What do you mean you don’t like Ketchup?

I recently read that children go through their “terrible two’s” in part because they are experiencing the world through a huge cognitive mile stone, they understand that what happens in their mind does not necessarily happen in other people’s minds, which they do up until that point. This of course reminded me of my own son who went through a period of loving ketchup. At some point between the age of 18 months and two years ketchup wound up on his plate and he began to eat ketchup on anything, in large quantities, and by the handful. If that sounds off putting remember this simple fact children at that age assume everything in their mind to be true for what’s happening in our mind. Ergo “if I love ketchup Mom and Dad will gladly eat the ketchup off my hands that I offer to them because they too will love by the tiny fistful.” It is much more off putting to have an infant fist covered in ketchup shoved in your face with the words, “delicious Daddy eat some.”

Tastes good...

From the terrible two’s onward there is nothing as exciting or frustrating as learning that what happens in our mind doesn’t always happen in other people’s minds. As Augustus is now three and a half it is exciting for him to see what we do differently or know differently from him ranging from “do you know that guy?” to “what do cars eat?” there is a lot he wants to know. Unsurprisingly it is when we don’t match up our thoughts or we as parents are inscrutable to him that we have conflict. Whether it be because we expect him in bed at a certain time, we don’t understand what he wants to watch on TV, or we expect him to wash his hand after going to the bathroom all of these incidents are rich with potential for an argument. Throw in the inability to really communicate well with an agreed upon language (or three in his case) and things can get rocky really fast.

That said it isn’t too hard to draw parallels from my son to anyone living and working in a “foreign” culture and environment. On one hand we really want to understand (or in many cases be understood) as we as people want to know what it feels like to be other people. We want to be able to see or feel what it’s like to be any another person’s shoes in part to look for similarities and in many cases to see the differences. Consider this parallel it’s like meeting someone with a very exciting day job like fire-fighter, when we ask about that person’s job it’s in part because we want to know what it feels like to rescue someone from a burning building because let’s face it as much as we might love our own jobs in most cases we are stuck at desks and not out saving the day. We want to experience the differences in our lives to enrich our own day to day experience, I can only imagine my disappointment if I met a fire-fighter and discovered he/she spent several hours a day making power point slides and designing workbooks.

On the other hand once we have a degree of familiarity in our day to day lives and we are in a context where those differences are no longer greeted with wonder we have a potential for a true failure to connect. As people we are conditioned to sort for similarity and difference we either expect things to be the same and therefore see similarities or expect differences and therefore only see those differences. In NLP this is one of many “Meta-Models” that describes how are brains work.

Now imagine you work regularly with someone who comes from a different cultural or national background. The odds are about 50-50 that every time they have a conversation with you (and you with them) that the conversation is already being drafted from the point of view that a. you both already will look at it from the same perspective and should expect a harmonious chat or b. you two are inherently different and things could go bad very quickly if that one thing you/ or they do happens again and people can’t seem to understand each other.

I know this isn’t only relegated to cross cultural circumstances, you can think about interacting with anyone close to you and see where the first example either went over well or ended in shock or in the second example where things were set to fail from the beginning. So what does this all mean? It means to make the way we communicate across cultures we almost need to come up with a “C” model that blends both. Like saying, “This is ketchup I like it a lot. How do you feel about ketchup? I somewhat expect you won’t like it but I think it would be great if you do because I like pleasant surprises. Also it’s no big deal if you don’t like Ketchup.” Of course on larger issues politics, religion, personal hygiene it can sometime be hard to accept the last line, “it’s no big deal” but really if everything is a big deal aren’t we really setting ourselves up for a failure to communicate to begin with?

I’ll leave today’s somewhat random post with a story of how I made someone uncomfortable based on his cultural projections and then seemed to redeem the day. Let’s rewind to April 2008, I was in Beijing for a workshop and enjoying one of the nicest month’s to visit China’s capital. It was the first time I had visited the city in nearly four years and I was struck by the changes as the city ramped up for the Olympics. This was also about the same time as riots were going off in Tibet and there was a government crack down that was very un-mediapathic happening on the international news and Beijing was getting flack for having forced many citizens out of old neighborhoods during the city clean up. As I rode in a taxi to my hotel I leaned forward to the driver who had been chatting with me and I said, “Hey Cabbie there is something I have to say about the Chinese Government.” He tensed visibly (in retrospect I think he was expecting the worse as Beijing often has highly opinionated foreigners who speak Mandarin unlike Canton) and said, “oh what’s that?” Picking my Chinese as best I could I said, “I really think they have done a good job with cleaning up Beijing I can’t remember ever seeing such a blue sky or so many green trees here.” He breathed a sigh of relief, “oh yes it’s true the city is much cleaner than in years before” he replied.

