The Big Emperor Complex.

Most people who have followed China’s social and economic rocket-like progression from a third-world, planned economy in 1979 to what it is today have heard of the Little Emperors. These are the the sole children of the one child policy era. They have two sets of doting grandparents and one set of parents who all want the best for their kids. These elders bring new meaning to the American phrase “Helicopter Parent”.

But I’m not writing today about the little emperors. I’m writing about the big ones.

China’s businesses are a complex web of management hierarchy that can (and in my case have) made a foreign professional dizzy. Like in the rest of the culture, there are nuanced rules that go back thousands of years.

I now work in a medium-sized, privately-owned Chinese company. I’ve been here for little over a year. I have spent this time working as hard as they will let me, but also observing closely and carefully what is going on around me. I’ve taken the 19 years of Chinese cultural and historical study under my belt and applied it, along with a master’s in international business and 12 years of western corporate experience, to what I see here. I’ve soaked in events from the perspective of a foreign observer plunked down in the middle of business meetings where, in most cases, I am able to convince people through my language and actions that they can relax and speak freely amongst one another as if there was no foreigner sitting in the room.

What I’ve discovered has astounded me. I have uncovered depth, color, strategy and politics that probably only scratch the surface of what’s really going on. There is a lot to cover. It will take months of postings for me to get everything from the past year online for your perusal. During that time I will learn more. And I will attempt to share everything I feel is pertinent.

The Big Emperors are the CEOs. The companies they own and manage could be any size, but they are the biggest fish in their pond, lake or ocean, and they expect, as social mores here dictate, to be treated as royalty.

In looking at the development of Chinese business culture and structure, one cannot simply look at the last 34 years since the doors opened. That’s not what corporate culture in China is predicated upon. It bears striking resemblance to the legacy of Chairman Mao, who, for all of his anti-Imperialist dogma, embraced and worked ardently to build a cult of personality similar to that of the emperors who preceded him.

The top dogs in China’s businesses are treated like Little Emperors. But since that title is already taken by the CEO’s only child, we have to give him (in most cases it’s a Him and not a Her) the title of “Big Emperor”.

Our company’s big emperor rules the roost with heavily consolidated power, a personal driver, two secretaries, and a gang of employees following him around wherever he goes. So far that sounds a lot like any company on Wall Street. But the difference is in level of reverence. The Emperor in China’s history was top dog under heaven, and his right to rule was bestowed upon him by celestial endowment. CEOs in China who have managed to get through the political morass and succeeded in carving out their piece of the pie feel it is their right to be in charge. They treat their employees very much like property, berating them when the mood strikes, and paying them complements as they please. We are called at any time of the day or night and told where to be, sometimes within minutes of answering the phone. If we are out of town on a Sunday and we hold lower positions close to the CEO, we could be chastised or even fined for not first asking permission to be out of town.

We are, after all, employed at the mercy of our ruler.

I am not writing any of this sarcastically or in any way negatively. This is me being objective as possible in my very subjective analysis of one company in China. My friends, coworkers and wife weigh in regularly on my comments about what I’ve learned working here, so I know I work at a relatively conservative company by Chinese standards. But they’ve also told me that when a Chinese executive gets to the top of his or her own company, he or she sees authoritarian-style rule, power consolidation, and worship from subordinates as part of the executive package. Considering the absolute cut-throat nature of business in China, there are underlying reasons behind some of this. A CEO has to be in charge and hold a lot of power close out of the very real danger they might lose it to someone else.

But it has caused me to re-think everything I know about culture in China, and contradicted a lot of what I learned in graduate school.

My CEO loves golf. Therefore the company has a hand-selected team of employees comprised of quick risers, executive management and Chinese-speaking foreigners (in this case….only me) who are required to attend the driving range in their spare time and practice golfing for free. Since I enjoyed golfing in the States I begged for the chance to join the team.

My first trip with the CEO for an 18-hole round of golf occurred in Chengdu about eight months ago, when the former CEO (now President and GM) of a Canadian company we had just acquired was in town on business. Things went much as they normally do on a golf course.

The second time was a few months later, during a trip to Canada for our first board meeting there. My CEO, the Canadian GM and I hit the links again. A few times during the round my CEO drove his golf cart right up to his ball and got out to hit, even though we were both still behind him. This is a rather severe violation of golf etiquette. I was surprised, because the CEO golfs every weekend. He should know better.

A few days later we got up early and headed to the course for another round before an afternoon flight back to China. This time it was the CEO, an old friend of his from High School who now lives in Canada, and me. I quickly realized we were not playing by the same rules as before.

The CEO didn’t even bother to wait for me. He played the round pretty much as if he was alone on the course. He chatted with his friend and with me, but he never waited for me to hit. In fact, he looked at me rather disapprovingly whenever I did anything that risked holding him up. His friend, who was not a very skilled golfer, had paid for all three of us to play a round on this very expensive course. He started out hitting the ball a few times, but only actually putted on two or three holes. Usually he picked his ball up after hitting it once or twice on each hole, saying “I don’t want to hold you up, Mr. President”. I, however, was trying to get a round in. So I continued to drive as quickly to my ball as the cart would take me and whack at it with no practice swings as soon as I got there just to keep up with the CEO.

Eventually the friend rode with me in my cart for a few holes and admonished that I should just be picking up my ball and deferring to the CEO. I should also be trying to not hold him up but make every attempt to hit the ball weakly and not as accurately as him. Furthermore, I should tell a few more jokes and make myself the butt of his if I can find a way to do it. “He’s under a lot of pressure. This is his way of relaxing. You’re not here to have your fun. You’re here to assist him in having his.”

I still played every hole, but I stopped going to look for badly hit balls, and sometimes had to rather comically throw a ball ahead of me as I approached an OB marker, jump from the golf cart, club in hand, and whack hurriedly at my ball.

After that round I started to see that the idolization of our CEO happens at every level, and trickles down as well. Heads of departments are treated like generals in the imperial court, and if they don’t like you a promotion will never come. So people agonize over pleasing as many people above them as possible.

I get away with a lot, because I’m a foreigner. If I tried to insist I be treated like everyone else I probably wouldn’t last long here, because I make a lot of cultural mistakes on a daily basis. Thankfully, most of them are minor these days. I’ve already committed all the big ones. But at the same time I get rewarded for saying and doing the right things. And when those compliments come, I don’t ever forget them.

This is all very formulaic, to be honest. For example, the last trip to Canada we met with a high-level Toronto head of the Canadian operations for a Chinese bank. As we were on the elevator to the lobby after the meeting, I commented on how nice their office was. The banker then said, in Classic Chinese self-deprecating form, that it was too bare. The walls lacked artwork and they still had a lot of work to do.

I commented that with such a great space selection on the 28th floor overlooking all of Toronto and Lake Ontario, the banker had negated need for fancy artwork on the walls.

The CEO and the banker laughed and lavished me with compliments on my understanding of Chinese cultural appropriateness.

A couple of weeks ago I ran into a similar situation at a dinner with a government official who, during the course of conversation with me decided to claim that western eating utensils were more refined than holding two pieces of wood together. I knew immediately the appropriate response was to state he was decidedly right (disagreement is a skill I have yet to master…too complicated and delicate an act to tell someone of higher rank that they are wrong), but that chop sticks carried with them more culture and tradition.

Wading through a career that involves regular work with Chinese executives is difficult. If I could narrow this long post down to one sentence, it would be this: To deal effectively with Chinese executives, it’s probably best to read about Chinese emperors.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: