In a revealing interview with Finance Monthly, Lillian, founder of a promising leadership development consulting firm in China, provides an in-depth look into the complexities and nuances of leadership development in the region. With over 25 years of multinational corporation (MNC) HR experience and a deep understanding of both Western and Eastern leadership paradigms, Lillian brings a unique perspective to the table.

She discusses her journey from working with global EVPs/SVPs to coaching VPs, Senior Directors, and their teams across continents, culminating in her current role where she works extensively with entrepreneurs and MNC executives in China. Lillian's approach blends her extensive corporate experience with her expertise in executive and team coaching, addressing the specific needs of both MNCs and local Chinese companies.

This comprehensive interview delves into the intricacies of leadership development within the context of Chinese organizations, exploring how cultural factors like Confucianism and collectivism shape leadership styles. Lillian offers insights into the challenges and opportunities unique to the Chinese market, including the integration of traditional philosophies and modern practices in leadership development programs.

Further, she addresses the impact of globalization on leadership styles, the role of technology and digital platforms in leadership training, and the trends she foresees in organizational leadership development in China. Her advice to young professionals aspiring to become effective leaders in this rapidly evolving landscape is both practical and profound, emphasizing the importance of lifelong learning, empathy, and a global mindset.

Lillian's interview is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the dynamic world of leadership development in China, offering valuable lessons for leaders and organizations worldwide.

About Lillian Zhao


Lillian is the founder of a leadership development consulting firm. She is an Executive Coach, Team Coach, and Leadership Development Consultant. She is working with entrepreneurs/MNC executives on 1-on-1 coaching and with their teams through team coaching and leadership development programs to help them solve business challenges, achieve personal growth, improve team performance, and upgrade collective leadership.

She had many years working with ASML global EVPs/SVPs and coached many VP/(Sr.)Directors and their teams in different countries. She was the first Asian female Director and led the Asia HR team and global project team to support the Asia Region and global BU in realizing their business goals.

Overall, she has 15+ years in organizational leadership development, of which ten years were spent in Asia and other continents as a Corporate HR Executive. During the past 5+ years, she has been in China as an Executive Coach, Team Coach, and Leadership Development Consultant. In the past 5+ years, she has been working with MNCs and local Chinese companies, big Chinese giants companies like Alibaba, Baidu, Meituan, etc., and SMEs across industries. She is coaching owners of SMEs, entrepreneurs, and executives in local Chinese companies and MNCs. She is working with management teams in different companies to improve their team performance and collective leadership. She designs and delivers leadership development programs that incorporate and integrate diversified learning approaches and key elements needed for the development of adults. Moreover, she provides opportunities to facilitate groups of entrepreneurs to meet and learn from each other and to grow together.


Lillian, how do you define leadership development within the context of Chinese organizations? What are the key differences you observe in leadership development practices in China compared to Western countries?


Leadership development in China means "leader development." It talks more about a leader's leadership, while leadership is something that can be demonstrated and shown not only by leaders but also by all employees.

When I talk about leadership development practices in China here with this interview, I refer more to those non-giant local companies (not MNC in China nor giant Chinese companies like Huawei, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi, Haier, Mengniu, BYD... big listing companies).

Generally speaking, leadership development in local Chinese companies is much less structured, less systemic, and even viewed as less important by the top management. It is somehow believed that leadership development is practically not so useful, and leadership is less trainable but more born with. Leadership development is less formal and not rare it is spontaneous idea from the owner or CEO of the company. For instance, entrepreneurs may learn from certain channel that Peter Senge's "5 Disciplines of Learning Organizations" is a very good book for building organizational capability, he/she will buy or ask HR to buy one for every manager in the company for them to read and learn and practice in the company.

In terms of the contents of leadership development programs, it is much less comprehensive nor systemic than that of MNCs. It is more based on actual needs at the moment, so it's topic by topic only, e.g., "communication and influencing," "dealing with conflict," etc.

As local Chinese companies are strongly influenced by the owner's preferences, the contents of leadership development may include traditional Chinese philosophies in their leadership development program, e.g. Taoism or, Buddhism, or Confucianism.

