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Chinese business leaders dream bigger than those of the West

Back in 2005, when I was head of employee engagement for a large accounting firm, I was invited to present to a delegation of HR leaders from various Chinese companies, who came to the UK to learn about – and share – best practice.

I was due to give a 30-minute presentation, which took well over an hour after the skilled translator had translated my stories into some coherent Mandarin for the audience. I say 'skilled', because the quality of the questions posed afterwards were a testament to his skill in translating not just words but concepts. I was certainly impressed. What impressed me more was one particular question.

An HR manager from Beosteel, a Fortune 500 company and one of China's most successful iron and steel companies, asked me what we are investing in over the next 10 years. The question itself blew me away, as I had rarely met a senior leader in the UK, or in the western business world, who ever talked about 'the next 10 years'. I drew a blank. He told me that the next 10 years for his business are about investing in knowledge management.

Knowledge management, was, even by 2005, a concept many western companies had jumped on, chewed up and for the most part, spat out. I was amazed, firstly at the distance of his future vision and excited that Far Eastern leaders would get to experience the benefits of this powerful concept. They, unlike most western companies, wouldn't get bored and move on to the next glitzy concept. Like total quality management (TQM) in the 1970s, they would make it work for them. I received a nice round of applause, a lovely gift, lots of business cards and I was on my way back to the office, head spinning and definitely hooked on China. These guys had big dreams.

Fast-forward seven years and Steve Tappin, CEO of top executive advisory firm, Xinfu, co-author (with Richard Branson and Andrew Cave) of The Secrets of CEOs (2008, Nicholas Brealey) and confidant to some of the world's top CEOs, invited me to take part in the China Entrepreneur Club (CEC) conference in Beijing earlier this year. He is always back and forth between the UK and China and at that time was finishing his latest book, Dreams to Last, featuring interviews and insights from more than 100 of China's top CEOs and entrepreneurs, a true world first (published this July in Mandarin by Beijing University Press with the CEC). The week I spent there would also cause me to completely rethink my own dreams.

I took a direct flight from London to Beijing and as I walked off the plane I was greeted by a smart man with a card bearing my name. He was there to speed me through the immigration process and I was off the plane and into my car in less than 15 minutes.

Beijing International Airport is an unbelievable structure of design and scale, as was the eight-lane motorway that took me into Beijing proper. My hotel was undergoing some unplanned work so they moved me to a nice suite at the Raffles Hotel. I know, I had to slum it.

Beijing itself is an immense city and quite tricky to navigate. I had lots of advice about trying to get across the city in rush hour: the number one tip is to make sure you book a taxi, as they are like gold dust. Always keep the address of your hotel on a card in Mandarin as it's no fun getting lost, as I found out.

The big first impression though for me was the work rate. People work hard. They work most days of the week - and the weekend is full of people on the metro system in full business dress. Incidentally, the conference I attended was held over the weekend, so as to not interfere with the working week. I felt like I was either going to a wedding or an estate agent, being in full business dress on a Saturday, but I was certainly not alone.

I met a successful private equity guy called Benson Tam, a partner of Fidelity Growth Partners Asia. I was asking about some of the key human capital challenges in China right now and that old phrase popped up, which had gone missing in the UK over the past couple of years: "the war for talent". Tam said many top Chinese companies were finding it hard to get below 20% attrition rates, as opportunities for talent were numerous and companies were having to work hard to hold on to their staff. This was a theme I would hear echoed again and again at the CEC conference.

Around 500 businesspeople and entrepreneurs attended the conference. The CEC was established in December 2006 and was launched by 31 of the most influential entrepreneurs, economists and diplomats in China. It has become the preeminent movement of Chinese business leaders. This year prime minister David Cameron MP received a delegation to the UK of 29 CEC members in July, led by Liu Chuanzhi, CEC chairman. I had the honour of watching successful entrepreneurs talk about the challenges they see for China and how they are addressing these. I wanted to share three in this article that touch on capability, innovation and social harmony.

Yang Yuanqing, chairman of the board and CEO of computer firm, Lenovo Group, began by saying that "being inclusive was not enough - you have to be capable". The success in a short period of Lenovo was down to the way it managed the buyout and associated transition of moving from IBM to Lenovo. He talked about the power of cultural diversity, of having a top team made up from people of six different nationalities and talked about the evolution of the business from being a 'baby' to now being more mature. This calls for a way more capable set of leaders, he said: capability is king.

Xiang Bing, founding dean of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business talked about "creating a harmonious society" through a sharper focus on CSR and on innovation. He observed that "western companies understand the importance of creating harmony by focusing on the corporate responsibility to seek to improve society". He said that was one important lesson he believed Chinese firms could learn from western businesses. The prize was a big one, he added: if the disparity in wealth continues, then China may begin to see unrest, such as we saw with the various 'occupy' movements here and in the US. But his focus wasn't about protectionism; it was more about what Chinese entrepreneurs could do to create a harmonious society, which is a true win-win.

Ning Gaoning, chairman of the board, China Oil and Foodstuffs, spoke of the need for Chinese companies to focus on innovation. This was in the context of a lack of innovation and originality of many Chinese businesses. The old model of 'stack 'em high and sell 'em cheap' is not what would give China sustainable development, he believed. There was also a need to improve the purchasing power of Chinese citizens and to grow the middle class, as China could not rely on continued western consumption of its goods and services. He also talked about the importance of building great brands and in having the right branding strategy for Chinese companies.

These three examples all need one key ingredient: talent. As Tappin points out in Dreams to Last: "Without trusted lieutenants all the way down to the frontline staff, a company will be limited in its growth and will be unable to continuously satisfy its customers. In short, it is the lack of talent, not capital or the market demands that will constrain the growth of most Chinese businesses in the next decade." His book devotes an entire chapter to developing well-thought-through and forward-thinking talent strategies. The key to living the dream is having a dream…

I certainly learnt that Chinese business leaders and entrepreneurs dream big, very big. That would be the key differential to where most leaders are generally 'at' in the west right now. The rest are global and human challenges, regardless of where we are on the planet. Any organisation that says it has enough innovation, enough world-class talent and enough capability would be, let's face it, delusional.

Dreams, however, are where the power is, where the drive and energy come from. I would suggest to anyone that, if you haven't been, make China your next destination and see what dreams are making possible. What's yours, by the way?