When you meet Shawn Liu, the first impression of him is that he is totally chill. But as soon as you shake his hand, you can feel his energy and passion. When he starts speaking, your expectations are met. His career path is as diverse and colorful as he is. He’s one of only a handful of Chinese HR executives to hold a global leadership role in a leading multinational company. How did he achieve this? And what does it take for more Chinese leaders to become global leaders?
Shawn says he’s never planned his career, which sounds unbelievable if you view his LinkedIn profile and see what he’s achieved. He started his first job as a sales rep in one of the biggest shipping companies in China, and only after a couple of months in that role, he got the chance to rotate into the HR department and soon realized that he liked dealing with people and the psychological aspect of the organization. When his company offered him the chance to study Human Resource Management and Organizational Development in the UK, he didn’t think twice about it. Off he went.
Upon his return from studying abroad, he decided to travel around China to find new opportunities. Unexpectedly, during his very first stop and first week in Shanghai, Accenture quickly offered him a job as a learning & development consultant. From this new start, he took on many challenges that led to other attractive opportunities, until he became the Global Head of HR Strategy and Transformation at Boehringer Ingelheim. Today, he runs his own consulting firm, Wan Chu Management Consulting, whose mission is to provide true value-added management consulting services to clients and to turn social challenges into executive development and social innovation opportunities.
What Chinese leaders should pay more attention to
So, what critical skills did Shawn developed to be able to attract and handle a global leadership role? And what gaps do Chinese leaders need to improve to do the same? Shawn highlights three main ones.
1) True self-confidence 真正的自信
“In a global leadership role, to be honest, you have little room for being overly sensitive and self-insecure. The business is tough, and people have their agenda and perspectives, you cannot take things too personally,” says Shawn. “If you easily get irritated, you lose. If you get offended or upset easily, then you can’t manage and influence others in the way that you need to. Truly confident people know their limits and how to go beyond them.”
For global leaders, Shawn also says that being self-confident also means speaking out and being straightforward. “You need to tell your team members what they need to know, particularly when it’s critical or negative,” he says. “You can’t hold back from saying things that you believe are true and helpful but are hard for others to take.”
Shawn says growing up in a military family helped him. “I learned how to get to the point and speak frankly,” says Shawn. “My dad was a very direct person. ‘Too many words, son. Just say what you need to say,’ he’d always tell me. So, I developed a way of speaking, which is being quite straightforward and precise.”
Shawn recalls his first arrival to Germany for Boehringer Ingelheim as the Global Head of Leadership Development. He discovered one of his team members was a lady who was also in line for the same job. When they met, she told him that he got the job only because he was Chinese, and because China was a big market, and she wasn’t happy about that. He told her that he appreciated her candidness and would not like to argue with her over her assumptions. Instead, he offered her the chance to build an excellent team together and make real differences to the company. After this open conversation, they got along and were able to achieve successful results and remained as friends till today.
“First and foremost, you must understand the business well, and be intuitive about the right things to do,” Shawn emphasizes. “When presenting something, you can’t just deliver lots of information. You need to show people that you’re very familiar with the situation you’re dealing with, giving your insights, and let people know what your judgements are. You need to show others that you’re someone who can connect the dots out of complex situations.”
As a result, another key quality is not relying on assumptions. “At a global level, if you can’t make up your mind and draw your own conclusions, you’ll be tagged as mediocre,” says Shawn. “Like a sponge, you need to absorb information and demonstrate to others your critical thinking.” Shawn points to his training as an Accenture consultant, which taught him how to read people and situations in order to influence others for the benefit of business.
3) Be an interesting person 做一个有趣的人
“How can a boring person become a leader who’s not boring?” Shawn says with a laugh. “Nobody wants to work with someone who is dull.” The more personality and charisma you have, the more others are interested in being around you, so go having a life. It also helps you deal with people and situations better. For instance, leaders who have a sense of humor know how to bring people together and are able to reduce the tension when needed. “Never underestimate the power of humanity and humor. These are two of the best qualities you can have,” he says.
“Of course, strong communication skills are essential to becoming a global leader,” Shawn adds. “you need to communicate in a very diverse range of situations and manage many different kinds of conversations based on the diverse range of stakeholders you’re talking to. You can’t talk to everyone in the same way. So, you want to be someone who is curious about knowing new things, and who is able to engage others comfortably. This will help you to understand new situations better to communicate with others better.”
What Chinese leaders have to offer
Shawn is also quick to point out the key strengths of Chinese Leaders. “Chinese leaders are humble,” says Shawn. “They have humility and tend not to overstate their achievements. Culturally, it’s not our way.”
He highlights their technical and analytical skills, and their reliability and persistence as well. Chinese leaders just get things done. Finally, Shawn highlights how many Chinese leaders care about the personal lives of their team members, and show an interest in their families and life outside of work.
“Of course, recognizing and respecting cultural differences is important,” says Shawn. “But in a global business environment, what matters more is your curiosity and respect for others, which are universal values.” Ultimately, you need good people instincts. Experience is what helps you develop these qualities and apply them to global business situations. So, his advice to anyone who aspires to be a global leader is to seek out new and diverse situations.
Have diverse experience as much as you can, work with different kind of people, and really read a lot. These will all help prepare you to be ready for a global leadership role.”