In China, It’s the ‘Year of the Manager’

Motorola’s opportunity: to triple its Chinese workforce by the year 2000. Motorola’s problem: How to teach 10,000 Chinese the basics of business.

Leo Burke of “Motorola University” has a problem. At roughly $2 billion in sales, Motorola China Electronics Limited (MCEL) is already one of the biggest global companies in the People’s Republic. The pagers, cell-phones, semiconductors, and other mobil communications equipment the company makes feed a market that is only going to grow. Official government policies call for Chinese telecommunications to achieve parity with the developed world by the turn of the century.


By the year 2000, that means, MCEL expects to triple its Chinese national workforce from 3,500 to 10,000. These new hires will be mostly middle managers and technical people, not laborers; telecom equipment is made by computer integrated process technologies, not by hand. But as an internal Motorola University document recognizes, China has “a shortage of management talent in the labor supply.” MCEL has been plugging the hole with more than 100 U.S. expatriates, stationing them in Beijing and the plant complex in Tianjin to the east. This reliance on expats has slowed down the company’s strategy of “localization” — relying on Chinese managers who are closer to and more imaginative about local market opportunities.

Besides, expats are expensive. Western-style apartments in Beijing cost $10,000 a month; add to that figure the cost of salaries, trips home, and the international schools for children. Overall, compensation and support for expats amount to about five times what Chinese employees require.

So here’s Leo Burke’s problem: How do you teach business to 10,000 Chinese? Bright, university-trained candidates are everywhere. But how do you teach customer service, quality manufacturing, profit and loss — never mind the time value of money — to two different generations, each of which bears its own unique scars from the People’s Republic? Those who are past the age of 35, MCEL has already learned, have terrifying memories of the Cultural Revolution and are disinclined to take risks. Those who are under 35 are products of rigid schools that permitted individual ambition but taught that individual curiosity and conscience are signs of impudence. On the whole MCEL’s employees simply want to know the rules; they do not ask “embarrassing” questions.

After Jason Lum, vice president of human resources at MCEL, identified the need for some kind of rapid-entry training program, what Burke and his team at Motorola University came up with is CAMP, the China Accelerated Management Program: six full weeks of classroom work, spliced into 14 months of on-the-job training, including action learning, project management, expat coaching, and rotation through Motorola’s worldwide facilities. The program runs up to three cycles at a time; each cycle trains no more than 15 people. The curriculum includes modules on market economy, value creation, business process design and improvement, benchmarking, and more. It also teaches presentation style, team facilitation, and situational leadership — all subjects that are particularly challenging in China, where improvisation is generally frowned on. For Burke, breaking through that inhibition is the most compelling dimension of Motorola’s opportunity.

You go to CAMP about a mile-and-a-half from Beijing’s airport, at the Swiss-chain Moevenpick Hotel, the center of a compound of several acres — Western-style restaurants, conference rooms, a swimming pool, tennis courts, mostly surrounded by a high fence abutting the new airport tollway. It’s demonstrably unSwiss — with abrasive pile carpeting on the floor, fuzzed-up CNN on the screen, and telephones that crackle in your ear. The windows don’t quite seal out the dust but do provide a nice view of 747s and Airbuses taking off at one-minute intervals from the much-less-Swiss international airport terminal.

Five women and seven men are cycling through camp, all carrying newly-minted Anglo names — “Jessica”, “Howard”, “Boris”, names that, unlike their own, can work in Motorola’s global e-mail system. Simply to make it into CAMP, the twelve have had to pass through a selection process meant to identify the very few who might succeed — and stay with Motorola once they have made it. “Every Chinese employee we train becomes a rare prize for every other foreign company operating in the country,” Burke explains. “So part of the program’s design must inspire a deep sense of identification with Motorola.”


Each applicant must produce nominations and supporting letters from managers, endure individual interviews, pass English tests. Then every candidate submits to a 32-part structured interview with questions such as, “Do you think you make decisions quickly?” and “If a coworker asked to discuss a personal problem with you, what would you do?” From all of this, the camp team works up a complex psychographic profile of people with “high potential.” The algorithms are numerous; few candidates make it through.

