From startup to big corporation in China: how to adapt your leadership style

Successful businesses require strong leadership, but the leadership skills

that provide the spark for a small business to take off are not the same as the

skills required to keep a large corporation powering forward and this is

especially true in China. As businesses grow, their leaders must adapt and

learn. So if you’re a small business leader in China with ambitions to scale,

what are the leadership skills that you’re going to need and how can you acquire


1. Be a good listener
Listening is a valuable trait at any level of business but when a company is small it is possible for a dictatorial leader with a tunnel vision to drive it forward and carry the team along through sheer force of will. As a business grows, however, and the power to directly influence employees diminishes, you need to regard leadership as more of a collaborative process.

Listening will benefit you in two ways. Firstly, you’re likely to learn something. No leader can expect to be the leading authority on sales, marketing, HR, IT, and finance. As a business grows to incorporate all these departments and more, leadership changes from coming up with solutions to weighing up options and making decisions based on other people’s expertise. The second benefit of being a good listener is that it will make your employees feel listened to. This is an important factor in China in building morale and respect, which in turn will make them more inclined to listen to you.

Some people are naturally good listeners and command great respect as a result, but you can train yourself to become a good listener too. Researchers at McGill University identified the essential traits that tell people you’re a good listener. They discovered that simple traits like eye contact, not interrupting and offering feedback were regarded as the main hallmarks of a good listener.

So if you’re someone who has thrived on leading by command, it’s time to adapt. Whatever you’re thinking, resist the temptation to interrupt. Let the other person have their say and finish. Pay attention to what they say and show you’re paying attention by making eye contact. And when they’ve finished, demonstrate that you’ve been listening by repeating back their key points.

2. Learn to delegate
Many small business leaders are dynamos with incredible energy, who can turn their hand to anything and often do. As a business grows in China, however, there is simply not time to run it in this manner. There comes a point when you have to delegate responsibility to others and the more willingly you can do it, the more successful it will be.

Delegation is about keeping the business under control by letting go of control. Even Bill Gates, who struggled with letting go in the early days of Microsoft, was recently quoted as saying, ‘If you want to have impact, usually delegation is important.’ Of course, there are times when a leader has to take sole responsibility for things, hence the addition of the word ‘usually’. On a day-to-day basis, delegation is always important.

As with listening, there is a practical and a psychological benefit to delegation. On the practical level, it makes more efficient use of time and resources and enables you to put the best-qualified people in charge of each area of the business, or any new task. On the psychological level, it makes employees feel trusted, empowered and motivated, which leads to a greater sense of responsibility, commitment and loyalty. These are 3 key values that are considered important for the Chinese and within their culture.

Giving people responsibility and allowing them to make mistakes and learn from them is the best way to develop the skills and confidence of your workforce. So start delegating as early as possible in your company’s growth. Build a trusted leadership team who can manage many of the tasks, especially the basic ones that are stopping you from using your time wisely. Letting go doesn’t mean losing control. You can still put in place guidelines, mission statements and values as a framework for everyone to work to.

3. Lead by example
The bigger your company grows, the less opportunity there is for explanations. Grand gestures take the place of subtle adjustments. So you need to make sure that the image you portray is aligned to the image you want the business to portray.

You can’t shy away from the limelight. Microsoft and Virgin are huge corporations but none of their employees are in any doubt as to who is the leader at the head of the business and what they stand for. Bill Gates (and his successors, particularly current CEO Satya Nadella) and Richard Branson have made themselves highly visible as the leaders of their respective corporations and their personality and values are ingrained in their business’ identity.

So you need to be visible and you need to be seen to be doing the right thing. All the time. The company values need to be your values and this is especially key in terms of motivating your staff, your clients and your suppliers in China. If the company claims to promote sustainability, you need to promote sustainability. If the company claims to be different, you need to be different. On an internal level, if you expect your employees to be in on time, you have to be in on time, or early. If you expect employees to be honest, then you must be honest with them. And if you want them to respect you, you have to show them respect. Leaders who lead by example command respect. Those who don’t command none.

4. Be a leader, not a friend
When you first hire talent for your startup in China, it can all feel very chummy. In a small team, you’re more friend than boss. But as the company grows this has to change. It can be a difficult adjustment to make because you want your employees to like you but you can’t let a desire for popularity dictate your leadership style.

Friendship often means avoiding conflict and accepting compromise. It assumes equality and breeds favoritism. This can compromise the management structure and undermine your authority. To lead effectively, you need to be seen as the leader.

Friendship can also cloud decision-making. It’s important to take the sentiment out of your decisions for the greater good of the business. As leader of a large corporation, your loyalty must be to all your staff, regardless of who they are and how well you know them. You can draw a clear line by establishing a few ground rules. If you do work with friends or become close to colleagues, be clear with them that the company comes first.

5. Be a sounding board
As the company grows, more and more people are going to come to you for advice and decisions, and the scale of their problems is going to grow. Don’t feel you have to provide the answer every time. Usually what people are looking for is the reassurance to implement their own judgment.

This is why your listening and delegation skills are so important. If you can be a sounding board, expand the frame of reference, ask questions and prompt ideas, you will get great results from your people. There will be times when it’s appropriate and beneficial to offer the benefit of your experience but the best advice I can give you is that a great leader will try not to provide advice unless truly necessary. Make your first response an empowering question instead. What do you think about that?’ or ‘What do you think we should do?’

Be a great leader now

Some people are natural leaders, others have to learn it, but no-one is born with the knowledge of how to run a big business, especially in China and all the cultural differences that exist in the various provinces. It is something that must and can be learned. And you can improve your leadership credentials ready for the big time by taking these tips on board and putting them into practice now. With practice, they will soon become second nature.



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