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.