Precipitevolissimevolmente, or the longest word in Italian (an arguement for short words)

I am going through the process of delivering a high potential leadership workshop for another company this week. It is part of a global initiative for a multinational company with workshops being run in China, Germany, Mexico, Turkey and numerous other locations. The problem is that the designers would love to use words like precipitevolissimevolmente if they could.

It seems that when we were younger our goal was to learn many big words, the bigger the better, in order to express ourselves. This works on a small scale, like when we are in a circle of people how know big words and are all native speakers. We also learn how to write without using complete sentences and without using the active voice in attempts to sound even cooler.

All these become are bad habits when we want to speak across borders and reach a great number of people. In fact the opposite is true. We need to use short words and concise sentences in the active voice. It may be counter-intuitive but the more people we try to reach the dumber we need to sound.

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Fitzgerald and the Fourth Person Perspective

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936)

I like this quote quiet a lot. Since I don’t have much time to write this week I want to use it as a jumping off point.

A few years back I used to run a networking event in Guangzhou called Oriented. Oriented.com is or was a social site for people living in key cities abroad or in the US with an interest or background in Asian culture. In the Summer of 2005 one of my attendees dropped into my hands a copy of the Harvard Business Review with an article on Action Logic aptly titled Seven Transformations of Leadership. A year later I went to the UK to get certified by Harthill UK in the administration of the psychometric assessment that looks at how to measure those seven stages. If you would like to know more about Harthill you can check out their website here are you can go online and take their snapshot evaluation. If you feel intrigued enough to take the whole assessment you can contact me directly and I can arrange that.

To me F. Scott Fitzgerald isn’t really just talking about intelligence he is using the language he had available to him at the time to describe the ability to see a situation from a fourth person perspective. Fitzgerald is here labeling “a first rate intelligence” where what he is actually looking at in my opinion is development stage. It would make sense though given his social circle that he would also associate the traits he saw as being bright and capable with being further along on the spiral development track. If you would like to spend a bit of time looking at what spiral development is check out this presentation from a couple years back.

This all comes to mind this Monday morning after watching a few debates play out over the past couple of weeks. There is a tendency by people to think that answers are either one way or the other. Actually debate is founded on the idea that when we have two different ideas one has to be right and the other can be proven to be wrong. Some people who make it to the later stages in life might point out that there are shades of gray and that context affects most arguments so that it is hard to make sweeping statements.

What Fitzgerald is proposing and what a fourth person perspective provides is that in many cases there are no shades or grey and that it isn’t in fact a “sometimes” or “on occasion” world. In fact, things exist in a plurality rather than singular point of view. In other words what can be black can also be white. Not just in context or sometime, but always and in fact they aren’t two ideas but actually one. Fitzgerald wouldn’t be the first person to point this out either. Kierkegaard points out that we can only truly be “free” when we accept paradoxes (his specific point of view as a Christian existentialist is the paradox of death and rebirth) and in that same vein of Saint Augustine in 400 AD made similar points.

So my challenge to readers this week is to push for the paradox. Don’t accept the idea that it has to be either or this week. To use the language behind Action Logic, get post-conventional this week. Challenge yourself that there isn’t one singular point of view and try to see the other side which arguably is the same side. Then make Mr. Fitzgerald proud by continuing to function while fully embracing the paradox…

The kids are alright. Comparing leadership in China and America’s young people

Recently I agreed to help a friend with promoting his company that specializes in mobilizing recent college graduates in China and helping them develop and fill into specialist and leadership roles. It’s a cool idea and one worth supporting. Every other month I will spend a couple of hours talking about leadership and what that means. This in turn got me thinking about what are some of the blocks that young people here face as they begin to take on leadership roles. As with many things in life, early life education is key to what happens later in life and the gap that I will address for these young people is one that kids in the US have a leg up on. This post is about some of those cultural differences in education style for young people and the impact on adults. I’ll try to make a little less boring than it sounds…

Just to praise Jeff and his team, they has identified a real need in China and that is to take the initiative to help young people accelerate their job opportunities. The simple reality is that most leaders here are a decade, two, or even three younger than their counter parts in the US or Europe. This is due to rapid growth in the private sector over the past decade and what is effectively a shortage of qualified managers and leaders. In effect there is a lot of “On the job training” for supervisors, team leaders, department heads, and even plant managers and executives. Working in the consulting and leadership development I have met a wide spectrum of leaders and high potential candidates and have seen a variety of successes and failures. What follows is my analysis for why this happens.

