4 Trends Shaping Creative Leadership in China

“Chinese tech is very much a global phenomenon now; it’s not just happening in the domestic market.”
—Charles Hayes, Executive Managing Director of IDEO Asia

In our most recent Creative Confidence Series chat, Charles Hayes, Executive Managing Director of IDEO Asia, and IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard discussed creative leadership and a changing culture of innovation in China.

Over the course of the decade that Charles Hayes has spent in China, business culture has changed significantly. The government’s decision to declare innovation and entrepreneurship the twin engines of growth “legitimized the entrepreneur in a way that we had never seen before,” he says. A once stiff, hierarchical business leadership paradigm has begun to become more flexible; the end of the one-child rule has taken some pressure off of young people, opening up the possibility of taking greater risks; and a rising consumer class has created demand for new products and services. “I had nothing but questions when I moved there 10 years ago,” Charles says. “But what I love about China is that I continue to have 90 percent questions. I have a couple of answers every once in a while, but what I have found is that those constantly change.”

As the Chinese economy has moved its focus from manufacturing to the creation of digital products, trends in creative leadership are moving in parallel with it. Here are some of the shifts Charles has seen over the last decade.

Leading through questions

In China, leadership isn’t about having all the answers anymore. Charles points out that leadership in China used to be very top-down, with the proverbial chairman who sits at the end of a boardroom table and makes big decisions about where the company will go. But in recent years, leaders have begun to realize they have more questions than they have answers. “And they have a great deal of confidence in the belief that if they build the right teams, if they’re looking at the right areas and getting inspired by a wider set of things going on in the world, they will be able to lead in a different way, and help their companies grow in the right way,” he says.

As growth has slowed in China, leaders are “facing a very different landscape and a very different situation,” Charles says. As the country has shifted from a manufacturing-led economy that is often trying to catch up with growth of scale, to a consumption-led economy, leaders have had to think more about who they serve and why, and why they exist beyond making money and growing really fast. Together with Tsinghua University, IDEO has created a year-long leadership program for CEOs and Chairmen in China to explore the roles that creativity and design can play in strategizing the growth of a business. “It can be quite scary to ask these big bold questions on your own,” Charles says. “There’s been tremendous value in bringing together leaders from different industries who share common challenges, even if the question they’re trying to answer is in a very different industry, filling a different need.”

Creativity through shanzhai

China has long been known for copycat businesses, or shanzhai, but Charles is quick to point out that those that have replicated foreign models in China, or reproduced them at scale, are also embracing innovation. Sometimes moving the context of a business, or altering it to fit local markets, creates a whole new business altogether. “There is a form of innovation that takes place in that copy,” he says… ”The idea is that you’re looking out into the world for things that are great ideas, things that were working in other places, and asking “What can we learn from that and bring into our environment and local culture?’” In China, that’s often speed and scale.

And now, we’re also starting to see reverse shanzhai, with Western companies borrowing Chinese concepts. Amazon Prime day, for example, took inspiration from Singles Day in China, when people are encouraged to buy themselves gifts.


“There’s this strong realization that leaders need to be both bold and visionary about where they want to take their businesses, but they recognize that they absolutely don’t have all the answers.”
Charles Hayes


Leadership from the next generation

In China, young people can easily work for multinationals or established companies with strong brands. For local startups, the competition to attract talent is tough. “These leaders 100 percent recognize they can’t continue to keep doing what they’ve done,” Charles says. At the same time, many middle-class Chinese children who were sent abroad to get their education have to ask themselves whether they want to return to China to run a business, and if so, how they can fundamentally alter it to keep up with the change and pace of innovation.

One brother/sister pair decided to return to China and take on a business in the food industry. The siblings created Hunter Gatherer, a restaurant and retail space built around a trustworthy food supply chain. “Hunter Gatherer really came out of a passion for them really wanting to not only reconnect on a personal level to where they’re from, but actually tackle a systemic problem in the process, leveraging the family knowledge around food supply chains and some of the very exciting tech that is happening,” Charles says.

The persistence of Wolf culture

In the Chinese tech space, a lot of companies subscribe to the concept of “wolf culture,” the idea that employees operate as a pack and take shared ownership, but they’re also fiercely competitive. “You’re not only pursuing the marking to try to win, you’re also competing against each other, and at the same time, recognizing that you’re part of the greater whole,” Charles says.

This culture is also leading to an intense focus on work that is resulting in insane work hours. The idea of the 9-9-7 is that employees put in 12 hours a day--from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 7 days a week. Some companies looking to gain an edge with the talent pool are even advertising themselves as being 9-9-6; so lax that they only expect six straight 12-hour days of work.

While this culture of overworking isn’t an approach we’d recommend, the practice of experimenting with multiple ideas simultaneously is a change in how leaders think about allocating resources. It’s an indicator of openness to new approaches and a China that is in the midst of a cultural shift.

If you’re interested in going deeper into case studies of creative leadership across the globe and learning IDEO’s tools and mindsets for creative leadership, join our upcoming Leading for Creativity course.

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