China’s new management style

For several years now – ever since, in fact, I became involved with a Chinese company – I have been fascinated by the difference in outlook and business approach of Chinese businessmen.
Recently, I had something of a “Paul on the road to Damascas” moment when I read a new book by the Frenchman heading up management consultant Roland Berger’s Chinese business, Charles-Edouard Bouee.
Called China’s Management Revolution – Spirit, Land and Energy, the books’ central thesis is that China is developing its own unique management style blending the best of its very long cultural past and modern (American) management theories.
The key difference between the West and China when it comes to management theory, argues Bouee, is that Chinese managers emphasise vision and tactics – not strategy. There are sound cultural reasons for this which I won’t go into here, but if you want to read more, I heartily recommend the book, particularly to those who deal with Chinese management on a regular basis.
But to shine some light on the essence of this management style I will set down what Bouee says are its nine major characteristics.
The environment in China is ever-changing, partly because of rapid economic growth and partly because of the one-party system which can result in dramatic change. As a consequence Chinese management style emphasises tactics over strategy – more surfer riding the wave, than military strategist.
Tuning is everything – the key is to be ready for opportunity when it emerges. Partly this comes from the Daoist view that we are helpless in the face of a powerful universe and at the mercy of luck – although if we catch it early enough, we can influence outcomes.
Vision and tactics are much more important than strategy. If you have no clear plan you have no “face” to lose if you change direction. Chinese are always ready to take short-cuts.
There is no “not invented here” in China – Chinese managers are pragmatists who will take what works and assimilate it.  As Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese premier who started the Chinese economic miracle,  said if a cat can catch mice, its colour and provenance are immaterial.
There is a strong sense that both the company and the individual should benefit from their collective experience. The concept of reciprocal obligations is strong, and there is a great importance put on intangible outcomes, such as trust, good relationships and loyalty. Bouee says three things are important to employees: Legacy – being part of something lasting; Learning – self-fulfilment and reaching one’s potentia; and Life/Love – a sense of family and a caring environment.
The boss is a very important figure in Chinese firms taking the role of “emperor”. But the position comes with obligations. There are top-down decisions which employees expect but only after exhaustive discussions with trusted advisors. (Bouee says the Central Communist Party operates in exactly this way through controlled leaks and internal brain-storming sessions). This need for consensus is why communication is especially important in a Chinese company and, incidentally, why, he says, Microsoft Word is favoured over PowerPoint as the former is a discussion while the latter is a conclusion.
While religion is not strong in China, the rich and very long history of Daoist and Confusion philosophy has resulted in spirituality being very much a part of life. Chinese companies often couch their vision is value-laden metaphors and references from myths and legends.
Chinese companies value discipline and betraying the boss is a sacking offence. Training is emphasised and performance reviews, though less process-oriented than in the West, can be frequently – maybe even monthly. Bouee says Chinese companies can appear quite disorganised at the same time, but don’t be fooled.
This management style, argues Bouee, is emerging naturally from the Chinese environment. Despite the strong influence of American management thinking which flooded into China as a result of Deng’s reforms, the natural style of the Chinese is reasserting itself. It is organics – grown from Chinese cultural roots.
In summary, this is a great book if you are looking to understand what is going on it Chinese companies – at least it contained many “ah-ah” moments for me.

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