As most of you, who read this blog, know I had an unusual childhood that sent me to different countries across three continents. Doing the nitty gritty math I have spent more of my life out of the US than in. Despite this, culturally I identify with being from the United States, in no small part because of having grown up in the US public school system. Making comparisons about education and it’s impact is based on my experience in Oklahoma at public school and Israel in private school, both of which were based around a US curriculum. My comparison points in China are the public schools in major cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Now a lot has been written about school systems in both countries which a Google search or Amazon search can shed some light on. Most things written about both systems are pretty damning. Let’s face it nobody writes a book with the hopes it will sell well or get read by a large group of people and writes praise about education systems. So taking into account all the things written about schools that already indicate what they are doing right or wrong I am only going to talk about what they are doing to create leadership traits. One other addendum, it is only practical to talk about leadership in China in terms of the private sector as the public sector has a very different set of criteria and is largely closed off to the average citizen. I also have no real idea what one does to get ahead in the public sector here, but I am pretty sure your soul doesn’t come out of it intact.

That is a very long framework. Like it’s own blog post, thanks for showing the resilience to keep reading. There are two possible extremes that happen in the US and Chinese education systems. I’ll use an example to set the tone for both. One of my favorite movies (in part because I relate so well to it) is Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. In Rushmore the main character, Max Fischer, is described early on as the founder and president of many of the student body functions at the Rushmore academy, including but not limited to the Yankee Racer Society, the Bee Keeping Society, The Rushmore Players (a drama troupe he directs), the Model United Nations, and a model plane flying society. He has so many in fact that his academic scores suffer and as the story opens he is jeopardy of being expelled. Among my group of peers in college we felt a connection with Max Fischer and his numerous extracurricular activities. In my own high school I had maxed out the amount of extra curricular activities and student body government roles allowed. In effect I had expanded the amount of roles available to me to the absolute maximum and still wanted more. It is this trend that sets American education and early leadership apart from what we find in China.

Max Fischer founder and president of the Model UN club

A few years ago when I first moved to Guangzhou I helped to organize a social networking group called “Oriented.” Early on I drafted a young volunteer who had gotten her MBA studying in England. She was hard working and dedicated to working with the group. On a few occasions when I wasn’t available to organize an event she did a good job of taking over and setting things up. I learned that Oriented was her first time to take on these kinds of roles. When asked about her experience in London I expected to hear about her experience meeting students from around the world and getting to know London and England. I was surprised to learn that she had effectively sealed herself off in her dorm room to study for two years. I am sure that she learned a lot about business and performed well in her class. But for all of the world outside of her dorm room she might as well have been in Guangzhou. She had been the anti-Max Fischer who instead of over expanding her world had focused it down to a narrow role focused on studying.

If you’ve had a chance to pick up Malcom Gladwell’s book

    Outliers

you might remember that some of the stories of exceptional people who took leadership roles like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had early access to topics that interested (computers and in Jobs case Caligraphy) and the freedom to pursue these kind of eccentric (at the time) interests. What the US does very well is create opportunities for students to follow some kind of interest (even if it needs to get funded by a bake sale or twelve) that lets young people take opportunities to be leaders. Students are encouraged to do extra curricular activities that align with their passions and run for some sort of internal leadership position. Even in times of budget crises young people are still encouraged to find some sort of activity that let’s them be themselves.

