Hong Kong must rid itself of a top-down mindset that alienates the workers – and leaders – of tomorrow

Po Chung says though our economy is no longer based on manufacturing, our leaders still have the command-and-control mindset that ensures production lines run efficiently, but is no good at inspiring our young

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2016, 10:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2016, 10:01am

I was encouraged to hear earlier this month the chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲), urging Hong Kong’s visiting delegates to better engage with Hong Kong’s youth. The more cynical among us may see this simply as posturing for the chief executive election in 2017. However, the sentiment hits on a crucial issue facing Hong Kong’s leadership.

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One of the main observations often discussed, but rarely fully understood, is the degree to which Hong Kong is now a fully service- and knowledge-based economy. Despite a wide acknowledgement of this change to our economy, the current generation of business leaders still use a manufacturing and engineer-driven mindset. That is, a top-down approach, where there is one way to run things and to deviate from this approach would damage the system as a whole. Importantly, this approach is not making the most of our economic ecosystem and, more importantly, it is alienating our youth.

From manufacturing and industry perspectives, success comes from doing things right. For this, a command-and-control organisational style works best and led to great success for Hong Kong. It ensures that every item off the production line is identical and up to standard.

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However, as China became the factory for the world, Hong Kong lost its competitive edge and so evolved into one of the foremost financial and service industry hubs in the world. With this trend, we must focus on ensuring we change our leadership “manufacturing” mindsets too.

It’s bewildering that Hong Kong is so short-sighted when it comes to capitalising on this position

Lasting success in service and knowledge economies comes from doing the right things with the right heart, in addition to simply doing things right. Under this model, the leaders’ role is to inspire and engage their staff. This, in turn, motivates staff to give their best as they help others. A command-and-control style of management simply does not bring out the best in service people and does not make a team the most competitive.

One must consider the fact that, according to figures from the Census and Statistics Department for the third quarter of 2015, only 2.7 per cent of Hong Kong’s economy is manufacturing-based. By extension, then, practically all residents are and will be working in service-based employment, with much of it in professional and higher-value-added services.

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Moreover, consider that all goods are now wrapped in service. For example, according to a 2014 Fung Global Institute presentation, only a fraction of the cost of a loaf of bread is from the actual loaf, while 72 per cent of its cost goes into financing, administration, logistics, brand and marketing, wholesale, and retail services. Anyone can set up a bakery but it takes highly skilled service-minded companies to deliver the services needed to realise the product.

Service is simply much larger, and more crucial, than people realise and we must make it real for everyone – our leaders, and our youth, many of whom will be tomorrow’s leaders.

It’s bewildering that Hong Kong, whose economy is so heavily vested in service, is so short-sighted when it comes to developing and capitalising on this position. This situation minimises the chance to realise the potential of people for advancement.

Great service people are like volunteers; they can find jobs wherever they like. Like volunteers, they will prefer to contribute to organisations that let them do their best – not through command and control, but inspiration and engagement.

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China became the world’s factory because it could thrive under the manufacturing mindset: abundant cheap labour, a strong work ethic that drives people to produce, and an acceptance of the command-and-control mindset. This is not a recipe for the future success of Hong Kong.

To best prepare our next generation of workers and future leaders, we must engage and inspire them today. To become the best of the best, we must ensure we collaborate, actively and genuinely, with them, not dictate to them.

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It is time for us all to recognise the strength of Hong Kong’s service economy and the huge potential of our youth as the next generation of leaders. We must engage our youth in policymaking, whether in the boardroom or in government, and absorb their voices into all power structures.

We must ensure we are doing our utmost to set youth on a path for success, not stagnation. In order for Hong Kong to continue to be a global leader and prosper in a rapidly changing service and knowledge economy, a fundamental change in our leadership mindset must happen. And it must happen quickly.

Po Chung is the founder of DHL International and the Hong Kong Institute of Service Leadership & Management