Leading in China. Is it really as different as we all think?

International business man travel with trolley global business cThis post is by Paul Murphy, Director of Channel Sales, Asia-Pacific.

Since China really started opening up to inbound investment over the last 30-plus years, there have been numerous stories of how challenging it can be for foreign executives to lead local staff in China. We have created a certain mystique about this concept and the belief that it is simply something that non-Chinese must struggle with.

Given the importance of China in the world economy and for many multinational corporations, this belief is hugely important. Is it really accurate though?

Just as an executive from the United States would notice differences in workplace norms in Germany or an Indian manager would need to develop new skills when leading a team in Brazil, there are inevitably differences to be found between China and other countries or regions around the world.

However, the fundamentals to leading a team in China do not differ in any significant way from leading in any other country. Simply put, these are

  • Set clear goals that are easily understood.
  • Identify the level of competence, motivation, and confidence of your direct reports for each of these goals.
  • Adjust your own leadership styles and behaviors to best support the above.
  • Check in frequently with your individual team members to assess their progress with these goals and adjust your own leadership styles where appropriate.

Although the fundamentals are the same, the ways your team members work with you might differ. Their comfort level in communicating their needs and concerns is often a challenge. You may find they are less willing than Western staffers typically are to highlight problems or a lack of motivation they are facing. As a result, patience and a need to interpret more nuanced messaging are definitely valuable, but it does not change the need to follow the above process in order to successfully lead your team.

Ultimately, whether you are heading to China and are concerned about how you can lead your team or you are in another part of the world and work with Chinese colleagues, do not worry. If you are a good leader in your home country, you will be a good leader in China. Follow leadership best practices, listen, learn, and be patient. You will see great results.

About the Author

Paul Murphy is the Director of Channel Sales, Asia-Pacific, responsible for all aspects of the indirect channel business within APAC for The Ken Blanchard Companies. Paul is based in Hong Kong and can be reached at paul.murphy@kenblanchard.com.

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