In terms of development approach, there are 10%-20%-70% of principles of development well used in MNCs but not in local Chinese companies. They prefer self-learning (which means the 10%). HR organizes people to read the same book or, listen to podcasts of some popular management consultants or enroll managers in certain public courses. Coaching or mentoring, which is the 20% - learning from others, which is now quite widely used by MNC, is not so much recognized and used by local Chinese companies. With regards to the 70%, which means learning by doing, local Chinese companies don’t have the sense to grow employees with assigning them to challenging jobs/projects etc. Nevertheless, it's important to note that these are generalized observations, and individual companies vary in their practices. Also, as globalization continues, there is a growing trend towards integrating Western and local practices.


How does Chinese culture influence leadership styles and development programs in China? Can you give an example of a leadership trait that is highly valued in China but might be less emphasized in other cultures?


Chinese culture has a significant influence on leadership styles and behaviors in China. Here are some key ways in which Chinese culture shapes these aspects:

Confucianism plays a central role in Chinese culture and emphasizes hierarchical relationships and respect for authority. These values are reflected in Chinese leadership styles, which are generally more hierarchical and autocratic compared to Western leadership styles. Decisions are usually made by top-down approach and leaders are expected to provide guidance and there’s no need to invite employees in decision-making process.

The collectivist orientation under Chinese culture influences leadership styles by emphasizing team harmony and caring for employees and their families.


While these values have a stronger influence on the older generation, younger generations in China now place importance on being respected, being heard and having freedom to do things in their own way. This becomes a common challenge for current leadership position holders in China in general (including MNC) - how to lead the new generation who holds different values and has different opinion. Chinese leaders are expected to prioritize the needs of the group or organization over their own interests.

Another cultural influence to Chinese leaders is related to the level of ambition displayed in the workplace. Chinese leaders, based on Hogan assessment statistics and personal observation, tend to show less ambition or are less likely to actively seek out or vocal about new job opportunities. Instead, they may wait for the company to offer or invite them to certain opportunities.

Another characteristic influenced by Confucianism values is conscientiousness. Chinese leaders generally score higher in responsible, dependable, and accountable traits compared to their Western counterparts, according to Hogan assessment statistics in 2020. However, overusing such traits can be counterproductive and may lead to distrust or disconnection between Chinese managers and their stakeholders in Headquarters of MNC.

The influence of Chinese education, which is shaped by Chinese culture, is significant for Chinese leaders. They are accustomed to taking instructions, following orders, and waiting for decisions. In terms of learning, they prioritize practical tools and methods that can be immediately applied in reality rather than theoretical or abstract concepts. Similarly, compared to Western leaders, they tend to ask fewer questions and focus more on giving instructions and detail directions.

Modesty is a highly valued trait in Chinese culture, but it is not as emphasized in Western culture. Chinese individuals are taught from a young age to be modest and not to boast about their strengths or achievements. This belief stems from the idea that modesty leads to progress, while pride leads to backwardness. This cultural value contributes to the lower ambition displayed by Chinese leaders. However, in a multinational corporation setting, this modesty can become a weakness for Chinese leaders in terms of career advancement, as it may hinder self-promotion and recognition.


What are the main challenges you face in developing leaders in China? Are there unique opportunities in China for leadership development that might not exist elsewhere?


The key challenges in leadership development for local Chinese companies include:

- lack of attention and resources allocated by senior management

- weak HR departments to strategize and ensure the success of such programs

- the absence of a leadership competency model

- and a lack of support systems to facilitate leaders to change, e.g. feedback and recognition from their managers.

Additionally, companies are becoming more cautious in investing in soft skill training due to economic downturns and challenging business environments.

The uniqueness of leadership development in China lies in the vast potential of the market and the need for building infrastructure in this area. Setting up a strategic talent management system, which include leadership competencies framework and coaching as essential aspects of leadership development are still relatively new concepts in China. Moreover, the increasing number of local companies entering international markets creates a demand for leaders who can effectively manage people from different cultures and lead cross-cultural teams. Meanwhile, some Chinese management practices, such as Haier's "micro-enterprises" model, may have global applicability.

Despite the challenges, the opportunities presented by China's market potential, technological advancements, and global influence make it an exciting and valuable environment for leadership development.


How has globalization affected leadership development in Chinese organizations?


Globalization has had a significant impact on leadership development in Chinese organizations. One key aspect is that big Chinese companies have been learning management systems from advanced multinational corporations (MNCs) such as BLM, Lean Manufacturing, and OKR. These systems require leaders to be more adaptive, flexible, and able to lead change effectively. As a result, leadership development programs in Chinese organizations have shifted towards equipping leaders with the skills and mindset necessary to navigate global business environments.

