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Passing on knowledge

Published on Friday, 18 Dec 2009
Illustration: Winnie Ho

The mainland's rise to economic prominence is providing a wide new range of topics for academics, analysts, consultants and business writers to get to grips with. Among these is the question of how long it will take for various mainland industries - cars, banking, green energy and even aerospace - to surpass international competition and, as significantly, what type of executives will be driving growth and innovation through the next decade.

One commonly held opinion is that industry on the mainland will have difficulty maintaining its previous rate of transformation. Those who support this viewpoint do not point to reasons of finance, production capacity, trade barriers or overseas markets. What concerns them more specifically is that, in key industries, the younger generation of mainland professionals, the up-and-coming leaders, do not have sufficient role models from whom to learn the highest level of technical and managerial skills.

A recent BusinessWeek article focusing on the semiconductor industry saw this as an obvious contrast between young engineers and MBA graduates in Silicon Valley and their counterparts on the mainland. The former could get first-hand experience working with senior colleagues who had perhaps founded companies, taken them public and created truly innovative products earlier in their careers. The latter, whatever their formal qualifications and credentials, usually did not have the benefit of that "something extra" in their day-to-day contacts.

Looking beyond the semiconductor industry, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) tested the basic theory by doing an in-depth interview study. For this, CCL spoke to 55 mid-ranking and senior managers, asking them about the work and life experiences that had most contributed to their leadership skills. The managers were with six mainland-based companies in the financial services, manufacturing and IT sectors. They provided feedback between June 2007 and March 2008.

The findings helped CCL to identify a lack of developmental relationships in these organisations and to recognise that having the right mentors and role models for future leaders presents a special challenge on the mainland. The study also showed that the developmental relationship is one of four important sources of learning for an aspiring executive.

It is essential to have challenging assignments and job rotation, the fortitude to cope with hardships or failure, and structured training courses. But the guidance, instruction and experience shared by wiser colleagues in and around the workplace are equally crucial factors in supporting an individual's growth.

In a developmental relationship, the senior partner can play three distinct roles. One is to serve as a mentor able to assess comparative strengths and weaknesses and recommend areas for improvement. The second is as a role model exemplifying required qualities and providing the motivation to reach a constantly higher standard of performance. The third is as a counsellor and cheerleader offering emotional support, encouragement and advice about personal concerns if that seems necessary.

The study also found that the lessons learned by the junior partner went far beyond mere factual knowledge or business data. When handled well, the developmental relationship taught a better appreciation of management values such as fairness and integrity. It gave a chance to pass on techniques useful for maintaining corporate discipline, inspiring subordinates and empowering others. And it could instil an understanding of the need for communication skills that emphasise transparency, sincerity and clarity.

What also emerged, though, was that younger mainland business leaders felt they were largely on their own in terms of learning these lessons. There was rarely any kind of in-house arrangement for seniors to pass on such softer skills or to share their hard-earned wisdom with members of the next generation or two of corporate leaders.

This should be a cause for concern. Already, business growth and broad demographic trends tell us that many mainland organisations face an impending shortage of leadership talent. College graduates may arrive in the workplace with big ideas and plenty of theory, but it can obviously take years to turn that raw potential into expert decision making and sound leadership skills.

To give themselves the best possible chance, it is therefore important for both companies and employees with hopes of making it to the top to regard in-house knowledge as a vital resource. There should be a formalised system, a kind of pipeline, to ensure today's leaders actively train their chosen successors and don't simply rely on outside instructors, the odd pep talk or a ritual year-end appraisal.

This is not a matter of reacting to the supposed expectations of Generation Y employees with their different demands and motivations. It is basic business sense, making it possible to capitalise on strengths, enhance teamwork, share skills and create a long-standing competitive advantage.

For this to happen, we recommend the following steps:  

Younger employees should take the initiative

If you want to get ahead, there is no point sitting and waiting for someone else to make the first move. Instead, younger staff should regard their boss as a partner in development and be ready to put forward their own ideas about what they want or need to learn. By doing so, things will move faster and personal development will become a regular topic of conversation.

It also makes sense to suggest or seek out developmental relationships with colleagues in different departments as you gain experience and come to see where gaps exist. It is unrealistic to think that just one person could - or would want to - act as a mentor, role model, counsellor and career adviser. To depend too much on one individual is shortsighted and self-limiting. Therefore, the aim should be to cultivate a wide range of relationships across the organisation. This will also provide alternative viewpoints which, undoubtedly, will contribute to personal and professional growth. 

Senior executives should recognise their responsibility 

Leaders at various levels of any organisation can easily feel there are not enough hours in the day. But, whatever their other priorities, staff development must remain near the top of the list, not a mere afterthought or something done in passing during a snatched conversation in the lift or on the way to the car park. Senior executives must accept the responsibility to act as mentors and advisers, even if they do not see themselves as natural teachers. The sharing of wisdom is part and parcel of building a stronger organisation and, therefore, a duty both to colleagues and stakeholders generally.

There is also, of course, an element of "walking the talk". You can't be a good role model unless people see, understand and want to emulate what you do. Conversely, there is no surer way to demotivate colleagues and lose their trust than by acting at odds with a public persona or the management values the company is meant to espouse.

Similarly, senior executives easily forget how much a few words of encouragement or advice can mean to young people still making their way. The positive effect can be quite disproportionate to the time it takes, by showing interest, expressing confidence or just making it clear that efforts have been noticed. 

Organisations should monitor progress and feedback 

Various methods can be used to get staff and managers to buy into the concept of building developmental relationships. There can be meetings schedules, reports, activity logs and forms recording goals and progress. If required, the information gleaned can be fed into the system of performance reviews and rewards. Doing so creates a sense of accountability and emphasises the importance of the process. It also makes it possible to track areas for improvement and help both senior and junior staff enhance their respective skills.

However, there is also a great deal to be said for allowing developmental relationships to evolve more naturally. If the corporate culture already stresses their importance, individuals don't necessarily need to be monitored and told what to do every step of the way.

They will see the long-term benefits for themselves and the organisation and be ready to act accordingly.

Written by Rola Ruohong Wei, research associate at the Center for Creative Leadership, Asia-Pacific

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