Chinese CEOs powered by passion and dreams
Steve Tappin said many Chinese entrepreneurs have a vision to be the Steve Jobs of their industry.
The founder and chief executive officer of Xinfu, a consultancy that advises CEOs across the world, said what differentiates Chinese bosses from their Western counterparts is often their passion.
“The fundamental difference is they are powered by their dreams. They talk about wanting to be the Apple of their industry and, if not now, in 100 years. They want to build a legacy.
“Western business leaders tend to be much more corporate. They have very narrow time horizons and talk about how they score on benchmarks such as how they treat their staff or on environmental criteria.”
The engaging and often effusive 48- year- old was speaking in the business lounge on the 18th floor of the Kerry Hotel in Beijing’s central business district on one of his many trips to China.
As well as running Xinfu, he is also a famous face on TV, presenting CEO Guru, a sixth series of which is set to air on BBC World in May.
He is also set to publish a new book, Secrets of Chinese CEOs, based on interviews he has done with some of China’s top CEOs, including Li Shufu, chairman of car giant Geely, and Guo Guangchang, chairman of the Fosun Group.
Last year he also did a BBC documentary, China’s Billionaires’ Club, on the China Entrepreneur Club, whose members include the heads of some of China’s top companies.
“This organization is unlike any other business organization. It consists of China’s elite entrepreneurs and they travel together and take part in events. You don’t get that caliber of people networking in that way in Western business organizations.”
Tappin believes it is only a matter of time before a Chinese company becomes a global giant.
“I think the best known Chinese companies now are the best of what we could call the 1.0s or 2.0s. I think there is as yet an unknown 4.0 out there that will take everyone by surprise,” Tappin said.
The British guru is particularly keen to forge links between Chinese and Western CEOs. He co-chairs the Zhisland Global Fellowship, which brings together 30 of China’s top business leaders with the same number of similar figures from the West to promote cross- cultural understanding.
“I think there are still quite a few problems in China, particularly with joint ventures where the Western management and their Chinese partners are in a different place in terms of their ambition and time frames of what they want to achieve. I think it is more serious than many people think and is something of an unexploded bomb.”
He also believes that many foreign multinationals are dangerously complacent about their performance in China.
“I think their head office might give them a score of seven out of 10. I think they are just a five,” he said.
“This is becoming more critical because the China operation used to be just a nice thing that grew at 20 to 30 percent a year. Now it is an absolute strategic priority.”
Tappin, who is from the Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate in the United Kingdom, was qualified as a certified accountant before working for Imperial Chemical Industries.
doing an MBA
at Cranfield University and the University of Washington, he went into management consulting, first with KPMG and then with PA Consulting.
He set up his own company, Edengene, which helped large corporations set up new businesses. During this time he helped British Telecom set up BT Broadband.
He eventually sold a major chunk of his shares in the business, which he said made him financially independent for life.
“From that point on I wanted to do something I was passionate about and really believed in.”
In 2009, he set up Xinfu, which offers a personal confidant service to CEOs. Some of his clients have been bosses of major corporations.
This involves Tappin, who has an air of open honesty, almost taking on the role of a therapist and often addressing personal issues in one-toone meetings with CEOs.
“They can get very personal. We have had sessions where a CEO actually came out (as being gay),” he said.
“CEOs are rarely bland but also rarely balanced. They have often had extreme events in their background, even a parent dying or committing suicide when they are at an early age or facing extreme poverty.”
Tappin said it is often important for CEOs to rebalance their priorities.
He said the overall aim is to put the CEO in a position to make the right decisions when he or she has to.
“They face a lot of pressure and it is a very lonely job. They invariably have three or four big points in a year where they have to make critical strategic decisions and they have to get most, if not all of them, right.
“Some of my role might be talking through those decisions since they might not have anyone else to do that with. The CEO has to think about all the implications, balancing the long and short term and the interests of all the different stakeholders.”
Xinfu not only works with CEOs but whole management teams as well. The company also uses a number of professionals. “We try and bring in a whole range of skills where we can. We have a strong team to draw on.”
Tappin said he has been very heavily influenced by Sir John Harvey-Jones, the late former chairman of ICI and another TV management guru.
“He actually mentored me for five years in my business career and he helped me through a boardroom battle, which I actually lost. He was a brilliant man of great integrity and the best mentor I have ever had in my life.”
Steve Tappin says there is much the West can learn from the Chinese business arena.