Additionally, the exposure to different cultures and people in various parts of the world has influenced Chinese companies to adopt more inclusive and participatory leadership styles. This departure from traditional top-down approaches has been driven by the need to effectively engage diverse teams and leverage their unique perspectives and talents. The emphasis on building strong relationships and promoting collaboration has become essential in Chinese organizations' leadership development practices.

Furthermore, with the increasing influence of MNCs in China and the growth of Chinese companies globally, leadership development practices with global standards and best practices have been introduced and applied. This has led to the adoption of internationally recognized leadership frameworks, competency models, and assessment tools in big Chinese companies and some small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). By aligning their leadership development programs with global standards, Chinese organizations aim to ensure their leaders possess the necessary skills and qualities to thrive in a global context.

Globalization has also accelerated the adoption of new technologies in Chinese organizations, which has further impacted leadership development. Leaders now need to develop digital literacy and technology-driven decision-making abilities to stay competitive. They must stay updated on emerging technological trends and incorporate them into their strategies to drive innovation and efficiency in their organizations.

Moreover, globalization played a significant role in developing Chinese talents. Talent management has become a crucial aspect for Chinese companies due to intensified competition for talent in the global market. Talents who have developed by MNCs in China joined local big or SME companies, helped grow the business and organization. Meanwhile, to build a pipeline of future leaders capable of driving international growth, Chinese companies have started investing in leadership development programs, mentoring initiatives, and succession planning. By nurturing and developing their talent, Chinese organizations aim to attract and retain top talent in an increasingly globalized business landscape.

Interestingly, the rapid growth and success of giant Chinese companies such as Huawei and Alibaba have made their management practices widely welcomed and learned by other Chinese companies. As a result, the leadership development programs in Chinese organizations have been influenced by these successful practices, incorporating elements that have proven effective in driving organizational growth and success.

Overall, globalization has significantly influenced leadership development in Chinese organizations, shaping their approaches, practices, and skills required for leaders to thrive in a global context.


Can you share some innovative approaches or techniques used in China for leadership development? How do technology and digital platforms play a role in leadership training and development in China?


Many SME owners and entrepreneurs enhance their leadership capabilities by participating in Peer Advisory Groups, where they regularly meet and learn from each other under the guidance of a professional coach or mentor. This concept, which originated in the US, has gained widespread acceptance among SME entrepreneurs who are eager to learn and grow.

Online learning has also become a popular choice for SME owners who want to enroll their mid-management employees in basic management courses. These online learning programs can take the form of live stream sharing, video recordings, or podcasts. Additionally, leaders in China often join online management book interpretation or group book study sessions, which are facilitated through apps developed by well-known education and consulting companies. These apps have proven to be a valuable resource for Chinese managers seeking to learn about innovation, management techniques, and other relevant knowledge.

Furthermore, large companies are investing in their own E-Learning Platforms or purchasing third-party platforms to provide personalized learning experiences. These platforms can analyze individual strengths and weaknesses and offer tailored training content to enhance specific leadership skills. Chinese leaders also leverage digital platforms for social learning and networking. Online communities, forums, and social media groups enable leaders to connect, share experiences, exchange knowledge, and gain perspectives from others.

Personally, as a leadership coach, I greatly appreciate the benefits that technology has brought to leadership development. Through online platforms, I can conduct efficient and convenient one-on-one coaching sessions via video calls, without any geographical limitations. This allows me to coach and mentor leaders and coaches from various locations in China and around the world. Additionally, I can deliver leadership development training, team coaching, and group coaching virtually for different companies and clients.

In conclusion, technology and digital platforms have played a crucial role in self-leadership learning and development, and their importance in corporate leadership development has only increased.


How do organizations in China measure the success of their leadership development programs?


In SMEs, there is no systemic measurement at all, not in design nor in implementation. After the delivery of the leadership program, there's not much follow-up on behavioral changes or business performance improvement by HR. However, big giant companies have the same way of measuring leadership development programs as in MNCs - the 4-level measurement.


What trends do you foresee in organizational leadership development in China in the next 5-10 years? How should upcoming leaders prepare themselves to meet the future demands of leadership roles in China?


In terms of leadership competencies, there are several areas that will be increasingly important, particularly in the context of Chinese companies becoming more globalized and diverse, and with the influence of AI in human life.

