Developing Chinese Leaders: Challenge and Opportunity

Impact 2013

Posted by Dr. Katherine Jones and Karen O’Leonard on April 24, 2013

Today at IMPACT 2013, we’re excited to share some highlights of our just-published research about the challenges of building leadership bench strength in China. With so many Western companies already doing business in China or with aspirations to enter the country, the need for effective indigenous leaders is critical. But the differences in leadership styles and capabilities between East and West continue to stymie even some of the most experienced, development-savvy multinational companies (MNCs).

Our research compared thousands of assessment results from leaders in China against those in nine other countries. We also interviewed about a dozen HR leaders from Western MNCs with operations in China to capture their observations, insights, and experiences working with and developing programs for Chinese leaders. Just a few of the interesting findings of our study:

  • Skills gaps exist among Chinese leaders in crucial leadership competencies, such as strategic thinking, persuasive communication, delivering results, and developing talent, among others. One manufacturing company we interviewed told us that although Chinese leaders are high performers, they are not seen as high potentials for global leadership teams, primarily due to skill gaps in people-related competencies, such as influencing and inspiring others.
  • Communication styles differ distinctly between Chinese and Western leaders. In our interviews, we heard Westerners typically characterized as sharing their ideas and opinions openly, often in direct and blunt style. Chinese leaders, in contrast, tend to express themselves less directly. In their view, indirectness implies thoughtfulness, maintains relationships, and allows for negotiation, whereas in a Western view, indirectness may be taken for indecisiveness and weakness. To be an effective leader in a Western MNC, Chinese managers may need to adjust to a Western style, being more open in their communications and more persuasive when sharing ideas. These skills can be honed with the proper development.
  • In our interviews, most Chinese managers—tomorrow’s senior leaders—were not seen as visionaries. Although many possess excellent operational skills, Chinese leaders, in general, look to authority (offshore corporate headquarters, for example) rather than taking initiative or being proactive with ideas and actions. This tendency, born out of a respect for hierarchy and a desire to avoid risks, can overshadow creativity and innovation, since doing things the “tried and true” way may be safer than trying something new.

One thing that particularly struck us is how these mature, successful MNCs struggle with the challenge, despite their strong commitment to developing Chinese leaders, their understanding of the leaders’ development needs, and their established track record of developing leaders. Figuring out how—and how much—to customize their leadership development initiatives is particularly troublesome for them.

As we’re hearing across many presentations at IMPACT 2013, we, too, argue against a one-size-fits-all approach to development, favoring instead a three-pronged effort: global, local, and individual. Some elements of development can be standardized at a global level, such as corporate strategy, values, and basic training needed as leaders move up in rank. Other elements are “local” or specific to China, and therefore should be customized— these topics may include local governmental regulations, employment law, market conditions, customer needs, and competition. Finally, some skills and competencies may relate to specific individuals. For these areas, based on individual assessments, training may be customized to focus on improving in particular areas.

The full Bersin by Deloitte study, Leadership Development in China: Building Bench Strength in the World’s Largest Marketplace, explains the challenge of leadership development in China in greater detail. As we heard in several of our interviews, growth in China is happening so rapidly that the MNCs don’t have the luxury of waiting 5 or 10 years for their younger Chinese leaders to “get used to” working in a Western company and practicing Western styles of leadership. Accelerating their Chinese leaders’ development is critical, and they are extremely focused on getting it right.


Katherine Jones Dr. Katherine Jones is a Lead Analyst in HCM Technology at Bersin by Deloitte. She has written widely on many areas of talent management, technology and business practices, and is a frequent contributor to many forums concerning workforce management and talent acquisition.

Karen O'Leonard Karen O’Leonard, Lead Analyst in Benchmarking at Bersin by Deloitte, has directed primary research and industry studies for Bersin since 2002. She is the author of the Factbook series, which includes annual studies on human resources, leadership development, learning & development, talent acquisition, and talent management.

As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see www.deloitte.com/us/about for a detailed description of the legal structure of Deloitte LLP and its subsidiaries. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.

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