THE SIGNS OF China's seemingly unstoppable economic growth can be found everywhere. Exports remain strong, energy consumption is on the rise and the mainland alone is attracting foreign direct investment of about US$60 billion a year. Much of that money is going into hi-tech industries and many multinationals are finding good reasons to shift their regional headquarters to Greater China. On the other hand, mainland companies are making a concerted effort to do business in the international arena, according to Charles Tseng, Asia-Pacific president of executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. 'You only have to look at Huawei and Lenovo, and remind yourself that there are already 15 Chinese firms in the Fortune 500,' Mr Tseng said. He said these developments were having an impact on recruitment needs as China assumed a more influential role in global business. This was bringing about a change in leadership requirements, and chief executives were re-examining how to build successful organisations and retain key executives. Korn/Ferry International identified the emerging trends using two main sources: a survey of 185 chief executives in the Asia-Pacific region conducted last year and an ongoing study at the Peking University about evolving leadership styles in a Chinese environment. The aim of such an analysis was to understand current leadership styles and spot key challenges in the next two years. The university study, which began last year, is based on information from Executive MBA (EMBA) students and recognises four basic styles of leadership: participatory, intellectual, social and task-focused. Global chief executives generally adopted the participatory approach, which emphasised listening, building consensus and welcoming new ideas. However, the study found the Chinese approach to be predominantly intellectual and task-oriented. The mainland businesses scored low on social leadership and were found to be far more autocratic compared with their counterparts in North America and the so-called four dragon economies - Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. 'It could be that many Chinese industries are still in the smokestack stage where a more authoritative style of decision-making is needed,' Mr Tseng said. 'Alternatively, there may not be enough good middle managers, so senior executives are obliged to use a much stronger task-oriented approach.' He said the mainland's education system influenced its management style, and therefore many employees were still more comfortable with taking directions and perhaps reluctant to accept additional responsibilities. However, things are changing fast. Mr Tseng said students taking the EMBA course represented a range of enterprises and they particularly wanted to learn about western management techniques. Their employers too were keen to adopt methods that would allow them to hire top executives and compete with the rest of the world. In fact, a reversal in the general flow of talents is already apparent. Before the mainland's accession to the World Trade Organisation, the best young managers in the country vied for jobs in multinationals or private enterprises. Now, though, many want to join an ambitious Chinese company. Several factors are coming into play. First, the better-qualified candidates are demanding more involvement and autonomy in their jobs. Otherwise, they will move on. Second, as Chinese companies expand overseas, they face the challenge of managing western employees. And third, companies are recognising that success in the global market depends on executives who understand international business culture. Most mainland businesses accept the need for a new style of leadership and are taking steps to introduce more mature management practices. If they do not, they risk lagging behind their competitors as China opens up to the global market. Korn/Ferry's CEO survey, which is linked to the university study, showed that homegrown companies and multinationals operating in China saw the hiring and retention of staff as a priority. Most of the respondents ranked it as the major challenge for the next two years. However, Mr Tseng noted that chief executives appeared to be out of touch in certain respects. For example, they still incorrectly perceived remuneration as the main factor in retaining staff. 'In China, we found that opportunities for personal development are now a bigger factor than money when candidates decide to change jobs,' he said. 'In over 90 per cent of cases, employees are looking for the chance to grow professionally. There is still a gap between what chief executives think and the reality.' The survey also revealed much about the priorities of company leaders. That included providing motivation, focusing on results, planning effectively, and leading or setting goals by example. Of course, not all Chinese business leaders see things the same way. For instance, according to one school of thought, the best way to succeed in the manufacturing sector is by sticking to the traditional approach. That means top-down management, minimal consultation and a healthy distrust of business school theory. Some bosses even recommend hiring communist party members as they are supposedly the most loyal and reliable workers. New priorities Mainland businesses are moving away from their traditional style of leadership and adopting more international concepts. Chief executives regard the recruitment and retention of talented executives as their major challenge in the next two years. Many employees consider opportunities for development ahead of remuneration when changing jobs.