Lenovo’s executive committee has members from 6 different nationalities and the top 100 executives come from 20 different nations. Gina Qiao, SVP of HR, shares her story of how she learned to lead and communicate with her global team.
When Gina Qiao started in human resources at Lenovo, it was as vice president. Unlike other human resources executives, she had no experience in the field. She did, however, have years of experience at Lenovo, where she had started her career in marketing and strategy.
Lenovo, which has its international headquarters in Beijing, China, describes itself as one of the world’s leading personal technology companies, producing innovative PCs and mobile Internet devices. A global Fortune 500 company, Lenovo says it’s the world’s largest PC vendor and the fourth largest smartphone company.
Embracing the learning curve
“I had no human resources knowledge,” says Qiao, who has since been promoted to senior vice president. Eager to grow and contribute, she leveraged her marketing and strategy skills to communicate with employees about human resources policy and strategy.
Lenovo’s CEO was instrumental in helping Qiao design a compensation and benefits strategy that would serve as an “accelerator when people achieved their targets,” she says. From best practices at Intel and IBM, she learned how to put more structure around various “compensation bands.” While there’s much more structure in place for managers to use compensation to motivate employee’s growth, Qiao believes there’s enough flexibility built into the system to allow individual managers to make employee-level decisions.
“From Pepsi Co. and IBM, I learned about people development and successor planning – and this learning has contributed to helping to grow our employees’ career paths,” says Qiao.
Growing in mastery
Qiao achieved her leadership role in human resources because Lenovo wanted to transform the business through its human resources practices – but, when she started nine years ago in her role as a global executive, she didn’t have any global experience and she didn’t speak English.
“All of my experience was in China. I started to learn English and then English became the official language at Lenovo,” says Qiao, who notes that gaining greater cultural understanding has been incredibly valuable. Learning the backgrounds of her colleagues in Japan, Brazil, Europe, and the United States has also resulted in better communication.
Qiao, who moved her family to live in North Carolina for a few years for her job, can these days be found in meeting rooms in Paris, Kanagawa (Japan), or São Paolo (Brazil). “As a leader, I travel internationally twice a month, often to European countries,” says Qiao. “Our practice as a leadership team – one that is very diverse and comes from six nationalities – is to get together once a month to talk about business strategy.”
“It’s worth it,“ says Qiao of the amount of international travel involved. “It’s not just about talking about strategy. It enables us to connect with employees and customers, and to get to know the local markets.”
Managing with both hands
Since her team is dotted all over the globe, Qiao had to develop a sense of how to communicate with those from different cultures. That’s why she uses a style of communicating and managing that she calls a “left hand and right hand” approach.
“In China, if I say something, my team takes that as a direction. Meaning, you have to do that. With my Western leaders, if I say something, they are very independent and they have their opinions; they may follow or they may not follow,” says Qiao.
She notes that both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. While her Western leaders will often add value in terms of their perspectives, they may not understand that she’s looking to them to act on her direction. For her team in China, they will generally just follow exactly what she tells them to do.
“Here’s how I leverage the two ‘hands’ with my team: The next time I talk with you with my left hand, I’m encouraging debate and brainstorming. It’s not an order. When I talk to you with my right hand, it means you have to do this; it’s a direction,” she says. ♦
“The Lenovo Way”
Written by Qiao and her Lenovo colleague Yolanda Conyers, “The Lenovo Way: Managing a Diverse Global Company for Optimal Performance: Managing a Diverse Global Company for Optimal Performance” (McGraw-Hill 2014) is packed to the brim with insights for future and current executives. Qiao says she wrote this book with Conyers because she wants to share her lessons about transforming Lenovo and herself as a global executive.
“It’s a hard journey to grow into a global company,” says Qiao, who says the book serves as a case study of a company going global, provides funny stories and challenges, and tells how she and the company were transformed during the process.
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