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Five essential qualities for China CEOs (video)

The list of necessary qualities for China CEOs by my colleague (inasmuch as we’re both Shanghai-based management consultants) Dr Laurie Underwood is clear and concise. Of course it is: she has been interviewing and advising multinational executives in China for over a decade, another characteristic we share.

Here are the five essential qualities she presented to us at the East-West Leadership webinar where I had the pleasure of hosting her this summer:

  1. Passion and energy

  2. Speed in decision-making

  3. Clear vision, shared framework

  4. Able to empower the local team

  5. Ability to make tough decisions

You can watch her present the detailed explanation of each criterion in this YouTube video that I extracted from our ninety-minute webinar: Five essential qualities for China CEOs by Dr Laurie Underwood

There is not much to add to it, especially if you also have the attention span to read the chapters of the same five qualities in her recent book China CEO II (Wiley, 2020), also available as audiobook.

But here is something that occurred to me while I listened to her at our webinar. Senior executives and decision-makers such as CEOs, CHROs and VPs who read the book will rush off to find the ideal candidate who matches all five qualities, and will almost certainly find none. That is because like most such lists, from intercultural leadership profiles to convoluted job descriptions, it contains inherently contradictory requirements.

Cultures are complex, as are people. Executives doing business in or with China must be energetic, agile, focused, involved, supportive and tough because they must balance conflicting economic, social and political forces that influence their business, and still steer it in the desired direction. But few energetic people are focused, few agile people are involved and almost no supportive people are tough. Those who fit all these criteria will never be outstanding in either of them, because the flip-side of a great personal strength (like speed) is always a great weakness (poor attention to detail).

That is why a great fit for an executive position in a complex intercultural environment is never a candidate who has all the required strengths. It is one that has a clear advantage in some, and can find the people with the missing strengths. That takes confidence, observation and a good method, because the people that such executives need are almost never the ones they like. But energetic and decisive executives who engage involved and supportive fellow managers, or detail-oriented ones who can find the agile ones, will build great leadership teams that can face the complexities of culturally challenging markets like China.


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