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Are Chinese leaders more resilient and agile?

The rapid rise of Chinese business leads to the question whether Chinese leaders are more agile and resilient in the face of turbulence and uncertainty compared to Western leaders? Are Chinese leaders particularly well placed to deal with change or economic unpredictability and to use it to their advantage?

A comparison of the psychology of Chinese versus Westerners seems to support this hypothesis. There are various reasons for the stronger resilience of the Chinese – these focus especially on the concept of self and the management of emotions. When I interviewed Professor Chang Weining, a cross-cultural expert who was formerly lecturing at the National University of Singapore and at Nanyang Technological University, she described the following key differences in the psychology of Chinese and Westerners:

  • The view of the self

Westerners believe in a ‘stable self ’ – a self that is unyielding and not flexible. The Chinese in contrast see the self as a ‘process of development’ – ‘a dynamic process of evolution’ according to Chang. The Asian view of self is steeped in Confucius – the message is to develop what is beneficial. Most Chinese learn early on to change the things you can change and accept the things you cannot change.

  • Illusion of control and adaptability

The West has an excessive illusion of control – to the extent that Westerners believe they can control things that are clearly uncontrollable. For Asians, the mantra is ‘to work with the situation’; this means, to accept the situation and look for opportunities – resulting in a good adaptability to circumstances.

  • Response to volatility

This focus on adaptability may act as a buffer against stress when faced with volatility and unpredictable events. The Chinese accept unpredictability and non-controllability as a rule. Chang also supports her view that Chinese are more resilient than Westerners with research on post-traumatic stress where Chinese showed fewer psychological symptoms compared to Western counterparts.

  • Management of emotions

The Chinese notion of ‘self as a study in progress’ has an in-built element of resilience as ‘you learn to manage your emotions’. Learning to manage your emotions, particularly in volatile situations, is one of the key factors in the increased resilience of Chinese.

  • Situational attunedness – high level of external sensitivity

The malleable self and the belief in interconnectedness prepare the Chinese early on to be highly sensitive to their environment and changing circumstances. What we Westerners see as a pragmatic attitude is likely a faster response to changing circumstances due to a heightened external sensitivity. 

Therefore, having a flexible concept of self, learning early on to manage one’s emotions and having a heightened sensitivity to external events may explain some of the agility we see in the impressive success of Chinese business leaders.

The Blog is an excerpt on the topic from chapter 4 of my book “The Power of Global Teams” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013). A new article on this subject is due out soon.

CEO Succession Planning

A large public company in the UK wanted to develop its top executive group in order to ensure the right leadership capability to achieve the growth strategy and to work out what type of development should be implemented to enable potential CEO candidates to succeed the current CEO in several years’ time.

Individual development review sessions, with an appraisal of key business and leadership competencies, motivation and leadership style, and follow-up coaching sessions were conducted. Each executive was provided with an individual development action plan to help them progress in the next phase of their current role and to increase their chances of getting their ideal next role. Strong buy-in to the approach was created through complete transparency of the process, its objectives, how the results were used and with the individual executive having first ownership of their reports.

A summary of all the findings was discussed with the board in relation to the strategy of the company and its further growth ambitions on the international stage. In collaboration with the HR director and the CEO, development programmes were set up for each executive.

Several executives were promoted to new roles. In the next CEO selection, the internal candidate who participated in the original development programme was benchmarked against external candidates and succeeded in becoming the next CEO of the company.

Bridging cultural differences

A senior team in an international investment bank needed to develop a more global approach and more relevant products for global clients. But the prevailing culture was highly individualistic and tensions between New York and London resulted in lack of collaboration. The team’s goal was to raise global deal flows through improved international teamwork and to move from number three in the market to becoming market leader.

Given the highly results-oriented nature of the business, we developed an action-oriented approach, showing the team exactly what they needed to do to achieve the strategy. This involved a combination of individual leadership development and team development to improve global leadership, thereby facilitating better alignment and a more international approach to clients. Our in-depth team review highlighted strengths, gaps and areas for improvement while follow–up workshops ensured the successful implementation of our suggested actions.

The individual executives developed a better global capability and a greater understanding of their own roles within the team, whilst team dynamics and collaboration were bolstered as revealed by the post workshop data. As a direct result of the improved team intervention, business revenue grew by over 60% and the team moved up in worldwide rankings.

Top team development in a major turnaround

A team restructure in a consumer company, with a new CEO and the need for an urgent turnaround towards a more performance-oriented culture, meant the new team had to come into quick alignment. The aim was for the top team to work more closely together, introduce stronger performance orientation, and to filter down the key lessons to the next level and thereby achieve significant business results.

Given the urgency of the turnaround, our approach was to focus on specific actions, showing the team exactly what was required to achieve the immediate and long-term business goals. A plan to develop the leadership and team was implemented while our diagnostic survey identified strengths and gaps highlighting where our team building energies should be focussed. A series of workshops then ensured that the turnaround plan was successfully implemented.

Feedback demonstrated a much closer collaboration within the executive team and as a direct result of this, the company, which had been stagnant for several years, grew to become the best performing business within its region.

Positioning for a period of rapid growth

A leading investment management company needed a stronger platform and corporate structure to support its ambitious growth plans. We recommended a review of the current organisational structure, a review of the senior leadership team and its culture – relating these findings to the strategy of the firm. This resulted in a review and development plans for the top executives, a strategic overview of their strengths and development areas and of organisational and cultural issues regarding team dynamics.

We embarked on individual review and development sessions for all executives. This included discussions concerning career goals and ambitions, their key business competencies and potential future roles within the firm. The process was completely transparent: each executive received feedback in a development session and a copy of their report. We presented a strategic overview of the group and the main organisational issues to the Board, while subsequent workshops with the CEO and Board directors converted the recommendations into specific actions.

The individual sessions clarified potential future roles for the executives and gave clear pointers for their future development. The strategic overview and workshop kicked off the development of a new organisational structure which in turn resulted in a stronger platform for growth, with several new roles being created and others modified. The CEO conducted subsequent career development sessions with each executive – in so doing, he prepared the buy-in for some structural and positive changes. The strategic overview to the top team started a discussion and solution of some of the organisational issues. The end result was a better alignment of the top team with the overarching strategic goals of the firm.

Integration post merger

A company in the FMCG sector wanted to select the best executives for the newly merged organisation and wanted an objective external review and development process to facilitate the merger. The company was also keen to understand the main cultural differences between the merged entities. This resulted in review sessions with a large group of executives within 30 days.

A project team of consultants was formed with a full-time project manager. All executives had individual review sessions with two consultants. Reports were delivered within three days of each session. Every executive received feedback and the full report of the evaluation. Strategic summaries of all reviews for individuals, specific functions and entire units, were presented to the Board, with discussions on strengths and weaknesses and the implications for the integration.

Making the process transparent with productive feedback sessions resulted in a very high buy-in of all executives. Objective external reviews ensured that selection was fair and there was a better definition of the new roles while integration was improved by the team overview. Subsequent leadership development programmes focused on the main identified weaknesses of the executive group. The post-merger integration process was achieved on schedule and faster organisational changes were made as a result.