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Archive for August 2010

Where are the Men in Black Suits? Maybe They are In Our Heads.

“What do you think of China?”

That’s a hard question to answer, especially when the person asking it is the executive vice-president of a $4 billion retail chain, and when that person is clearly Chinese. But, Wilson Zhu, executive vice president of Michaels, wanted my impressions.

I muttered something — certainly not the truth, because I didn’t want to insult him.

He pushed again. “No, what do you really think of China?”

“Well,” I began nervously, “China scares the hell out of me. I think of the Chinese as a bunch of men in black suits who have bought up our treasury bonds, are getting control over foreign oil that we need, and have destroyed the competitiveness of American industry by putting children on assembly lines. Then there are the environmental issues and…” I was not subtle, and he was not surprised. He’d heard it all before.

“Have you been to China?” he asked. So began a connection that would take me with a team of Michaels executives on a speaking tour of Asia. While there, I was able to interview business leaders, entrepreneurs and the next generation of talent. I was also given tours of some of the factories that do business with Michaels.
I knew that I would see what was presented to me, and that I’d never see the first child on an assembly line (most retailers have huge compliance teams that do spot checks). Still, I had my fears:

1. They would try to feed me dog.
2. Someone would be following me.
3. My communication would be monitored.
4. The bathrooms would be terrible.

I do not know if there are secret crews of men in black suits who are coming to take over America. I didn’t see any. I don’t have answers for the many points of judgment that start in America and stand as a wall between us. And I certainly have no comprehension of the power of the Chinese government and no explanation of its intentions.

What I have are encounters with people who share the same kinds of hopes and dreams that I have. I’m working hard for a living, they are working hard for a living. I love my family, they love their family. I am a product of my culture, they are a product of theirs.

Nobody fed me dog, nobody was following me, I had no signs that my communication was monitored and I only found one bathroom that was horrid, which is a better track record than I get over here in the U.S. Also, the Chinese government did not break into my hotel room and implant a microchip in my brain to reprogram my thoughts and make me spout off propaganda on popular U.S. blogsites. I don’t think.

But, when you come back from China and say good things about the Chinese people, there are a lot of people who think you’ve been suckered. After giving a positive travel report to Tracie Cone, a friend who was a reporter alongside me at The Miami Herald years ago, she blurted, “You’ve been tricked!” Then laughed.

I wrote a simple column this week about a remark made by a young businessman I met who talked of how the Chinese people don’t like to boast of their successes because a constant fear of failure pushes them to excellence. I noted how different that is from how we approach self-talk here in the U.S. We relish in our successes and know that if we expect big things, we’ll achieve them. All I did in that column was ponder the contrasting approach.

When that piece ran on the front of the business page of The Huffington Post, I posted it on Facebook. One of my Facebook “friends,” shot back a really ugly diatribe about how “this Chinese culture” is responsible for low quality products, child labor, pollution and human rights atrocities. “Let’s not be so quick to hold the Chinese ‘humble’ culture in such high esteem. Fawn, I respect your opinions, but it sickens me to see all of your ‘clones’ immediately fall into lock step with your every utterance.”

I don’t get it. I went to China and I met a nice guy who had an interesting perspective, but I’m not supposed to write about it because of everything else we think about China? What is it about China that is so damning that every single Chinese person is contaminated by every single negative?  All I did was write about a person and his opinion on success and motivation.

My Facebook critic has never been there, yet apparently he knows everything there is to know about China. I know China’s got some very ugly stains, and so do we. But I also know that there is a real human element there that we have not even tried to understand.

Where are the men in black suits? Maybe they are in our heads, symbols of our own fear. We can fear them, or work with them. This world has globalized, and opportunity exists for those who realize it.

I’m sure my critic thinks I’m naive, and I’m sure there are millions of others who would agree. I don’t know why such simple thoughts about people are so threatening, but apparently they are.

China is neither all good nor all bad. It’s I see China as a country with four times our population and ten times our problems. They’re working on their issues.

I asked Wilson about it and he said, “People think they look at the world objectively as it is. In reality, they look at it as they are.”

So true.

Speaking and Reporting in China and Taiwan

What a moment.

I traveled to Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei, Shenzhen and Hong Kong to speak on leadership and begin interviewing Chinese business pioneers for a book on globalization.

Here’s a little of what happened:

“Success is always temporary, failure lasts much much longer”

Last week, I returned from a speaking tour of Asia where American bravado met Chinese humility.

I am a leadership and motivation speaker who tells people to expect success, make decisions with confidence and to advertise their strengths and wins. That is the exact opposite of the Chinese way, which is to be humble and sense that failure looms.

I just got an e-mail from my new friend, Elmer Cheng, who is senior manager of product development for Polygroup — the company that manufactures most of the artificial Christmas trees and backyard swimming pools in the U.S. He is the 24-year-old son of Paul Cheng, the patriarch and founder of the company.

When I was in Hong Kong, I interviewed the family for a book I am writing about leadership, globalization and the Chinese way. I woke up to an e-mail today where Elmer gave me something significant to ponder.

“We do not know how to handle praise very well,” he wrote of the Chinese people. “We are always unsure how to respond and it is almost borderline embarrassing. Of course, praise is always welcome but in practical terms, some Chinese may see it as useless, because receiving it does not teach you how to improve or maintain success. Receiving criticism on the other hand, gives you a path of what needs to be done. What drives us is the fear of failure and not a moment of praise. Success is always temporary, failure lasts much much longer.”

That is the exact opposite of what American business leaders are coached to do. While it seems a little dark, this Chinese concept interests me because, for them, it seems like it is an equally effective model for success. They obviously are doing something that works. Last year, Polygroup was recognized as Walmart’s supplier of the year for the fifth time.

I don’t imagine I’d get much business as a motivational speaker speaker on leadership if I stood in front of major corporations telling people to hunker down and fear failure. While some of the American business leaders I know don’t brag on themselves, few will underrate or abbreviate what they have done.

When I interviewed many business people in China and Taiwan, almost all minimized their achievements. When I would ask them to summarize their successes, I got a lot of silence and stares — not because they didn’t know, not because their achievements were classified information, but because that simple, ice-breaking question caused real discomfort for them. I’d been told that the Chinese people were humble, but I never expected that humility to be so pronounced.

Would they be more successful if they stopped fearing failure and started pounding on their chests saying, “I’m successful! I’m wonderful! And, doggone it, people like me!” I don’t know. The Law of Attraction, which says our thoughts create our reality, has spawned a self-help industry in the U.S. where people have tapped into the their inner guru to remind themselves that anything is possible if they expect success. Elmer Cheng showed me that much is possible by respecting failure and shutting up about the victories.

I told him I am going to post an article about his thoughts on the Huffington Post, one of America’s top ten websites. His response? “You can use my quote but can I remain anonymous?” I told him it is important for me to use his name so readers will know I didn’t make anything up. Reluctantly, he agreed.