originally coined by the American anthropologist Edward Hall, who lived among Navajo and Hopi native Americans for many years and observed that human speech varies depending on whether there is a ‘high’ or ‘low’ level of assumed shared cultural context.)

Wang Xiaomei does not easily speak her mind, because to her it feels more awkward than to the shyest of Americans or Dutchmen. In addition, to Wang Xiaomei, speaking up in team meetings involves the risk of losing face.

In her culture, to admit you cannot do something is a loss of face. To say ‘Yes, I agree,’ and then have to change your position later is a loss of face. Losing your temper in public? A loss of face. Seasoned China experts like Samuel Y. Kupper maintain that westerners, no matter how well versed in the Chinese language and culture, can never truly understand the Asian concept of losing, and giving, face. ‘At best, we can be sensitive to the issue, be aware of it, and try to avoid causing the Chinese counterpart to suffer a loss of face’ (find here some useful tips on how to avoid making people lose face).

How can you prevent this type of culturally related communication issues in your global business team?

How can you, in an effort to improve your team’s effectiveness, encourage team members like Wang Xiaomei to speak her mind when needed?


Cross-Cultural LeadershipHow to lead Cross-Cultural Teams? Discover our Cross-Cultural Leadership Services here.


These 3 things work well in my experience:

1. Use indirect language when inviting him or her to speak

 Use language giving the other person ‘space’ and offering him/her the possibility to gradually move closer to the core of the issue.

 For instance:

  • ‘How are these kind of problems perceived in your country?’
  • ‘Do you have an example you would like to share?’

Instead of:

  • ‘What do you think we should do about this problem?’

2. Listen to what is meant instead of what is said

Ask clarifying questions, even if you think you know what the other is saying. Check carefully, and give the other the feeling you value his or her opinion and contribution to the discussion.

For instance:

  • ‘What of what you just said would be the most important for us?’
  • ‘Can you explain why you consider this to be important?’

Not:

  • ‘So your opinion is …?’
  • OK, I got it, you want us to do …?’

3. Ask for advice and invite the other to share experience

Asking for an opinion or direct solution can be confronting. Asking for advice is often a gentler way to invite the other to share ideas and experiences, and by doing that creating a better understanding of how he or she feels about the problem.

For instance:

  • ‘What advice would you give to a team that is dealing with this challenge?’
  • ‘What solutions have you seen working in the past?’
  • ‘What do you think would be wise for us to do?’

Read more tips here.

Which approach has worked for you? Share your own best tips below!

Written by Aad Boot and Hanneke Siebelink

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Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and leadership teams globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and our services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

A Powerful Story about Team Diversity: The Philips Founding Fathers

A Philips light bulb on a grey background

Leadership Expert Series Logo in green with worldmap and compassThis post 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 and interviewed. Read all LeadershipWatch Series articles here.


In the winter of 1894, the young engineer and entrepreneur Gerard Philips could no longer deny the fact that he was worried. A few years back, he had – aided by his father Frederik – founded a company producing light bulbs. He was convinced that electrical lighting would soon conquer the world: his travels to Germany and the UK (Glasgow), where electric lamps already brightened up some streets, factories and theaters, had shown him that. So he had bought an empty factory in Eindhoven, a small village in the south of The Netherlands, for a price he could afford (12000 guilders). His 28 employees worked day and night for reasonable wages, and the quality of the lamps they produced was outstanding – thanks to the countless hours of innovative research and experiments he personally put in.

Portrait of Gerard Philips, Founder of Philips NV

Gerard Philips (source: Philips Museum, Eindhoven)

So why was it that his company, after a flying start, was on the verge of bankruptcy? The thought that he could actually fail made Gerard’s stomach twist and turn. ‘For a while I was so worried I could not sleep,’ he recounted later.

Enters Gerard’s younger brother Anton, who didn’t think much of Eindhoven (‘a group of houses in a desolate and misty place’) but decided to team up with his brother anyway.

