Leadership Lessons In Chicken Feet

How to run a successful team in China.

I was newly in Shanghai, China to run the subsidiary of a global, public company. I have traveled and lived in almost every region of the world, but at that time I had very little experience in Chinese culture. We had just finished another important business lunch where I had eaten everything that was put in front of me. One of the senior, Chinese managers and I got to talking about chicken feet. I asked her why it was considered such a delicacy. Her answer opened my eyes to the world of managing people in China.

To me chicken feet were rough, rubbery, hard to chew, and only had flavor from the sauce they were in. I didn’t see the point. In Western culture, we are highly connected to the immediate. What does it taste like, look like, how easy is it to eat? We also value expediency in finishing a meal. We care about balance of food types, calories and how it makes us feel. Food is pleasing to the taste buds and nourishing but has little meaning beyond what is on the plate.

Having suffered on average one famine per year for the last 2000 years, China puts high importance on communally sharing every edible part of every animal. Additionally, Chinese use all of their senses when they eat. They serve highly fragrant and pungent food and make sure there is a variety of color being served. It is also important to know the affect the foods will have on the body; Chinese drink hot water because they believe it aids in blood flow and kick starts the digestive system.

The senior manager told me she thinks about the taste and the feel of the chicken feet skin on her tongue. She takes her time and uses her teeth and her tongue to try to move the skin from the cartilage. It makes her slow down and think about what she is eating while focusing on those around her and being grateful for the food. She ate chicken feet in the greater context of the experience.

A coach I was using to help me be an effective manager and leader in China told me that managing Chinese people requires a shift from traditional western thinking. Chinese are more contextual. After hearing about chicken feet and how the senior manager ate it, I finally understood how to manage staff effectively in China.

The subsidiary was young and had ambitious growth goals that would require a lot of change. After I understood the keys to leading a business from a Chinese perspective, I stopped to explain every new initiative in both the greater context of why and in the details of how, where, what and when. And I gave the senior managers time to absorb it and to relay it to the staff below them. Basically, I gave them time to chew on it so that we could all enjoy the benefits together.

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Steph Barry

Company Growth Specialist | Board Advisor | Women’s Professional Success. stephbarryinc.com