In cross cultural terms there are a couple of key cultural traits that are expressed here. The first is called PDI (Power Distance Indicator) and can be described as the perceived gap between “leaders” and “followers.” It also can be used to evaluate a cultures willingness to tolerate unfair practices from the boss. The US is often described as having a very low PDI or in other words it is often the case that people can and do challenge leadership and speak out when they are unhappy or feel they have been treated unfairly. The other is Individualism (it’s counter point is Collectivism) and unsurprisingly the US has the highest Individualism score of any cultural group surveyed. Any other words if you want to be an eccentric like Max Fischer or go rogue like certain political figures someone (certainly not everyone) will be there to support this kind of behavior.

In China there are sports teams and extra curricular activities. There are student leaders and there are social clubs. But consider this story I got a few years ago at a Leadership workshop in Hong Kong. When I asked participants to describe a time they felt like a leader one participant told the story about he ran away from home when he was eight. The reason why? Because he and his six year old brother had failed to be in the top two in their classes. Anyone who has ever worked in China will recognize this behavior from full grown adults. There is first a Collectivist idea about what everyone is expected to do (top 1 or 2 out 30-40 kids) and if you can’t live up to the (unfair) expectation of the “powers-that-be” (Mom and Dad here) your only recourse is to hide, run away, or as the young adults do, go to a new job. It is expected that running away (in the story to Grandma’s house) will be safer than staying and being accountable for not living up to an unfair standard.

Before following any sort of passion or interest kids are first expected to put in the hours to be at the top of the class. One of the messages international MBAs and EMBAs have been harping here is that the most successful CEOs are not the one’s with straight As but in fact have C averages in college. Because they actually experienced leading and interacting with other people. Parents I am not suggesting your kids should get C averages, in China getting to a good university makes a big difference in future earnings and getting hired. That said having met numerous successful Chinese executives most of them do not report having all gone to Beijing University or having been top of their class. Many of them have studied abroad but that is not the key to being successful as young leader, what made them good was that they got out and explored the world around them and took the initiative to stand out.

In many ways China has become the land of opportunity for young people. Many of the 30 and 40 something year old managers and executives I meet come from economically disadvantaged areas. One plant manager at a major fortune 100 company has told me stories about growing up without shoes at times. He is next in line to oversee their Asia operations. He is only a couple years over 40 and if you ask him what the keys are to leadership he will emphasize initiative and accountability. The law of averages dictates some young people are going to fit this mold in China. When we can expect to see China break away in a big is when young people people feel encouraged to challenge a high PDI and high collectivist mind set and take the initiative to follow their passions.

So consider the case of a solar energy company we worked with last year. We had several of their brightest young engineers join us over a few sessions of drafting their vision and value structure between their Chinese and American side. Some of them had doctorates in engineering and were working on projects that were ahead of anything comparable in the US. In their limited field they were brilliant and ahead of the curve but the idea of taking the initiative to lead the organization was new to all of them. In the long run by being involved in those workshops they hopefully will begin to feel empowered as leaders but it was clear that expectation to go beyond their studies and focus group was new.

So what can I do with these young professionals I will see every other month. I think the key is to get them to redefine leadership. The high Power Distance Indicator in China virtually makes young people exclude themselves from being a leader based on their own definitions. As a results there is a tendency to describe leadership as trait held only by a few and that those few are at a safe distance from the average Joe. This belief structure is what keeps young people from taking the initiative to start their own ideas and the accountability to follow up on their own leadership ideas. Can these beliefs change? Undoubtedly, the question is not can they change, but what they will do after wards.

Angry, Adjusting, or an Ass?

I have a hell of a temper. I am not sure if it is a Nature or Nurture issue. Am I pissed at the world because I got the genes from my father who in turn got them from his father or did I learn it from him and he from his father? One thing I have learned though being angry doesn’t make me genuine. Maybe I should say two things, the other being having easy access to one emotion doesn’t make me any more in touch with the situation just because I feel strongly one way or another.

Your Step Dad's not angry he is just adjusting...

