Friday, July 15, 2005

Learning a culture of leadership

My (Chinese) mom keeps telling me the kids need to learn Chinese, since obviously (to her) any day now China will suddenly find itself the leader of world.

This month's Wired has an article about the Chinese company Lenovo buying IBM's PC division, and going through cross-cultural growing pains, such as trying to learn American management practices. As the article summarizes the situation,

[It is] an extraordinary reality: American executives in New York will mentor Chinese executives as they run a largely Chinese company that wants to model itself on a Japanese corporation in order to challenge two American competitors, with the ultimate mission of helping China achieve its patriotic goal of kicking butt in international business.

From here in Silicon Valley, the self-proclaimed hub of innovation, one might smirk at the thought of an old-skool corporation such as IBM teaching ANYONE how to be more sucessful in the 21st century. After all, its all (going to be) about innovation and design thinking in the next wave, right? and IBM isnt exactly the first firm that comes to mind when you mention innovation these days.

In the article, there are both optimistic and pessimistic examples of what it is Lenovo is trying to understand about IBM, and by example, American management style. Here are some excerpts:

At a meeting of Lenovo and IBM managers before the deal closed, one of the Lenovo employees was asked to present a plan... "I told the Lenovo employee, 'It's a beautiful idea, but how are your American colleagues going to understand what you're talking about?'..." And so [he], along with other Lenovo workers desperate to soak up US business practices, was instructed in droning PowerPoint-speak....
A more useful thing that Lenovo executives can learn from their IBM colleagues is the business of leadership. In China, college admissions are based entirely on exam scores - unlike in the US, it doesn't help to be captain of the high school soccer team or president of the drama club. And the way to get high exam scores is to learn by rote, obey instructions, and not take chances. The young men and women who excel at those traits get into the best universities and graduate with honors, as brilliant followers. Few, if any, have the skills required of corporate managers.

[Steve Ward, the American ex-IBM CEO] has made a particular impression on them. In meetings, he urges, "Don't think about what Steve wants me to do; think what Steve wants us to accomplish." In other words, don't just follow orders - understand the strategy. Make decisions based on that.

Funny, the Chinese method seems to be the same one my (Chinese) parents tried to instill in me! Well, if I could survive that obsolete notion of what it means to learn, so can a company like Lenovo.

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