China managers have decisions to make

Employees of AMD Ltd. in Suzhou, China, participate in an OTi Consulting workshop called "Becoming Effective Manufacturing Supervisors."

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KAI RYSSDAL: We all know that China has become a manufacturing powerhouse. But when it comes to producing management talent, the country still relies on imports from the United States. Bill Marcus has more now from Shanghai.


BILL MARCUS: Experienced managers and creative innovators jump frequently from job to job. And when they do, their salaries typically jump 20 to 30 percent on average. China pretty much cranks out whatever it wants at a fraction of the price of its competitors.
So why not management material? According to management recruiter Pieter Tsiknas, a key reason is China's rote-and-repeat education system.

PETER TSIKNAS: Evaluate, analyze and make decisions. I mean, that is one of the biggest gaps we find with managers. They're great at, let's say, receiving directives and effecting the directives. Very difficult to find good people that can make decisions, can evaluate and make sound decisions.

A study reported by Business Week compared the emotional intelligence of American and Chinese CEOs. It found while Chinese managers can carry out orders very efficiently, they have trouble thinking creatively and independently. Now China is trying to jump-start spontaneity. But it's not easy.

DANIEL LIU: All right. Let's start. Good morning.

PARTICIPANTS: Good morning.

That's OTi Consulting's Daniel Liu. He's one of an army of trainers companies hire to transform the stiff, formal entrepreneurs into something closer to a glad-handing, gregarious Rotary-type member.

LIU: One, two, three, let's go....

Here he pushes a class full of salespeople to do something way out of their comfort zone:

various voices: Wow, you look incredible!

For 31-year-old Gloria Ge this couldn't be further from the Confucian, ask-no-questions classroom that she grew up in.

GLORIA GE: We have material and teacher talk, talk and talk and we just listen to or just do the work all by ourselves. It total different.

Jason Walker is a consultant with the Executive Learning Center. He helps train managers to overcome rigid thinking.

JASON WALKER: Teachers do not necessarily push or challenge students to explore ideas, to probe deeper, to ask why, to find out the implications of what they've just learned. What's the next step, what does that effect?

But at Bluem Outsourcing CEO Eric Rongley says China is producing plenty of book-smart managers and engineers. They're just not teaching them how to apply their knowledge.

ERIC RONGLEY: They're taught how much the hammer weighs, what are the dimensions of the hammer, what does the metal consist of, and all the properties of the hammer, but they've never hit a nail with the hammer.

Executive search expert Pieter Tsiknas says China recognizes there's a problem and is trying to fix it without losing face.

TSIKNAS: Part of the social fabric, the culture here is the fear of failure of being seen as a failure. So oftentimes these efforts are being done but in quietly because in case it doesn't work, they don't want to be embarrassed.

But people skills are tougher to mass-develop than widgets. And even if China is successful at developing inquisitive leaders, some worry the flip-side just might be a class of managers willing to question the establishment.

In Shanghai, I'm Bill Marcus for Marketplace.

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