I have been toying with this topic for a while because it isn’t an easy thing to write about. Let’s start from an example, to talk about it. A few years ago we helped a Taiwanese trading company run an organizational culture survey on the branches around China with their HQ in Dongguan. For whatever reason the data was calculated wrong in one sector (the question was something like, “we understand the vision for our company and have a clear direction of our future) the sales team was directly overseen by the GM and to him this group ought to be the most aware of the company’s future. In fact they had scored higher than any other group, but due to the error they had the lowest score.

To be fair we caught this mistake very quickly and before their scheduled date to share back with their employees. Their GM though, upon receiving the data, was caught up in the spirit of the moment and dragged his sales team into the meeting room and started a tirade about how they, better than anyone else should know their vision. Be rest assured that everyone heard him, but they all had to be wondering who hadn’t heard the GM’s message on vision before, since by and large they had all scored this area very well. The sales team was left with an impression that the company’s vision mattered a great deal to the GM, but also that they had received a verbal beat down unfairly and without having a chance to be understood. Needless to say this group was doubly suspicious of all future surveys and for some time walked very gently around the big boss.

I was in Shanghai a few years ago visiting my then HQ for an annual performance review. At that time one of my co-workers had decided to leave the company to go on to a more stable job, this was after all at a time when said company used to regularly miss our pay checks and issue half pay late and the other half even later. Given the size of our company the GM (see also CEO or big boss) was doing our performance evaluations. There were department and team leaders but they didn’t actually handle performance reviews except in the case of regional offices (mostly because it wasn’t financially feasible to bring people in, not because the GM wanted to decentralize authority) so we all had the perks of personal attention. Early on our colleague (let’s call him “Bob”) got his chance. What followed was, behind a thin glass door, a one way shouting match from an older experienced GM and his younger employee about how Bob leaving was personally disappointing to the GM because it put even more work on his shoulders and how Bob was letting us all down.

Here is the thing we all knew that the Boss cared about the company. We also knew Bob cared too and that leaving wasn’t easy for him. We all knew that the Boss felt like crap for missing payment and we knew that he felt we should feel like a family and a team. We knew he cared. We also felt at that moment that the Boss was full of conviction and passion. We also felt scared shitless of telling him how we felt. Who would dare go in there and say, “life is tough when I don’t get paid, it puts stress on my whole family” if we thought we would get blasted like that?

To my knowledge everyone in the office that day has since left that company. Very few of them after the incident with Bob sat down with the GM and said, “I am leaving soon” without some sort of fear of abuse or reprisal.

In both of these cases the leaders of their respective companies thought that showing their conviction through anger also showed their commitment. A few years ago I found myself in that same cycle with my own employees as a manager, because I had seen it so often in my education as a manager. “If you feel strongly blow up.” Not surprisingly every single time I lost it I had to work my way back from a deficit that I created in the trust in the office. People respect passion and conviction, but the distrust someone who can’t control their temper.

It’s a lesson that spills over into many parts of our lives. Want to be a better spouse? I am sure that people have said how we should show passion or show our convictions to make our relationships work, but don’t go off on our spouse. Somewhere there are battered spouses echoing, “he/she doesn’t mean to be abusive he just is full of passion.” The rest of us watching stand back and say, “nope he/she is just a jerk and it’s unfortunate that you feel you have to put up with it.”

In another role as parents we want to communicate the best way for our kids to act and it can be frustrating when they don’t listen, but being angry never gets the best results. Again having conviction and standing by your points as a parent is very necessary, having a three year old I know that if I bend on certain issues it can actually be dangerous, but being angry creates the least results or counter productive results.

So I still spend a lot of time figuring out the best way to not be so angry. I am less worried about the roots of the problem as I am about getting past those emotions and finding ways to show passion, conviction, and resolve without building distrust in my relationships. I regularly ask if it is worth getting angry about. In certain contexts I ask if I feel this way because I haven’t adjusted to the situation the way I need to to be at my best. Finally I ask if I might not just happen to be an ass. Going through the check list let’s me get objective and find a better solution than blowing up.