No two men could have been more different. Gerard, whose moustache covered half his face, was not a man of many words. He was a strategist with a good sense of where he thought the company should go, but preferred the technical environment and silence of his research lab over noisy (and in his view often meaningless) conversations.

Anton, always with that twinkle in his eyes, had never been the genius his brother was. But he had a nose for the commercial side of things, and did he have a talent for understanding people! ‘He was very energetic, loved meeting new people and took decisions swiftly’, his grandson remembers. ‘When Philips was still a tiny company, he traveled to America to buy a state of the art machine from General Electric. He somehow managed to befriend the senior leadership. The machine ended up going to Philips – not to a much larger company, as GE had originally planned.’

Portrait of Anton Philips, Founder of Philips NV

Anton Philips (source: Philips Museum, Eindhoven)

The Gerard-Anton team proved to be a powerful combination. With Anton taking sales under his wings (he traveled to the farthest places to talk and listen to sales agents and dealers in person – many sons of which remember their father’s stories about ‘Mr. Anton’ to this day), Gerard could focus on what he knew he did best: the R&D side and the production process. Anton, on the other hand, would never have sold as many light bulbs without the continuous quality improvements his brother guaranteed.

The synergy and healthy competition between the Philips brothers served many people well. The company they built together lies at the basis of the multinational Philips N.V., which in turn lies at the basis of the city of Eindhoven, currently one of the most inventive cities in the world. Entrepreneurs speak highly of the ‘extremely collaborative ecosystem’ they find on Eindhoven’s High Tech Campus (Read a nice Forbes article about it here: Why Europe’s hottest Med Tech entrepreneurs are pitching up in the Netherlands). The Philips founding fathers, had they been alive today, would probably have been proud.

What can today’s business leaders learn from this true story? Here are some questions to reflect on:

1) Could it be that the real driver of progress and innovation is collaboration between people, and not the individual – no matter how bright he/she is?

Author Joshua Wolf Schenk, for instance, is convinced that the lone genius is a myth. Even Einstein, he argues in his intriguing book ‘Powers of Two’, would not have come up with his relativity theory without his collaboration and frequent conversations with engineer Michele Besso.

If true, to what extent do we deliberately choose teamwork to create the innovation and progress that will drive our company’s success?

2) A variety of backgrounds (education; character; culture, …) can make a company more adaptable to its ever changing environment. Healthy debates can lead to better decisions. We all know many reasons why diversity in teams and in the boardroom is important. But do we really choose diversity over like-mindedness when confronted with a business challenge?

To what extent do we actively seek diversity, even when we feel we are dealing with great differences that seem incompatible, like opposite poles? Do we make one another’s best qualities explicit, and combine them to achieve remarkable results? Just like the Philips founding fathers did in Eindhoven?

We look forward to hearing your experiences and thoughts!

Sources:  ‘Het Wonder van Eindhoven’ (Arno Kantelberg); ‘Anton Philips’ (Marcel Metze); Philips Museum, Eindhoven.

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Photo: James Bowe/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Hanneke 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 divisions, companies and cultures. In the LeadershipWatch Series she shares valuable leadership lessons from a list of experts and role models she selected and interviewed. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS services. If you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.

Strategy Execution: A Short Checklist that Helps

strategy execution, vision, people, collaboration

Strategy execution is clearly a key topic on the agenda of Boards and Executive Committees. In the work we do for our clients the question “how can we become more effective in turning our strategy into concrete results?” is very often one of the main questions. (In a previous article I mentioned the main reasons for this increased need for effective strategy execution). The increased focus by senior leadership on strategy execution is a good thing. If you’re not fast and effective enough at it, you quickly can get into trouble.

“Five percent of the challenge is the strategy. Ninety-five percent is the execution. At the end of the day, the most disciplined organization, the organization which gives a lot of importance to processes, ends up prevailing.” (Carlos Ghosn)

When we talk about improving strategy execution we actually talk about increasing our ability to deal with continuous change, and doing this successfully as an organization.

It is simple: the better the organization becomes at achieving strategic priorities and results, the more confidence and trust will grow within the organization. And the outside world (customers, suppliers, partners, the public) will recognize this.

