Having started my career in Silicon Valley, I had taken it for granted that to lead is to set the right goals and motivate employees to achieve them with the right incentives (preferably, stock options) and the right work environment. My experience in China, however, has seen much to the contrary.
My first real job in China was at a startup in Beijing. The founders worshipped management by cheerleading. At the beginning and end of each day, the CEO would get the staff together for pep-talk sessions. He would extol the company's grand vision and how wonderfully we had been hitting the numbers (despite the opposite reality); then we would have to put our hands together and cheer our company name loudly in sync. Any doubt of the company's management would be greeted by smiling yet insistent group criticism sessions.
My next job was at one of the biggest Chinese Internet companies, which revolutionized China's Internet industry. The charismatic CEO had assembled a team of young followers who took to heart his vision of creating jobs for the hardworking. The stock options also helped.
The problem was, the CEO launched wave after wave of new grand projects, aiming to yet again turn the status quo upside down. Employees identification with the company's core value - willingness to follow orders and embrace "change" - was religiously evaluated. Experienced management staff hired from outside left, one by one.
James McGregor in his wonderful book, One Billion Customers, calls this Mao Zedong-style management. He says that after thousands of years of ingrained behavior, "the Chinese respond well to charismatic and visionary leaders who can tell them what to do to be successful and who will take care of them."
All of this was fun commentary to comprehend intellectually before I had to build a team all by myself. Last fall I joined an American Internet company to help them set up shop in China. I am not charismatic or visionary, how do I lead?
My staff, however, mostly did it for me. Even though I have never asked them to work over the weekend, they would come into the office to finish the tasks at hand voluntarily. One of my favorite team leaders, Ann, came to talk to me last week. She said she needed better-defined goals. I asked whether she could finish the annual target I assigned to her last quarter? She said of course. So I doubled the target. Ann did some quick calculations on her notepad. No problem, she said, I can do it.
People like Ann constantly amaze me - they seem to be burning with an energy to learn and to work, the like of which I had only observed in my colleagues in Silicon Valley during the heydays of the dotcom boom. Several of my key staff, including Ann, had told me that they expect a winning team to be one that is so dedicated to their goals that the team members do not have any personal life.
I, as a boss, actually had to remind them to maintain a work-life balance, to grow professionally in addition to finishing what I assigned them.
They are slowly learning. They still tend to look up to me for answers. And I know that it would be premature to expect from them an extremely innovative team like the ones I was used to in Silicon Valley. Yet I am confident about them - despite what James McGregor says in his book, I believe that increasingly the young hardworking in China treasure the opportunities to be coached, to learn and to grow, rather than simply being led.
(China Daily August 6, 2009)