A global merger between U.S. and Chinese companies required the development of a leadership philosophy that combines Eastern and Western cultures.

For many years, the West has been the apparent unchallenged leader in thinking about business. As globalization has increased, Western ideas have been adopted with enthusiasm and energy in both emerging and developed markets worldwide.

But in the same way that Japanese success led to an infusion of ideas in the 1980s and 1990s (such as quality, teamwork, and lean manufacturing), it is inevitable that China's growth will again challenge this hegemony and bring another Eastern perspective to our thinking. The one area of thinking that will be most influenced is leadership.

Setting the stage

One company that is approaching leadership differently is Lenovo, whose roots are in China. The company is the product of a unique merger resulting from the Lenovo Group—China's top PC maker—buying IBM's PC Division in 2005. The merger produced a Chinese-heritage global company with significant operations worldwide.

To thrive in the constantly changing technology industry, Lenovo faced the challenge of building a consistent leadership ethos in its young culture. Part of Lenovo's response was to initiate a global manager development program in partnership with Bridge, a transformational leadership consultancy with roots in social entrepreneurship.

The two-day program, Managing@Lenovo, targeted all of Lenovo's managers globally. Its design naturally had Eastern and Western elements, but the remarkable impact of the program provided intriguing insights and prompted further inquiry into ways leadership ideas might evolve.

Blending philosophies

During the past 18 months, more than 1,000 managers have participated in Managing@Lenovo in locations across the United States, Europe, China, India, South America, and Japan.

This article is the result of a series of 24 interviews conducted in late 2012 with recent program participants, executive-level sponsors, HR business partners, and program designers. In each interview we sought to understand where the program had maximum impact and its inter-relationship with Eastern and Western ideas of leadership.

The story that emerged provides fascinating insights into the balance of Eastern and Western leadership in China and the West. For example:

  • All involved with the program articulated a perspective on leadership that blended Eastern and Western roots.
  • Participants actively experimented with ideas from each heritage, reflecting cross-cultural applicability as well as Lenovo's culture.
  • Program designers described the Lenovo-Bridge partnership as built on a model of collaboration that combined honesty with real friendship.

Across the interviews there were four recurring leadership themes (or pillars) that seemed to have a disproportionate impact on the attendees: balancing individualism with collectivism, blending results with personal empowerment, influencing remotely and cross-culturally, and transparency and a focus on action.

Pillar one: Balancing individualism with collectivism

One of the most commonly discussed differences between Western and Eastern ideas of leadership was the balance between individualism and collectivism. Eastern leaders often placed a much heavier emphasis on the collective, articulating high levels of commitment to their leader and the organization. They often saw Western approaches as being "less human" and more focused on "process" and "contract." (Many Chinese perspectives on leadership can be traced back to Confucian traditions with their deep focus on relationships and the five virtues of Ren, yi, li, zhi, and xin.)

By contrast, Western leaders talked more about the empowerment of the individual and tended to see traditional Eastern leadership as hierarchical and less flexible.

Since the IBM merger in which two strongly polarized cultures first came together, Lenovo has worked hard to forge a leadership philosophy that balances individualism and collectivism. This has formed a foundation for the leadership work articulated simply through the Bridge model "ME-US-IT," which Lenovo adapted to "My Self-My People-My Business." The model emphasizes the balance between the individual (ME/My Self), the relationship (US/My People), and the work (the IT/My Business).

This model was consistently referenced in the interviews as both a source of balance and a challenge to their current way of operating. For example, it appeared a concept such as work-life balance would not resonate with Chinese leaders used to putting themselves second and the company first.

Instead the program reframed it and tapped into the Eastern philosophy that you look after yourself so that you can be of service to your relationships, and that you look after your relationships so that you can be of service to the organization. Thus, the program directly challenged the prevailing long hours and fast-paced culture in a way that resonated with participants.

The model challenged the Western managers quite differently—they were typically more adept at articulating their strengths and weaknesses as they relate to their roles, but often less adept at genuinely focusing on themselves as human beings. And perhaps equally important, they have been brought up to focus on individual leadership behaviors. The Me-US-IT model helped them focus on truly understanding the importance and nuance of relationships.

For Lenovo this brings the opportunity to get the best of both worlds by combining the flexibility and creativity that comes from individuality with the capability to build flexible long-term partnerships associated with collectivism. This is a combination critical for success in the complex, fast moving environment of the global technology market.

Pillar two: Blending results with personal empowerment

All interviewees were asked to name the program's most powerful tools. Resoundingly the most impactful were the concepts of being "in and out of the box" and "mindtraps" (see sidebar below). These models are now part of everyday language at Lenovo and are used as part of a holistic approach that teaches individuals how to become better people both at home and at work.

Why did this resonate so strongly? Several U.S. attendees described the program as "the best I've attended ... specifically because of its deep focus on tools to make individuals more resourceful." Identifying mindtraps is clearly Western, but it also relates to an approach that taps into a deep vein of Eastern philosophies around using reflection and self-awareness to build resourcefulness and resilience.

Bringing emotion and a "sense of soul" into a workshop was seen as having an Eastern dimension. This philosophy also is championed by Lenovo's outgoing chairman who explicitly sets aside half a day each month for reflection.

And maybe this pillar is important for broader reasons. It certainly seemed in the interviews that this mixture of humanity, personal empowerment, and deep purpose is a key point of convergence between current Eastern and Western thinking. It naturally unites and connects people in a way that transcends culture.

