Developing Business Leaders in China - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #054

Developing Business Leaders in China

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A critical way of developing more effective leaders for China-based companies is through lessons based on events they experience. By paying attention to which events or on-the-job experiences are the most developmental, Chinese companies can help their leaders grow and maintain a broader talent pool.


Across the world, effective leaders are needed now more than ever; China is no exception, but the experiences of Chinese leaders may certainly warrant a different perspective for their development. Based on research initiated in May 2007, the authors present findings and implications for leadership development for China-based economies.

They provide evidence of specific work experiences from which leadership lessons can be consciously extracted, whilst also identifying critical leadership lessons, such as the craft of managing self and relationships, that may not always be taught at management schools.

They interviewed 55 top and senior-level Chinese business leaders, selected from six home-grown Chinese companies. Two of the questions asked were:

  1. Looking back over your career, what are the three key events or experiences that had a lasting impact on you and influenced how you lead and manage today?
  2. What did you learn from these events or experiences?

Based on the answers, the ‘event clusters’ that they found to be key drivers of Chinese leader development are as follows:

  • Challenging assignments: i.e. from a posting, promotion, or task assigned to the manager by their organization, which is typically difficult and requires struggle. These sharpen different leadership abilities;
  • Developmental relationships: directly and indirectly support learning and the learner;
  • Adverse situations: often imposed by the environment. Usually, the difficulties experienced during the event are not within the control of the organization or its executives; and
  • Personal events: includes graduate and training programs taken at work or through external providers and early job experiences.

The authors then describe in detail 18 key events that fall into the clusters above.


There are many advantages to leadership development for Chinese companies already on a high-growth trajectory, including the fact that global managers with stakes in the Chinese business context will learn how to work with their Chinese counterparts.

With regards to practical advice, the authors say that for Chinese companies to continue to grow and achieve global impact in the future, their talent pools must become more broad and deep today. One important first step is simply to pay attention to which events, or on-the-job experiences, are the most developmental and what is learned from these events.

They also provide insights resulting from specific event-lesson links. The most common leadership lesson found to have been learned from events experienced by interviewees were about management values and communication, suggesting significant need for development in these areas.

They suggest that the approach they put forward - of linking events with lessons learned - can help set the direction for more intentional and fruitful leadership development in Chinese companies.

However, acknowledging that knowledge on its own is not enough, the authors pose the following questions to consider in order to evolve existing good practices of leadership development in China toward yet another level of excellence:

  • How can on-the-job experiences be leveraged and emphasized in addition to the current focus on development through coursework and training?
  • Can challenging assignments be more intentionally allocated to create developmental opportunities for managers identified for leadership roles?
  • What processes are needed to customize assignments to meet the developmental needs of high potential managers?



Developing Chinese Leaders in the 21st Century. Zhang Yi, Anand N. Chandrasekar & Rola Ruohong Wei. Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®) White Paper (September 2009).

Center for Creative Leadership Leadership Tools EMEA

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Idea conceived

September 1, 2009

Idea posted

Jun 2013
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