In this one chat we see a microcosm of what was going on. I had assumed that the driver was pro-urban clean up and was also attuned to this aspect of government. In other words I was in the mode of assuming the driver was in the same mind-set as I was. He actually might have been but, as it seems to me, he was sorting for difference and expected a conflict based on possible prior experience and what the news was emphasizing about the foreign perspective on China at the time. At that time local news had been covering how foreigners had interrupted the torch run in protest and there was an outbreak of patriotism/nationalist sentiment at the time. Instead we were both pleasantly surprised that the conversation went well. On my part because the driver understood what I was saying and on his part because I wasn’t there to point out to him the “failures of his country…”

To me the lesson here was approach each interaction with someone else with the patience this cab driver showed. Expect what ever you want, but let yourself be pleasantly surprised. Try to understand that no matter how good their language skills are if they are not a native speaker there is always a chance that things came out wrong. And finally be able to laugh at your discomfort and expectations because they are probably what is making communication so hard to begin with.


“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads…”

I have been thinking a bit about how we measure success. I’ll write more about that in a later post, but the train of thought got me started thinking about why I chose to work and live in China instead of back home. After all it isn’t what a lot of people chose to do, it is taking the path less traveled. Actually though I realize I know a lot of people who fall under the entrepreneur label here in China and the reality is that we left the roads most people take a long time ago.

Doc Brown was a lone nut, but a lone nut with a flux capacitator...

I think about what if I had done something simpler and “stayed home” at times like these, times that are punctuated with a lot more of the grunt work. Recently my key client had their funds reduced and a number of clients have pushed their projects back to the second half of the year and I am suddenly filling my days trying to refill my calendar. It is times like these that I wonder, “what if I had stayed home to do something like this?”

That’s when I check what a “principal consultant” in the US at a firm that does the organizational cultural work and leadership development should have on their résumé. One firm in California had their JD showing I would need at least two to four years more of school and preferably another couple years of work experience before they would even look at my résumé much less put me on the short list of hires.

So stand back folks I am going to be working hard at stringing together some base hits and grinding out a couple of tough months of hard work to get to the “second half of the year” that shines on the horizon. In light of the recent Labor Day holiday the hard work seems acceptable and I think I’ll stick with Doc Brown’s famous line about roads while I continue to do things on my own terms.

A quick note on “Titles”

I am super busy this week so I thought I would take a quick moment to reflect on titles.

I was cold called today from someone in Tokyo selling me stock. They kept trying to build rapport with me by calling me the “Managing Director.” Needless to say it failed, because 1. it isn’t my title and 2. they weren’t at the equivalent level (sales peon calling MD please pick up) and were trying to be chummy. Titles kills rapport when handled badly.

If your like me and you have sized your business model to emphasize small there is a tendency to worry about having the clout that a great title brings. To me this is a departure from why I would want to scale small. I scale small to emphasize rapport and relationships, personal attention to detail and the security of always having to deal with me not a random sales associate.

I wouldn’t be the first person to scale small to reflect benefits like this. If I took a title like “Managing Director” I also wouldn’t be the first person with a staff of ten people or less to use a similar title. In essence a lot of entrepreneurs have scaled small but want to create an impression that they work on scale big.

I get why, but in my business model unless there are enough people to generally manage, or offices that actually need chief executing, or directors in need of managing it is better to leave the titles well enough alone. Use a business title to emphasize your corporate philosophy not to overstate your business function. If you want to scale small pick an intimate title that reflects being at the head of a new movement not that as my mother would say, “puts on airs.”

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…

Let’s get “Mediapathic”

If you google “Mediapathic” or run it through Dictionary.com you’ll at best get a web handle or twitter name. So let’s give credit where credit is due “mediapathic” as I know and use it comes from the Neal Stephenson book Zodiac and it is his term not mine. In Zodiac he uses the term to refer to creating images and situations that register across the evening news and creating a lasting impact with viewers, usually creating a positive impact for your side and a negative impact for your adversary. As the key protagonist is an environmental activist his idea of “mediapathic” imagery makes industrial polluters look like villains and environmentalists look like heroes. In real life it is like getting someone like former BP top-executive Tony Hayward to say, “I want my life back” in front of the whole world.