Pillar three: Influencing remotely and cross-culturally

One of the issues tackled in the program was the challenge of collaborating globally. Being geographically dispersed and facing rapid change, teams and relationships in Lenovo are constantly forming and operating remotely against strict deadlines.

Many individuals described themselves as being more global than their peers in other companies with the challenge of managing relationships across geographies and time zones. Unsurprisingly they found it challenging to be influential in this context. Lenovo explicitly recognized a strong need for this based in large part on results of its annual employee engagement survey.

Cultural differences can exacerbate this. For example, Western managers talked about the challenge of knowing where Eastern colleagues stand on issues. "When they say 'yes' they mean they understand, not that they agree," explains one manager.

By contrast, Western leaders can appear to their Eastern colleagues as talking first and listening second. One Chinese manager gave an example: "I used to find it hard to get a word in on conference calls with American colleagues.... They'd say 'I'm thinking out loud,' but they aren't thinking—they are speaking."

The model selected to address this was See-Hear-Speak. It draws on the culturally universal value of humility and of seeking first to understand. When you influence in this way, you find out that there is so much more to people.

Pillar four: Transparency and a focus on action

One of the most fascinating insights from the interviews was the tendency of both Western and Eastern leaders to see the other culture as being less transparent and less driven. One Chinese manager shared a saying in China that "one word lets slip and horses will fail to catch it," which means that words uttered have deep significance.

When Chinese commit to an objective, it is irrespective of changing context. As a result, success and failure are personal, reflecting on the individual's integrity and loyalty to his organization and leader.

By contrast, Eastern managers may see Western leaders as being more objective and more willing to renegotiate goals as the context changes. This comes across as being less transparent and committed. Also, it can be easy for Western leaders to see Eastern leaders as unwilling to take risks or to commit themselves beyond the established hierarchy.

Interestingly, this difference fell away when leaders discussed the culture at Lenovo. Externally, the slogan for Lenovo is "For those who do." Internally, Lenovo articulates its culture as "We do what we say and we own what we do."

This is highly apt in a culture that is high-paced, action-oriented, and focused on immediate practical relevance. Most people identified strongly with this culture and saw it as superseding national characteristics.

The program had to mirror this. "If I don't see what I can do with it immediately I'm less likely to be interested," states one manager. The program tried to leverage the natural execution-focused energy in the organization and placed additional focus on immediate relevance, simplicity, speed, and instant application.

Remarkable results

There is little doubt that Lenovo is treading a remarkable path as one of the first Chinese companies to become genuinely global. It also is apparent that this leadership initative at the manager level played a significant role in building the capability of global leaders to achieve this.

Feedback from participants has been exceptional throughout the world. "I could tell it was a great program because the language has now become part of the vernacular," says an HR business partner in South America. Adds an executive sponsor in China: "It is beyond expectation.... The workshop made my managers open and authentic."

Managing@Lenovo is having a positive impact on the business. The management capability index measured by the employee engagement survey increased from 76 to 83 after the program. Lenovo also saw big jumps in other dimensions that relate to such areas as having meaningful feedback conversations and goal setting, which are often tricky cross-culturally.

With the momentum of 13 straight quarters as the fastest growing major PC company in the world, Lenovo is well positioned as a leader in this market. But it also seems that Lenovo is beginning to explore something broader. Because of its unique history and heritage, Lenovo is naturally shaping and creating a leadership culture that transcends traditional notions of East and West.

These four pillars of leadership are an early articulation of this and are perhaps symbolized by the act of its CEO Yang Yuanqing who in 2012 gave his entire $3 million bonus to employees in the business. For some operators in Chinese plants, this was equivalent to being given almost a month's salary.

Individual generosity? Perhaps. But we'd argue that it is more than that, reflecting an intuitive ability to combine the Western notion of recognition of individual brilliance with the Eastern notion of collective responsibility.

Leadership Concepts

In/Out of the Box is a core Bridge metaphor to illustrate the idea of being at, or not, at our best. The out of the box state is us at our most alive, creative, energetic, and inspiring. The in the box state is when we feel constrained, not at our best, and not open to the possibilities of a situation.

We are more resourceful out of the box because we are informed by the situation and our emotions, whereas we are far less resourceful in the box because we are instead controlled by the situation or our emotions.

Mindtraps are habitual patterns of thinking and feeling, and self-limiting beliefs that emerge when we are in the box. The concept of self-awareness was at the core of the entire program—successive models in each element of the framework were built on this premise.

See-Hear-Speak is a model that simplifies three key processes in communication and relationship building. See refers to validation and building connection and trust. To hear is not just to listen but to understand. Speak is about communicating exactly what you want to say while building mutual respect.

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Tips for Running Cross-Cultural Leadership Programs

  • Find content that resonates cross-culturally. It should retain the ability to both inspire and challenge in different cultures. The four pillars are good examples of this and could form the backbone of similar programs.
  • Vary the emphasis and style of delivery by culture even as the content remains consistent. Understand the learning expectations of participants. For example, in China participants often will come in keen to be a good student and not challenge the trainer. By contrast, Western participants are more concerned with the added value to themselves.
  • Build the program on tough friendship. As all good practitioners know, the culture of the design team will have a profound impact on the culture of the initiative. Build a platform of genuine friendship (going beyond the contractual frame of relationships). The partnership between Lenovo and Bridge worked because of the tough friendship that quickly developed. Lenovo was willing to give brutally honest feedback and both companies were willing to invest in the relationship for the long term.