Firstly, empathy is a crucial skill for leaders to develop. This includes understanding one's own emotions and being able to empathize with others. Effective communication, self-awareness, and the ability to manage cross-cultural teams and relationships are essential in this regard. Additionally, leaders need to adapt their communication style from giving vague messages to providing clear ones, and from telling to asking questions and actively listening. This is especially important when leading individuals of generation Z.

Secondly, diversity and inclusion will be recognized as a valuable driver of innovation and organizational success. Leadership development programs should focus on cultivating inclusive leaders who can effectively manage diverse teams and leverage different perspectives. Very importantly, Chinese leaders should also be encouraged to hire people who are better and/or different than them in order to tackle the challenges of the outside world.

Thirdly, adaptive leadership with a complex and broad mindset will be crucial. As the world becomes more complex, unpredictable, and ambiguous, leaders must prioritize agility and adaptability. They need to be open to multiple conceptions of the world, integrate different perspectives, and respond quickly to market changes and uncertainties.

Fourthly, leaders will need to acquire skills in data analysis, integration, and artificial intelligence navigation. They must also develop critical thinking, creativity and intuition to effectively lead organizations in the digital age.

Fifthly, Chinese organizations should focus on developing leaders who can lead by "vision" - leaders who have a strong mission and vision, as well as strong values and principles. This will help them inspire and motivate their teams, gaining their support and commitment.

Sixthly, cross-cultural leadership competencies will become increasingly important as Chinese companies continue to internationalize. Leaders will need to understand and appreciate different cultures, adapt their leadership styles accordingly, and build global networks.

Seventhly, the importance of environmental sustainability and governance (ESG) cannot be overlooked. Chinese organizations will need leaders who can navigate sustainability challenges and integrate responsible practices into their strategies.

Lastly, lifelong learning and continuous development are universal trends in leadership development. Organizations should invest in ongoing leadership development programs to ensure that their leaders remain competitive and adaptable in their roles.

To prepare for these leadership competencies, it is important for leaders to regularly step back from the day-to-day operations and “pause” to reflect. This is called the moments of "on the balcony," where/when they should think, see and feel wider, longer, bigger, and deeper perspectives and views. In addition, they should intentionally build a supportive network. Working with an executive coach can be beneficial in this regard. Additionally, engaging with people from different backgrounds, industries, and functions and reading books from various fields can help leaders develop their ability to think critically and creatively.


Lastly, what advice would you give to young professionals in China aspiring to become effective leaders?


Becoming an effective leader requires a combination of mindset, skills, qualities, and experiences. Here are some key pieces of advice for young professionals in China who aspire to become effective leaders:

*Find your passion as soon as possible and discover the meaning of life. This will provide you with a guiding North Star to navigate through challenges and setbacks.

*Embrace a lifelong learning mindset. Continuously seek opportunities to improve your knowledge, skills, and abilities through formal education, professional development programs, and self-learning.

*Step out of your comfort zone. Challenge yourself with new projects, assignments, tasks, and roles. Don't be afraid of failure, as it is through failures that we learn and grow.

* Foster critical thinking and independent thinking. In a culture that often values respecting authority, intentionally develop your critical and independent thinking skills. This will enable you to make informed decisions and be an effective leader.

*Cultivate empathy. Empathy is a crucial mindset/skill in today's volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. It helps build strong relationships, enhance trust, influence others, and handle conflicts effectively.

*Develop self-awareness. Understand your strengths, weaknesses, values, and motivations. Self-awareness will enable you to leverage your strengths and work on areas that need improvement. It also allows you to adapt your leadership style to different situations and individuals.

*Be resilient, adaptive, and determined when facing challenges and solving complex problems. These qualities will help you navigate through obstacles and find innovative solutions.

*Cultivate a global mindset. In an interconnected world, having a global mindset is essential. Stay updated with global trends, develop cross-cultural competence, and appreciate diverse perspectives. Be open to new ideas and embrace different ways of thinking.

* Seek mentors and build a professional network. Find mentors who can guide and inspire you in your leadership journey. Connect with experienced professionals within and outside your industry through industry events, professional associations, and networking opportunities.

Lastly, consider reading "A Whole New Mind" by Daniel Pink. In the book, Pink discusses six new abilities/senses that are crucial for the future: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. Developing these abilities will help you thrive as

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