Learning to stay at the top of their game

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 July, 2012, 12:00am


It was quite painful watching Jean-Francois Manzoni trying to write his name with his left hand. It took twice as long as it usually would - and it was pretty messy.

'This is how you perform when you are trying to learn a new way of doing things,' said the professor of management practice at international business school Insead.

'It is less efficient, it looks like the handwriting of a child, and it takes time and an enormous effort,' he added, crumpling up the piece of paper after making his point. 'And remember, senior executives don't even have the luxury to say that they will take three times as long to do something, just because they want to apply something they have learned.'

He and others argue that constant learning is more important than ever for senior executives as companies morph in line with changes in global economics.

For instance, a senior executive who used to run a 50-person local company in northern China might now have to run a regional company with 1,000 employees.

Similarly, a mid-size British firm might find itself expanding overseas for the first time by partnering with Asian companies, as European markets fade in importance.

The cultural shock and communication hiccups could sometimes fray tempers, or even torpedo business deals.

Some executives try to figure out how to better manage their increasingly complicated companies by going back to the classroom for stints such as executive master of business administration (EMBA) programmes; others hone their management skills on the job.

One of the biggest lessons today's executives needed to learn was to overcome their fear of taking risks, Manzoni said. He recalled, in a classroom discussion, a Chinese student in the EMBA programme standing up to the rest of the group, who voted down a business proposal they deemed too risky.

'A lot of people from the West work to protect the downside, and they are no longer striving to succeed,' Manzoni said. 'If you can't redevelop the growth muscle and the energy to strive for the upside, companies like his are going to kill you much faster than you fear.'

Globalisation means executives often find themselves managing culturally diverse workforces. An important lesson to learn quickly is how to distinguish between what is cultural behaviour and what is poor performance.

For instance, Manzoni said, 'imagine that you have a new boss, a charismatic guy who stands on the table and shouts 'more, more, more' ... he behaves in a way that tells you that you are not doing well, and that you are not a good leader' because the executive was not interacting with his team. It ignored the fact the executive had been successful at his job for the past 30 years, Manzoni said, so 'what was a difference in [management] style was mistaken as a performance issue'.

Another key lesson for executives to learn was how to keep cool, especially on the mainland, where they could feel tremendous pressure to take advantage of the current opportunity lest it get away, said John Quelch, dean of international management at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS). Take KFC, for example, he said. The fast-food chain has grown from 2,140 outlets in 2007 to more than 3,800 at the end of the first quarter of this year.

Such a race for corporate growth leads to stress, which takes its toll on executives. They sometimes internalised it, which could affect health, he noted. Other times the stress manifested itself as aggression, and turned into bullying one's subordinates, who actually needed more nurturing in such a demanding workplace, Quelch said.

Management courses could help business leaders appreciate the human interest dimension of their companies, Quelch said. CEIBS, a world-class business school set up by the European Commission and China's central government, has campuses in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and elsewhere on the mainland, with 800 to 1,000 students graduating from its EMBA programme a year. Those students are mostly senior executives of state-owned enterprises or private companies and entrepreneurs.

The EMBA programme exposed these senior executives to art and humanities, including Confucianism - something that Quelch believed would help their success reach beyond business.

'I hope my students understand that to be a CEO of a company is a servant job. You serve your customers, and the employees,' he said.

Eddie Hung, who oversees Sony's marketing and communications team in Shanghai, opted in 2007 to enrol in a two-year EMBA programme at CEIBS, aiming to get a handle on 'what is happening outside one's company, outside one's own industry and outside China'.

He attended classes four days every month, usually over a long weekend from Friday to Monday. Because of 'the training and the networks' he gained, he said he was better able to cope with the pressure of high expectations from the head office. 'Even when the rest of the world is in recession and even with the mainland economic slowdown, the global headquarters still expects the China market to grow,' Hung said. 'Competition is very keen, and international.'

CEIBS' Quelch points to Lenovo chairman Yang Yuanqing as one example of a Chinese executive managing a global business successfully. Yang was one of Quelch's students, and the professor describes the executive as a highly disciplined, analytical person who has a quiet way of administering his authority.

'He is not the sort of great visionary authority who says 'charge' and everybody follows over the cliff,' Quelch said.

'We can have charisma without shouting. I find a lot of people in China think that they have to shout in order to be heard. But actually the person who keeps very low-key can be more charismatic because they are so different.'

Louise Vogler, an executive at Standard Chartered Bank in Shanghai, credits her EMBA course at CEIBS for helping her build 'cultural empathy and cross-cultural leadership skills'.

What's more, the recent graduate said, 'at CEIBS, a lot of the Global EMBA course curriculum explores the China angle and draws on fresh, newly designed 'China case studies',' which has proven useful in her job as a country credit officer.

Having been an academic for almost 10 years, Quelch said it was impossible for education to change everyone in the classroom. But some do change as a result, though it may take years to see it.

'Students come back, maybe decades later, after they have been successful in their eyes, and reintroduce themselves to you,' Quelch said, with a smile. 'It is very funny. But they come, they graduate and then they disappear. But then they come back years later after they think they have made it well enough that they can knock on the door of their professor and feel proud.'

Additional reporting by Angela Che


Up to this many students graduate from the EMBA programme of mainland business school CEIBS every year