You can see Mr. Hayward here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/01/bp-ceo-tony-hayward-video_n_595906.html (If you’re in China you’ll need VPN access)

We now live in a time that being mediapathic is a business hard skill that is going to set apart the have and have-nots. If you’re in business for yourself and/or growing a small and medium sized business being mediapathic is what gets people to find your product, see your services, buy your books, download your music and make sure that you have money in the bank. I want to share a few stories and a few links through this post to give you an idea about what I am suggesting.

There are a couple of events last week that got me running down this track. The first is a chat with my friend and former colleague Jesse Covner in Suzhou. Jesse left the consulting business to take a director role at a company that produces role-playing games. You can check out the kind of games they produce over at their web-site they sound fairly creative and certainly have their demographic of gamers. Jesse is enrolling himself in the world of facebook in order to start promoting the company and their products after having registered a VPN and swallowed his distaste for social media. I suspect he will be on twitter soon enough. Arguably if you are doing business where your primary target group is in the US it is a must to be visible there.

Beyond being visible though there is a growing need to be mediapathic. When I talked to Jesse he had just come back from Las Vegas after attending a massive role-playing convention for people who make games. The story he shared that struck me as being most interesting was that at one point he sat in on a panel about manufacturing role-playing games in the US and ended up in a debate with the CEO of the group that produces “The Settlers of Catan” on two sides of the debate about producing abroad (particularly China) or in the US. It seems that Klaus Teuber actually all but called Jesse out as being “unAmerican” producing in China. Jesse of course represents the little guys not a multi-million dollar gaming company with the profit margins to produce in the US.

I sincerely wish that Jesse had been able to record it and have it on youtube, shared on facebook, and tweeted in the moment. How mediapathic would it have been to be David standing up for the little businesses trying to make it by standing up to the giant Goliath asking little businesses to slash any profits they have and effectively slash their wrists at the same time. Mr. Teuber’s point would be mediapathic tackling Wizards of the Coast but against Jesse and small business looks and sounds like bullying. It also makes Jesse a champion for the little guy and the perosn you want in your corner standing up for your product.

Let’s summarize for a minute. Do you have a small business or work in the field of helping other small businesses like game designers. Use the new media of the internet and social marketing to get your message out there to as many people as possible. Be on youtube (or in China youku), be on facebook and gathering fans and likes and be on twitter collecting followers. Be in their face. But also choose your message carefully and keep it balanced to get your followers.

I have been promoting a couple of open courses in the early part of this year. To mixed results at this point. I am trying to find the way to create the most mediapathic impact in my industry. One standard though is to create a flyer introducing your course and a good flyer should have good images. A picture says a thousand words and having access to good pictures makes a big differences if you can get people to see your flyer. You can see the flyer I designed for a reviewing course up at Roger’s website for reviewing. You’ll notice the pictures are pictures of people I have trained doing reviews but not of Roger in action. This is not for trying. If you look around the web for pictures of Roger that are mediapathic you’ll come up short. Not because Roger isn’t in actuality one of the worlds great trainers (he is) or that he isn’t the world’s foremost expert on reviewing (he is that too) but because Roger hasn’t developed this part of his brand. To be fair Roger is an established brand in the training world and won’t lose any business for this oversight. His website is, btw, a great trainer resource but highly un-mediapathic.

Take in comparison the website my friend and former colleague Andy Anderson put together. Andy, if you haven’t met him, is a great trainer and an all around great guy. His website www.imandyanderson.com is stellar example of being mediapathic. The photos are top class and the lay out is both intuitive and interesting. It makes me want to make a knock off site, that’s how cool it is. If I was looking for pictures to promote Andy in a flier I would immediately have access to resources to do so and the material would be noteworthy. To be fair Andy is a graduate of the ClarkMorgan system and in the China training world they made some of the biggest inroads into being mediapathic. Which is part of the reason Andy has some outstanding images there.

If you want to learn from Andy here, don’t count on images of you that are mediapathic happening without fore-thought. Have the sense to have a talented person nearby with a camera or recording device at times that you will stand out. I have tried working with numerous accidental photos taken during training events and inevitably people who didn’t know better had highly un-mediapathic images as a result. You can’t use photos of your great training session when people look bored. It only takes one bored person to make an otherwise mediapathic image a disaster.

