How long before a Chinese-born CEO leads a foreign-based Fortune 500 company?

Stephanie Cheung calls on China – and Hong Kong – to take up the challenge of producing global thinkers who can compete with the best in the corporate world

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 May, 2016, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 May, 2016, 2:00pm

While observing various high-profile CEOs of global companies, I noticed an interesting trend – quite a few were born and raised in countries other than their corporate homelands.

Cases in point include: Indra Nooyi, chairman and chief executive of America’s PepsiCo, who was born in India; Joseph Jimenez, chief executive of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis – born in the US; Carlos Brito, chief executive of Belgium-based beer company Anheuser-Busch InBev – born in Brazil; Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, born in India; and Maureen Chiquet, the former global head of Chanel, the world’s paramount luxury French brand, who hails from the US.

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This realisation led me to a search for Chinese-born chief executives – in Hong Kong or the mainland – leading global names. So far, I have drawn a blank.

Why is it that China has yet to export world-class chief executive officers? How should we modify our education curriculum to ensure our next generation become top leaders?

For one thing, the exam-oriented education system tends to emphasise theory instead of problem-solving skills. To gain an entrance ticket to universities in mainland China, there is only one key determining factor – the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, commonly known as the gaokao. To prepare for the most important exam in students’ lives, homework is mostly based around memorisation of facts and data. Students have little chance to get involved in research-based projects until they get to college. Freedom of expression is not encouraged in class; instead, students are praised for how well they can retain knowledge and information “in the box”. This is hardly conducive to fostering creative thinkers with leadership and problem-solving skills. The system hinders them from becoming well-rounded students.

When will Hong Kong realise that its exam-focused culture is failing our children?

Simply excelling in reading, writing and maths is not enough today to be relevant and competitive in the global arena; instead, we need to provide opportunities for the next generation to cultivate skills such as critical thinking, communication, leadership, teamwork, entrepreneurial spirit, a global citizen mentality and emotional intelligence. Development of this skill set must be incorporated into our core curriculum early on, instead of waiting until college.

Furthermore, Chinese students are usually brought up in a protective and monocultural environment. The one-child policy further magnified the impact. By contrast, children in Singapore, for example, are exposed to a multicultural environment (Chinese, Malay and Indian) from the start.

Indians, to take another example, are also raised in a multicultural and competitive environment. This has trained them to tackle complex problems, a skill a global business leader should possess. To cultivate such an environment, local schools could implement exchange programmes with students from Europe, Africa and other parts of Asia. Some international schools do take part in such programmes, but rarely do we see this at the local level.

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If our students are exposed to different cultures early on, they will become more open-minded, be more creative and able to tackle problems and resolve conflicts from a fresh, global perspective.

We should also look to countries such as France, which incorporates philosophy into its core curriculum. All Baccalauréat students (those aged 17 and 18) must sit a philosophy paper. Young people are challenged to write thoughtful essays, drawing on the opinions of great thinkers of the past. Early exposure to philosophy not only teaches students to think; it also makes them better thinkers, and more well-rounded – qualities that many Chinese students lack. Philosophy should become a mandatory course in the last two years of secondary school.

Early exposure to philosophy not only teaches students to think; it also makes them better thinkers

In the words of Bill George, Harvard Business School professor and former Medtronic CEO, we must develop global intelligence (GQ) for the next generation. GQ consists of seven key elements: adaptability, awareness, curiosity, empathy, alignment, collaboration and integration.

True global leaders must be able to understand today’s dynamic world, and be able to adapt quickly. They must understand the world around them, as well as their own character. They must have a deep curiosity about global issues, and embrace different cultures. Leaders must also possess empathy and humility in building meaningful, lasting relationships with those around them, fostering an emotional bond across different ethnic backgrounds.

Although China is set to become the world’s largest economy, and the most important market for many industries, we should not only focus on developing our professional experience here. If our education and experience remain China-centric and inward-looking, we will not be able to truly embody global intelligence, to position ourselves as global leaders.

As George put it: “Today’s authentic global leaders recognise that in the future, businesses can only thrive by serving all the people of the world equitably while also contributing to their societies.”

We must provide the means to position our next generation as authentic global leaders. Hopefully, it wont be too long before a mainland- or Hong Kong-born chief executive officer is seen leading a foreign-based global Fortune 500 company.

Stephanie Cheung is a graduate of the Yale School of Management. She was a finance executive in the US before returning to Hong Kong in 2010 to launch her luxury retail career