Change Under Different Cultures

Published on 2015-03-18

Source: Melody Ayres-Griffiths @ Flickr

ONE OF THE GREAT BENEFITS of working in corporate training and consulting is that I get to meet and have meaningful conversations with senior business leaders. Two such leaders are Ms. Wang, owner and GM of EMC company in Shanghai, and Mr. Chen, Regional Sales Director of a training firm from Singapore.

Ms. Wang shared with me the challenge of change within her organisation. Her company was in the process of merging with an international firm, and Ms. Wang admitted that learning to delegate was a huge challenge. “The change was so hard that it almost killed me!” expressed Ms. Wang, clearly not hiding her emotions. She told me that creating standard operating procedures, or SOPs, when previously there were none, was time consuming and frustrating. Previously all decisions had come through her, but that bottleneck was limiting growth. Now she realises how these SOPs have minimised the business’s risk, plus her stress.

Mr. Chen worked in Singapore for 15 years before moving to China. A Singaporean himself, he says that he quickly adapted to the Chinese mindset after marrying a local and living in China for 20 years. In his words, he took a painful pathway to put aside his “international behavioural standards” and adapt to the Chinese norm. But because of this localisation of attitude, he has now built many trusted relationships with his clients and built a successful business.

So which is better? 

After telling me their stories, both Wang and Chen asked me “which change is better? Chinese to International, or International to Chinese?” Instead of answering their question, I told them a story about a big hammer.

The founder and CEO of Haier, Zhang Ruimin, once had a big hammer. Today that hammer is displayed in the Chinese National Museum. In 1985, when a client reported the quality issue with a refrigerator to Zhang, he immediately ordered a recheck of the entire lot. Among the thousands within the lot, 76 refrigerators failed to pass the quality assessment.  Some of the managers suggested to sell these faulty appliances to workers at a lower price as a benefit, because refrigerators were hard to get on the market in those days. But Zhang made an unusual decision – ‘Destroy them all!’ he said. Zhang personally used a big hammer, the same that resides in the Chinese National Museum, and destroyed all the refrigerators from the lot. Many workers watched what he was doing with tears. They knew that Haier was still in financial difficulties at that time, and was even delaying salaries. But this bold and aggressive action helped turn the fortunes of Haier around, and today almost every Chinese knows this story. Today, Haier is a successful global company.

In short, Zhang created massive, and obvious change by destroying the poor performance of his workers. Today, to develop the company’s management team and to offer the competitive career paths to all level managers, Zhang requires job rotating to different regions and cross-functional departments every two years as a standard business practice. Zhang believes that “getting used to a routine is the start of refusing a change”.

So to Wang and Chen I stated, “Neither culture is right or wrong. What’s most important is the ability to change, when the situation arises. Believing that one system is better than another will result in stasis, and this can only lead to failure.”