Of Customers and Comrades

The great question ahead of China, after Mao is gone, will certainly be the question of management and managers,” Peter Drucker predicted in his 1973 book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. The country could remain true to Maoism and stay poor, or it could get serious about management and develop economically.

A decade later, it was clear that China had chosen management. Indeed, as Drucker observed in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, “One of the first actions of the Chinese government after the fall of the ‘Gang of Four’ was to establish an Enterprise Management Agency directly responsible to the prime minister.”

That said, Chinese management is different from U.S. management or European management, as two recent articles in McKinsey Quarterly point out. “Being effective in China means realizing that everything is political,” writes Nandani Lynton, a visiting professor of management at China Europe International Business School. “Successful executives develop their intuition, are receptive to learning from Chinese patterns, and thus begin to think and behave differently.”

Dean Yingyi Qian, of Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management, agrees. “How to get things done in China is different—even if you want to achieve the same things,” he says in a related interview. “Like many economists, perhaps, I had a tendency to deemphasize the behavioral and cultural sides of things. But now I pay a lot of attention to these things.”

Drucker considered management to be a powerful tool across cultures—and, unlike certain aspects of modernity, management did not need to be “Western” or “American” to work.  On the contrary, it could help different societies to preserve their identities. “The more management can use the traditions, values, and beliefs of a society, the more it will accomplish,” Drucker wrote. “We now know that all of us—Americans, Europeans, Japanese and many others—have to learn management from each other.”

Image credit: Tricia Wang

Drucker also stressed how essential cultural awareness was to effective management. “The manager must be more than a ‘technocrat,’” Drucker warned.  “Management is not culture-free. . . . It is a social function. It is, therefore, both socially accountable and culturally embedded.”

What changes have you had to make in your management style or work style to adapt to different cultures?