We need more globally competitive Chinese leaders who are able to lead not only in China but also outside China. With many MNCs’ localization strategies, we are now seeing more Chinese leaders leading in China. However we rarely see successful global leaders who are originally from China. In contrast, our neighbor, India, has produced a number of global leaders. Among them are: Pepsi CEO, Indra Nooyi; Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella; Adobe CEO, Shantanu Narayen; and many other mid-level managers.

I can’t help asking, why do MNCs favor Indian leaders (but not Chinese)? As two Asian countries neighboring each other, India and China have a lot in common: both are developing countries, each contributes 1/5 of world’s population, and the history and culture of both have profound influence in Asia. Plus, according to social psychology research, both countries are rated high in collectivism and power distance.

Moreover, in both countries, youth need to pass tough exams to enter universities, which often become their first step to entering either MNCs or graduate schools in the US. This is also the journey that the above mentioned Indian CEOs have gone through. China and India are the two biggest suppliers of foreign graduate students for American universities. While the Indian employees are climbing up corporate ladders in MNCs, where have the Chinese gone?

I shared some initial thoughts via WeChat, the biggest social media network in China, and soon the article got 20,000 hits. I found myself overwhelmed by comments from a variety of sources: consultants or ex-consultants, business school professors, leaders currently working in global companies, and scholars in other fields such as political science and history. Almost all of them echoed my observation that there are more Indian leaders in global MNCs than Chinese.  Many of them shared their hypotheses.

The majority agreed that to be more globally competitive Chinese leaders can learn at least two lessons from their southern neighbor.

  • Better manage diversity. Managing diversity is critical for leaders to be successful in the global context. In her book, Smoke and Mirrors, the Indian journalist Pallavi Aiyar shared her experience in China. One thing she sharply noticed was how homogenous Chinese are. In contrast, she wrote, “We were a country of 22 official languages,… of lily-white Kashmiris and coffee-hued Malyalis, of fish-eating Bengalis and herbivorous Gujaratis. In our ‘Hindu’ country, there were almost as many Muslims as in all of Pakistan…” Indians are comfortable with diversity and naturally equipped with the skills to tolerate and adjust to differences. However, Chinese may find it difficult to blend into a diversified team.
  • Speak up more. In global organizations, the capability to communicate effectively is important for building relationships and getting tasks done. Sharing ideas not only maximizes team performance but also builds trust and credibility. In China, arguing is seen as disrespectful, and confrontation is often avoided. Hence, Chinese employees have a tendency to suppress their ideas, especially those that express disagreement, in order to avoid conflict. But being silent is dangerous because you may be perceived as incompetent, or even worse, having a hidden agenda. In contrast, in India, open debate is commonly seen in school and media. In the workplace, Indian employees seem to be more confident and comfortable in expressing their opinions.

Of course, some readers also pointed out that we should not ignore the “advantages” of Indians. The biggest advantage is their language capability, or rather, English mastery. In Chinese schools, Mandarin is the main communication channel. English, although a compulsory course, is not used in everyday conversation. Being unable to communicate effectively in English becomes a big barrier (at least a perceived one) that hinders Chinese employees from influencing others, building relationships and extending networks, which are crucial for success in global organizations. In addition, some researcher friends also argued that India’s colonial history, despite its negative impact, connected Indians–especially the elite class–with the Western world, and therefore Indians are more familiar with the Western way of thinking and doing things. In contrast, China had been closed off,  with rare communication with the Western world, until the 1980s.

Here are some suggestions for those who aspire to be the change:

  • Look at the long-term and help each other. Some Chinese choose to stay in or go back to China because they perceive a glass ceiling in global MNCs. I’m not against talented Chinese going back to the motherland, but we need leaders who will begin breaking the glass ceiling (if there is one) to be role models. In addition, the world continues to become more connected and globally competitive. Even local companies are in need of globally competitive leaders when expanding abroad. The future requires all leaders to be globally competitive wherever they are located and whoever they work for.
  • Develop a global mindset. Chinese leaders do not have to abandon who they are to be accepted by another culture. Having a global mindset means being aware of, understanding and respecting differences. It is an attitude or value that impacts behaviors towards others and ultimately, impacts leadership effectiveness. In the workplace, team members do not have to be homogenous to work together. Actually, managed well, diversity brings more creative and fresh ideas.
  • Be transparent and build trust. When language is a barrier, it takes more effort to communicate effectively. Hence, the fundamental trust beneath the language skills becomes more important. Be honest, even about the fact that what you say does not mean what you think; and use other approaches to build up trust and credibility.

I do not mean that China and India should “compete” in the number of global leaders. As Pallavi Aiyar said, these two countries at two sides of the Himalayas are like mirror opposites of each other. One can always look into the mirror and spot the beauty or ugliness on her own face. That’s why she asked, “Why are there not as many roads in India as in China?” And that’s also why I ask, “Why are there not as many global leaders from China as there are from India?”  Some readers told me to be patient, because it takes time to see the emergence of a generation of globally competitive Chinese leaders. Looking into the future, I certainly hope that my comments will be proven to be overly critical.

Please share your thoughts on this issue in the comments section below.

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