I noticed last week when I put up Ayawawa’s picture I got a couple readers who just wanted to know who the Asian girl was touching her hair. It appealed to a certain demographic. Last year we worked with a German (now Japanese) company in Zhuhai to create a local corporate culture. Their CEO pointed out that working with an American was interesting because Americans inevitably have a sense of marketing that Germans seem to lack. I pointed out over dinner this weekend that Germans know how to market to other Germans. They created a set of interesting visuals promoting their “corporate values” internally and needed to target two groups with mediapathic images. The local Chinese needed pictures of people they knew to resonate, for the Germans at the plant the CEO hand picked images that would resonate on the English language posters. Talking with the Germans they all strongly responded to the picture taken for the Honesty poster. Below are a couple of examples:

This young women is reminding employees about Honesty on this poster

Chosen for being the contrasting image to Honesty this picture resonates

The CEO said he picked the English language picture after carefully reviewing which employee looked the least Honest of the bunch. As a result the expat team took notice of the picture and started modelling Honesty as a value more frequently. It was a clever choice of a mediapathic image to drive for results with a target group. That would be the final point I would make about being mediapathic, you can’t expect everyone to register your image the same way but you have to appeal a certain group and that group is who matters.

Seth Godin, noted blogger, author, and business thinker, suggests that anyone wanting to be in business for themselves needs about 20,000 people to be in their “tribes” circle of influence to live comfortably. If we think about our friend Jesse if he has 20,000 people following his products and snatching up the latest product he and his company will be doing fairly well. That doesn’t mean Jesse needs to reach everyone on facebook or twitter only a core group or maybe two. In his case he wants to appeal to game developers who want his access to cheaper methods of production, his publishing networking and to the game buyers who trust in his opinion about what is both a fun and interesting game to invest their money in. In other words Jesse needs a tribe of about 20,000 role-players who want to buy his materials for any given product line that he puts out. He then needs to craft a mediapathic image for those 20,000 people and get it out to them.

Here are a few questions to think about in creating your mediapathic (and highly necessary) message:
1. Is their an outlet for your message? Literally what media are you using to get people to fall in love with your message?
2. Have you created an image that will register an impact? Have you gotten someone with talent to be there at the right time to choose the right image to move through your media?
3. Have you considered your audience for the image. Your targeting a select group or just scattering your message to whoever might show a passing interest?

Thinking, still not as popular as you might think…

My good friend Dennis is going through a life a change. It is not the first one that he has gone through. I understand that before I met Dennis he was the Mayor of a tow in his home province. When I met him he was VP of HR at one of China’s largest manufacturers and designers of TV’s, Phones, and white goods (that’s household appliances to the rest of us.) He is an interesting guy and a real free thinker. I understand that his boss hired him to help challenge the way they do things there. I also understand that Dennis did exactly that. His boss apparently regretted the decision and moved him to VP of white goods in China’s interior and recently let him take paid time off to pursue his interest, helping parents and children grow into future leaders through a new style of pre-school/kindergarten.

Dennis’s idea is a cool one and rather revolutionary for China. What if you actually took the time to involve parents in their kids pre-school education and turn those moments into teachable leadership lessons? He is taking a rather creative step to helping solve the perceived shortage of leadership in private industry in China by getting parents involved in thinking about what their kids are doing. I sent him link to a great article from last week’s Geekdad blog that I thought he might enjoy in his pursuit. That link is here http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/03/the-importance-of-logic-critical-thinking/ for those of you interested in the source material.

I would hope that beyond the issue of leadership that he could help young parents with a shortage that is, in my opinion, a greater risk for business in China than a lack of leadership. A lack of thinking skills. Getting involved with your kids is a great time to start helping them think in critical ways and develop logic, but it also helps us to test some of our false assumptions and beliefs that limit our thinking skills. For my part our son is merrily rounding the bend at 3 and a half and full of questions. I understand that a lot of kids are into “why” at this age, but not my boy he is into “what does x eat?” or “where does x or y live?” He is busy sorting information into the filing cabinets in his head about how the world ought to be working. The challenge at this stage is to keep up with his information demands but also to get him to think about what logical connections he can make about these things. After all if airplanes and cars both drink petrol there ought to be a reason why…

A few years ago I was promoting assessments for hiring practices and at a marketing event someone asked me what I thought was the single most important factor in hiring that could be assessed. I said in all honesty, and still believe so today, that the answer is Critical Thinking Skills. Having watched people I hired and having watched countless other people in the workplace in China succeed and fail I can say with all honesty that it is more important than your personality type, EQ, or whatever idea du jour is sweeping management thinking. It is a luxury of a developed economy to say that EQ matters more than critical thinking skills, and it is a luxury honestly that is costing companies more than they realize.

