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China Returnee Takes Lessons From Time Abroad

China native Nick Zhang has one foot in the East and the other in the West—and hopes more of his countrymen will learn leadership lessons from overseas.

March 16, 2007
Related Topics: Managing International Operations, Global Business Issues, Strategic Planning
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China native Nick Zhang has one foot in the East and the other in the West—and hopes more of his countrymen will learn leadership lessons from overseas.

    Zhang, 51, grew up in Xian, China’s ancient capital. He studied English in college and was married to an American woman for a time. In 1986, he moved with her to the U.S., and earned an MBA at George Washington University.

    After returning to Asia in 1991, Zhang worked at health care giant Johnson & Johnson and later switched to work in Chinese startups. Beginning in 2000, he led two mobile communications services firms. Disney purchased the latter startup, Mobile2Win, last year. While a chief executive, Zhang tried to manage with a Western mind-set. His goals included giving employees "opportunities to shine" and keeping the organizations flat.

    "My door was always open," he says.

    Zhang just finished a stint consulting for Disney, and says he may return to school to study Chinese culture.

    Over snacks at a tea house near Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai’s tallest building, Zhang argues that China could use more independent thinking—a key foundation for leadership.

    For years, he says, many Chinese idolized Lei Feng, a soldier publicized by the government as a selfless hero. Now, Zhang says, they fawn over the Chinese entrepreneurs who are lauded in the mass media.

    He himself was missing a maverick mind-set when he applied to business graduate school years ago in the United States. Asked who his hero was, Zhang first drew a blank, then named Zhou Enlai, a popular former Chinese premier.

    "The premier was someone I respected, but he was not a hero that I wanted to be," Zhang says. "China, in a very general way, lacks diversity. Everything seems to be a mass movement with a herd mentality."

Workforce Management, March 12, 2007, p. 22 -- Subscribe Now!

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