Is there a standard solution that will make an organization a champion in strategy execution?

Unfortunately not. Defining the right approach depends on the business sector, corporate culture, business model, market developments, etc. But the following list of questions might be useful. Leaders can use these questions as a checklist to analyse for themselves or together with their team how the organization is doing, and which points would need further attention.

  • Do we have enough clarity about the vision, the strategic priorities, and the results the company wants to accomplish? Is it clear enough WHY these are important?
  • Does this clarity exist throughout the organization or only in specific parts of the organization (for instance mainly at the top)?
  • Are people stimulated early in the decision-making process to contribute their experiences/ideas? Are they invited to think along in creating the vision and strategy? Are they co-owners?
  • How does the top of the organization show its commitment to the vision, priorities and results? How well do people feel that it is top-of-mind for the executive team?
  • Do we have a longer-term horizon or mainly a short-term focus? Why?
  • Do we optimize cross-border collaboration? Do we know the existing collaboration barriers? Do we have a plan on how to eliminate these?
  • Do we understand potential cross-cultural differences that might hinder teams to collaborate effectively? If not, why? How do we deal with these differences effectively?
  • How do we monitor progress and success? How do we report and communicate results? Do we have a clear road map?
  • How do we maintain focus throughout the organization? How do we detect when we slide out of focus? How do we correct?
  • How do we communicate and share successes with each other? How do we create collective learning out of our successes and our failures? How do we share and transfer knowledge within the organization? What can we do to influence this positively?

What would you add to this list? I look forward to reading your reactions!

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Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and leadership teams globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and our services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

Why Collaboration Is a Top Concern for Every Leader

Collaboration, people sitting and working around an office desk
Originally published on LinkedIn (read original).

Senior leaders regularly share with me their concerns about the level of collaboration in the company. They often mention the lack of cross-organizational collaboration they experience, and how this is hindering the company to execute its strategy successfully. They see how the company is not fast or flexible enough, how people and units do not align and combine their efforts quickly enough, how achieving results takes too much time, or how objectives are not met at all. They see it as an important issue and ask me for advice on how to improve the quality of the collaboration (mind you, the quantity is not always the problem).

I often witness the following reflexes in the behavior of executives when they are confronted with collaboration issues: intervene in the structure to force collaboration / change the composition of teams / have HR organize a collaboration skills training for employees. And yet, the results of these interventions are limited or at best only a part of the solution. Why?

Apparently some leaders do not see creating effective collaboration as an essential part of their own role. They believe strategy development is their role, not the execution process. ‘That is for line-managers and their teams, I do not have time for that; it is their job.’ When collaboration issues occur they are delegated to lower management or the HR department. This may have worked in the past, but in today’s business reality this is not working! What has changed?

HRS Business Transformation Services, slide with title 'How Strategy Execution Has Changed'

Strategy execution today requires organizations to develop more flexibility, adaptability, and continuous navigation. People in organizations struggle with this!

Successful strategy execution requires leaders to develop new ways of collaboration. New ways in order to connect and align people, teams, units, regions across organizational borders. Connecting people and teams in such a way that information, knowledge, expertise, ideas and solutions get exchanged and aligned faster and more flexible throughout the organization. New ways to really create collective focus on priorities, resources, and actions. Ways of collaboration that stimulate people to deal differently with accountability. Ways of collaboration that help people to develop and increase their adaptability. Collaboration that is disciplined enough and leads to concrete results.

Successful strategy execution requires leaders to develop new ways of collaboration.

Today’s leaders are facing two key challenges:
  1. How can I guide the organization successfully in translating our strategy into effective execution? (read this article for some tips);
  2. How can I stimulate and support people at all levels of the organization to create the right way of collaboration that supports our strategy? (read this article for some guidelines).

Two reasons why collaboration should be a top concern for every leader.

What are your thoughts? What should leaders do to create effective collaboration? What do you see working well?

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Aad is a global business advisor, change leader, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and leadership teams globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find more about Aad and our services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

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