Leveraging Leaders

How the similarities and differences of Chinese and American bosses can benefit a company

During a period of economic slowdown in China, human capital challenges are one of the largest pressures facing foreign companies as the country transitions to a more mature economy, according to the AmCham China 2015 Business Climate Survey. To be successful in this new, higher stakes business environment, companies must address the question of what style of leadership will best harness the work force.

A recent report conducted by Management Development Services analyzes leadership profiles of more than 70,000 mid-level and senior leaders across 18 industries. The analysis highlights differences and similarities between Chinese senior leaders working in foreign companies operating in China and their American counterparts in the US over an 11-year period.

While there is evidence that American business leaders are more adept in certain important leadership areas, the report finds multiple management skills where Chinese senior leaders hold the upper hand. While recognizing and appreciating cultural difference is important and should not be overlooked, it's also important to be aware of how the tendency to focus on perceived stereotypical differences can act as a barrier to leadership effectiveness.

Focus on similarities first

Chinese and American senior leaders share strengths in important senior leadership practices such as being strategic, persuasive, having management focus, and demonstrating excitement in the workplace. These traits are among the top six practices that determine highly effective leaders of foreign companies in China. The foundation of a leadership team made up of Chinese and American leaders should be very solid, if leveraged correctly. These leadership teams should engage in activities such as focusing on and ensuring equal contribution by American and Chinese leaders in defining and shaping the business strategy.

Chinese stronger with feedback

Although the difference is not significant, compared to American senior leaders, Chinese senior leaders are higher on empathy and feedback. Based on the latest data available related to generation Y and Z in China, attracting and retaining the best people will require higher levels of empathy and hands-on support from leaders, especially in China.

Americans shine with innovation

One of the biggest differences we see among Chinese and American senior leaders is in the area of being innovative. If we look at mid-level leaders (department heads and supervisors), the difference is even more significant. In conjunction with that we see that Chinese leaders are much higher on conservative, or traditional, which is about seeing problems in the light of past practices. Considering the importance of innovation for China and globally in the coming decade, leadership teams will benefit from investing in ways to unlock innovation in their Chinese senior leaders and help them to let go of more traditional ways of doing things.

Entering a new era

As we review the key findings, one clear insight is that overall the differences between Chinese and American senior leaders are not as significant as we tend to think they are.

Similarities between the two groups of leaders are especially pronounced as we move up to senior levels of leadership. That is likely to be a trend that continues in a globalizing world. That realization should be leveraged to lift the predisposition that leaders often have to believe that there are significant barriers to working together because their leadership styles (and they as people) are assumed to be so different.

Reaching higher levels of cooperation will be essential in global leadership teams, as they tackle opportunities and challenges in more complex and ambiguous business environments. As global leadership teams consider what it takes to succeed, it will no doubt be necessary to truly embrace the unique strengths and gifts of both Western and Eastern leadership styles and do a better job of bringing them together.