The Washington Post

Lenovo’s tale of two cultures

American actor Ashton Kutcher, left, stands with Lenovo's CEO Yang Yuanqing after they unveiled Lenovo's new Yoga tablet computer in Beijing, China, Friday, Nov. 1, 2013. (AP/AP)

When Chinese technology company Lenovo purchased IBM’s PC business in 2004 for $1.25 billion, the firm at once had a massive opportunity and a major challenge on its hands.

It was better positioned to capture the lion’s share of the global PC market, which it already dominated in China. But it also had to integrate a huge multinational workforce of about 40,000 employees as the acquisition brought together Eastern and Western workers with different styles of leadership and communication.

Nearly 10 years later, as it launches a new line of tablets, the company is still working through this challenge—though now with far more experience behind it.

At the heart of the ongoing efforts to create a singular Lenovo culture are Gina Qiao, senior vice president of human resources, and Yolanda Conyers, vice president of cultural integration and diversity. Qiao is Chinese and has been climbing the corporate ladder at Lenovo since 1990. Conyers, an American, came to Lenovo from Dell, where she had led the firm’s workforce diversity strategy.

Their experiences provide interesting insight into how to build a business in our increasingly globalized world.

One of the first times Qiao attended a Lenovo meeting full of Westerners, she had plenty of ideas, but she didn’t say much. The assertive, non-stop nature of the conversation was puzzling to her after years of doing business in China.

“I don’t know how to jump in,” Qiao recalled thinking.

Finally, at the end of the meeting, someone asked if there were any more ideas to share. It wasn’t until then, when explicitly asked, that Qiao felt comfortable speaking up. Afterwards, a colleague pulled her aside and told her that she should have offered up the ideas much earlier, and that no one would have perceived it as rude.

Now that she’s based out of Lenovo’s Morrisville, N.C., offices, Qiao said she has adapted.

“Now I have a challenge when I go back to China,” she jokes, because she’s become so accustomed to the American style that her approach comes off as aggressive.

Conyers said that Qiao’s experience has stuck with her and helped guide her own behavior. When she’s facilitating a cross-cultural meeting, Conyers will often directly ask Chinese attendees to chime in, since she has learned they might not otherwise be comfortable doing so.

This mutual learning was an example of the kind of discovery that had to happen at all levels of the company. Even Lenovo’s top leaders took a class to help identify such differences and talk about them frankly. And the executive team, comprised of nine people of six nationalities, makes an effort to constantly rotate the location of its regular meetings so as to increase exposure to one another’s culture.

This year, Lenovo achieved its long-time goal of surpassing HP and Dell to become the world’s largest PC maker. Lenovo in part attributes that ascendence to the varied perspectives its leadership team brings to the table.

“The decision-making process takes longer,” Qiao said. “But the quality of the decision becomes very high. ”

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.

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