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Wrapping Up the China Blog December 5, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Management & leadership.
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From September 2009 through May 2011 I managed a department of more than 400 engineers, technicians and operators at a large electronics manufacturing services firm near Shenzhen, China. It was my first experience with solid-line responsibility for a team outside the US, although I’ve been indirectly managing non-US-based teams for the last fifteen years, both as an internal program manager and as a customer of contract manufacturing and engineering service providers. Along the way I’ve learned a lot about working effectively with people from a wide range of nationalities and cultures, and those experiences certainly prepared me well for my time in China, but I was open to the possibility that managing in China would be very different than what I was used to.

I started a blog in December 2009 to log some of those discoveries, both the similarities and the differences. See: Managing in China. Now that I’m based in the US again it feels like the right time to reflect and close that chapter.

I must emphasize that my experiences are my own, and it’s dangerous to generalize from such a small sample size, particularly since we’re talking about a nation of almost 1.5 billion people. I worked at one company, in one business sector (electronics manufcturing), in one location in China. I also worked with people from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and while some would say that they are part of a “Chinese diaspora” or “Greater China,” I think there are important differences between these people and “local Chinese” that are arguably derived from their many years of relative openness and engagement with the world economy.

With those caveats, I came away with two discoveries during my time in China:

1. I understand there are cultural differences, but at a fundamental level I’ve come to believe there isn’t any difference in how to motivate and inspire better performance, or correct poor performance. (From: Scolding for Performance. See also: Retention in China.) I modified my communication style and outward affect while I was in China, but I managed basically the same way I always have, and from the feedback I received, I think I was just as effective.

2. I met some very capable people, but I was frequently disappointed by their lack of initiative and poor judgment in ambiguous situations. See: Teaching Self-Reliance. It often seemed that the fear of making a mistake or “getting the wrong answer” prevented people from exercising leadership, making it preferable (and safer) to let someone else (typically their immediate manager) make the decision. I really don’t know where this comes from, but I saw this often enough to conclude that it’s a cultural phenomenon in China, perhaps reinforced by a rigid educational system that emphasizes traditional, rote learning.

I’m going to set aside the China blog for now, although at some point later, with the perspective of time and distance, I’d like to re-visit those experiences and memories.

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