“The screening is meant to explore eight skill areas, including cognitive and administrative skills,” says Patty Ide, a Motorola University staffer who devised and oversees the interview process. “It also surfaces such `soft’ characteristics as motivation, a capacity for empathy, a talent for self-organization.” Meanwhile the very rigor of the application process has given CAMP a kind of cachet. “People think promotions will follow,” Ide says. “But we continually emphasize that Motorola pays for performance, not training.”

The group is in the middle of a module on time management taught by a smooth, well-scripted, and slightly patronizing Canadian consultant flown in from Hong Kong. Jessica, Howard, Boris, and their fellow students all seem pleased with his rules of thumb and, when called upon, faithfully recite them: “Every day ask yourself what is `fixed’ and what is `flexible.'” Still, it’s far from clear how long these reminders would actually last in the haphazard environment of the office.

Nevertheless, a new business vocabulary keeps cropping up in the students’ self-conscious English, even without their quite being aware of it. They are speaking the off-hand language of the manager: “defer tasks”, “set priorities”, “delegate responsibility.” And this in itself is a sign of progress.

The next module features a lesson in “influence and communication” run by an energetic Chinese instructor, also flown in from Hong Kong. His main message: to persuade people, you must be able to stand in their shoes. Later he complains in private to CAMP design manager Rich Boucher that the class has been unwilling to pay attention. In fact, the class has been high-spirited during his presentation, full of joking asides in English and Mandarin, some of which were not intended for his ears. This relaxed atmosphere, however, was another sign of progress.

For these young Chinese, going to CAMP is a little like being lifted out of the bicycle culture that surrounds the Moevenpick compound and dropped into the world of high-rise and high-tech, global citizenship and foreign travel. But going beyond the walls of the hotel is an important reminder of how difficult a task Motorola faces, how much young Chinese are being shocked by the tasks of “catching up.” A mere 5-minute walk puts you among gray, rectangular socialist blocs with laborers and street vendors, bags of spices, tables of live chickens and carp waiting to be slaughtered for dinner. A short 20-minute drive and you are in Beijing itself, a city the size of two Chicagos, where you can hardly find a commercial center without thickets of 20-story cranes lifting steel or concrete, energetically obliterating socialist blocs identical to those skirting the hotel.


On every street, black Audi 100 sedans, driven by expats, entrepreneurs, and some government officials, steadily plow through rivers of remarkably calm bicyclists. Neon signs — Goldstar TVs, Motorola cell-phones, the Hard Rock Cafe — flash above the bicyclists at night, even on the Dongchang’an Avenue leading to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, where Mao’s portrait alone presides. By day, at the entrance to the Summer Palace or the Temple of Heaven, eager young boys hock old stockpiles of the Chairman’s “little red book,” usually to tourists, alongside the cloisonne trinkets. Once sacred words, they are now so much Communist kitsch.

It is against this changing cityscape that Burke, who holds a master’s degree in 20th century political thought, sees the more enduring work of Motorola University. “China is the great story of the next century,” he says, “and we have the chance to contribute a part of the DNA to a future business culture.” The curriculum is all about general management education, just as it is about Motorola’s culture, its commitment to the individual dignity that engenders “quality.” It is also, therefore, about the skills and values of what people in the West mean by citizenship, just when — and in the only way — China’s government could permit their instruction. If the curriculum works, it could spread — first to Motorola’s other China programs, then to its suppliers, and then beyond.

P.Y. Lai, the Malaysian-born president of MCEL, links the company’s success in China to a recognition of this kind of historic role. “In China, this pace — development, development, development — is not about getting rich,” he says. “It is about survival, like Japan 40 years ago. The Chinese have committed to a new economy that is destroying the old one — no going back. They need our sincerity and love.”

For Lai, a sense of mission, even love, is not an obstacle to business. “We hardly sell to individuals,” he explains. “We sell to enterprises. Price and quality mean market share — if we earn their trust. We will reinvest all our profits — $1.2 billion by the year 2000. But they not only need capital. They also need technology and functioning markets. Our education is the key — we must teach soft skills, quality management to selected young people and suppliers. Investment means education.”

Bernard Avishai (, is a senior consultant with Monitor Company, a global consulting firm.