Why Aren’t More Mainland Chinese-born CEOs in Leading Foreign and Fortune 500 Companies?

Having lived and worked in China for more than 20 years, I’ve always wondered why Mainland Chinese-born CEOs have yet to leave their mark on the global corporate stage.

In terms of domination of leadership of Fortune 500 companies, we are seeing white, Anglo Saxon, males lead the charge. Big names such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg are stealing headlines on a global scale and on a daily basis. The same could also be said for the leaders of many top international companies, head quartered around the world. Indian-born CEOs have started to make a name for themselves in the US, such as Sundar Pichai (CEO of Google Inc.), Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi, (CEO of PepsiCo), and Satya Narayana Nadella, (CEO of Microsoft).

With China’s recent return to prominence as a world superpower, I have often wondered why there aren’t more Mainland Chinese-born CEOs leading more foreign companies.

Without stating the obvious, the U.S. is the world’s largest economy, and Western countries make up the majority of the top ten economies, with centuries of international trade under their belts they seem to have dominated international business transactions. However, does this mean that the West is Best? What are the underlying differences between the two business cultures? And what can Mainland Chinese-born CEOs do about it?

Below are a few of my thoughts:

1. Chinese vs Western mind-sets.

What I have noticed in my work as an executive coach, is Chinese leadership is experienced as hierarchical and paternalistic. This shows up as top down dialogue with the expectation it is the leader’s role to impart knowledge and take care of their employees’ needs, making them feel secure and part of the ‘family’ within the business. Though harmony and humility are primary drivers, I have seen many Chinese CEOs lead by fear.

You may have heard the saying, “You gotta be mean to keep them keen.”

As the leaders of the older generation are promoted to more senior roles, they take with them the mindset that through hardship, people will become stronger. For example, one of my Mainland Chinese-born clients, now in the top position of a foreign firm in China has a very traditional Chinese approach to leading his organization. His word is always final, and he makes unilateral decisions without involving his leadership team.

Having said that, he knows that his job is to bring his people together, to develop the talent and build a collaborative agile culture. However, he does this by advising and telling because “that is his job and what people expect from him”. Often he weighs in on matters where he is not the subject matter expert by taking over when it’s another leader’s responsibility to handle the topic. He talks “at” them, rather than asking questions and actively listening.

Put the same Chinese CEO in the board room with his western colleagues or supervisors and he’s no longer the tall poppy in the room. Rather he’s quiet and revenant. He feels that it is rude to shine among those who he perceives as higher in rank than him.

On the other hand, most Western CEOs are seen as more extroverted, demonstrative, and bold to share their points of view.

They are able to walk into a room and shift the energy, ask questions, align to a compelling vision and cut through the BS. In general, they have developed their leadership acumen in a corporate environment, having to challenge their point of view, benefiting from feedback and riding on the coattails of mentors. Lateral and strategic thinking are key, and a high degree of self-awareness and adaptability are necessary.

A Western president, whom I coach and is the CEO of an international company based in Shanghai, is adept at balancing autocratic decision making and delegating accountability to his multi-national leadership team that includes Mainland Chinese leaders. He encourages his team to integrate their ideas, pulls them up when they are not producing, and more importantly, is always having conversations to align, push, pull, punt so that they are linking their thinking and decisions to the strategy.

Put this CEO in the board room, he deliberately gives his employees the opportunity to demonstrate their expertise which imparts that his team, not just he, is competent. A very different approach compared to the Chinese CEO.

2. Positive attributes of Chinese leaders.

One of the things I love about China, and Chinese leaders, is that there is always a way to get to “yes”. No does not mean no.

I find Mainland Chinese leaders to be industrious, entrepreneurial, fastidious, relationship focused, considerate of the whole, and less burdened by bureaucratic confines found in other countries. Relationships and loyalty are key currencies exchanged to ensure work gets done.

Humility is revered in China, and this combined with a touch of fear seems to work very well. There is a line that doesn’t get crossed in Chinese organizations; employees don’t push back against their CEO or manager, though this is changing with the younger generation. I see it working as a paradox. Although tough, I do admire this desire to be the “father or mother” of the business, which is in stark contrast to the West, and something we could learn from.

3. The unspoken rule of global experience.

Now that companies have multiple locations in various countries, being a globally minded leader combined with living and working in a country other than their own, is the new norm. Many Western-born leaders are willing to pack up and move their family for their career progression. This is less likely in China. I’m generalizing here when I say I have experienced Westerners as having greater resilience in adapting to new environments, creating new networks, and jumping into foreign work environments.

Now that China is an economic force, many Mainland Chinese-born leaders don’t want to leave China because the opportunity, salary, and status supersede the need to go overseas to gain added exposure and experience abroad. As a result, many Chinese companies that go public are now making it mandatory for their employees to do rotations abroad. By experiencing different cultures, food, working environments, language, ways of getting work completed through and with people is uniquely different in each country. I find this to be a blind spot in China.

Why go when it is good here? This is short sighted and will backfire as young leaders are promoted.

I predict they will hit a career ceiling without having lived and worked in countries other than China.

What’s next?

I am witnessing a rising trend for Mainland Chinese-born CEOs in China, but I don’t see it happening in the West, yet… I think this will change in the future as foreign and Chinese companies are focusing on building “CEO capacity” according to global standards.

I believe there will be more Mainland Chinese-born CEOs leading foreign companies in the future, but in order for this to happen some intrinsic characteristics need to be pushed. As a result of Western culture dominating the global transaction playing field for decades, Mainland Chinese CEOs need to be more demonstrative, express their point of view succinctly, and push harder in meetings for what they believe in.

I honestly and sincerely believe being Chinese is pretty awesome. The Chinese Dream is now the new American Dream. It is ripe with opportunity.

While China is the new economy, understanding there is still that “Old Economy” out there, and we need the next generation of Chinese leaders to adopt a blended approach, considering alternate perspectives in order to attain that next global top job.

As a final note, I would recommend Mainland Chinese-born Leaders to curate and activate a plan to map out where they want to be, and how they can get there.

  • Read anything hailing from outside China; books, periodicals, audiobooks, newspapers and celebrity magazines.
  • Ask for overseas opportunities. While it’s tough to work outside your comfort zone, what won’t kill you will make you stronger.
  • Notice the impact you are having. Is it positive or negative? From there, refine, polish, stop and add behaviors and actions that enable rather than disable your leadership potential.
  • Expand your network of business relationships internally and externally so that you have people to guide, help, discuss, challenge, and nudge you to learn and apply new methods of thinking and doing.
  • Be curious. There is always a way to reach “yes”, even in a foreign country.

Is there a right way to lead foreign companies? What do you think Mainland Chinese-born CEOs can do to assume the next global position of a Fortune 500 company?

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