Monday, August 28, 2006

The Open Hearted CEO

I'm reading One Billion Customers, a book full of the harrowing cross-cultural misunderstandings that happen as Western companies try to do business with the most populous country in the world, China.

It's full of amazing characters on both sides who show the kind of leadership that's needed when reaching out to a completely different culture.

One such leader is - or rather was - Austin Koenen. He was arguably the most successful CEO of the embattled China International Capital Corporation (CICC), the first joint venture between a government-owned Chinese enterprise and a foreign company (Morgan Stanley).

One Billion Customers describes Koenen's approach:

"Chinese who worked with Koenen often used the same word to describe him: 'openhearted'. They meant they trusted his sincerity and believed that he genuinely cared about their careers and lives. Behaviour imperatives in Chinese culture are extremely negative and fairness isn't a hallmark of the society. Parents motivate their children by focusing on their faults and inadequacies. The government rules through control, shame, and a ubiquitous presence.

Worries about retribution for making mistakes guide the actions of most employees. Thus CICC's employees were extremely receptive to genuine kindness, sincerity and coaching from their new boss, whose competence was without question. For many, it was the first time in their lives that somebody in authority had treated them kindly."

Koenen also implemented systems and procedures to help the double-headed monster turn into a single entity, but his human kindness probably was his greatest heritage.

Sadly, Koenen died of a heart attack in 1998, and the CICC joint venture split up in 2002. Unfortunately, sometimes it an individual really does stand between success and failure.


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