A few years back I hired several recent graduates and had differing levels of success. The first hire tested on a critical thinking test at the 35th percentile, the second in the 95th percentile, and the last one at the 55th percentile. In other words I had a range from the bottom third to the middle to a top tier thinker. This was before I instituted a strict no one below the 70th percentile rule. Within the probation period I had let go of the bottom rung hire, the stories I can tell about those 90 days range from funny to sad in both reflect his inability to comprehend his job and my inability as a manager to figure out how he needed to here about his job to succeed at a basic level. The other two stayed for both more than a year with the mid-range employee staying on long after I left. The key difference between these two remaining employees was how long it took to learn information and really the ability to question what they were learning.

The top tier employee within 18 months became the top sales person and had her own group of clients that she was working with. She had changed the way our HR system worked and had also by asking tough questions made it some interesting break-throughs. In strategic HR terms we would call her a “super-keeper.” The mid-range thinker could support a host of training programs and became over the 2 and half years I worked with a reliable and consistent performer. But what colored our relationship was a discussion after she had been a part of my team for 11 months. After a workshop I reminded her that she had one month left to make her first sale. She looked at me and said, “I don’t understand what do you mean.” I reminded her that in her contract it explicitly said she had to bring in one sale valued at 30,000 RMB within her first year or her contract wouldn’t be renewed. That earned me “I had no idea sales were important.” This is despite the fact that we discussed sales figures at the beginning of every sales week. This taught me a lesson about not relying on the implied importance of something we say over and over again. A lesson my 3 year old has refreshed for me time and time again.

To be honest there are some areas of critical thinking that I find statistically are very good here. The Watson Glaser critical thinking battery (used in the USA) divides critical thinking into five areas inference, recognition of assumptions, deduction, interpretation, and evaluation of arguments. I have found using a culturally assessment that the average test taker does well with recognizing assumptions and interpretation in China with a balanced result in evaluation of arguments. In other words something here works very well in the education and parenting model in China. But what about inference and deduction what is happening here.

We can think of “Inference” in terms of Hume’s Law or best summed up in the English maxim, “you cannot get ought from is.” Any other words just because it is this way today by no means does this indicate it must be the case tomorrow. We see barriers here in the emphasis of absolutes in the Chinese education system.

What stumps many young thinkers here about deduction is the ability to go through the three stages of deduction (e.g. if x is true and y is true then z must follow) or even creating a converse negative (if x is NOT true…) but the ability to obviate personal prejudice. For whatever reason I see even the brightest and most talented young people unable to separate moral imperatives and political brain washing from the thinking process. Below is a real example of introducing deduction to participants in a training program. I should thank Freeman for creating this example a couple of years ago as I still use it today.

Me: So as we look at this slide with this lovely young lady “Ayawawa” we see her quote here, ““Anyone who is prettier than me is not as smart as me; anyone who is smarter than me is not so pretty as me.” What possible conclusion can we make according to logical deduction.

The source of much debate...

HR Manager in attendance: she is a bitch!

Me: that is possible, but let’s try using critical thinking!

Here is the good news, critical thinking skills can be taught. I would argue that you should hire for them first, but if you can’t go that route then as a leader you are stuck emphasizing thinking skills. That means putting away a tendency to solve problems for others no matter how tempting it may be. One of the first things we teach in coaching is stop solving other people’s problems. That is the same lesson I offer leaders who want subordinates to think. Secondly start facilitating instead of directing. Set-up discussions that require critical thinking and offer support on getting team members to think about things. This keeps things from getting to the 11th month and having an employee say, “you mean sales matter?” Never mind that your office or team is explicitly labeled as a sales office or team… explicit labels kill critical thinking right? So ask and challenge and don’t get frustrated.

The rewards for having a team that asks questions and can think about how to solve them are great. While you’re at it though encourage the parents in your life to get their kids thinking, it will save a lot of work for the next generation, and maybe they can worry more about hiring for EQ instead of thinking skills.

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


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.