Lots of companies have operations around the globe, but few are as multiculturally mingled as Lenovo, the company formed when China's biggest computer maker bought IBM's personal computing division in 2005. More than 1,500 Americans joined the Chinese firm's 9,000 employees, forming a new company with major hubs in China, America, Singapore, France, Japan, and India. Bill Amelio, the American CEO, lives in Singapore. Chairman Yang Yuanqing, who is Chinese, lives in Raleigh, N.C. "It's hard enough just putting two companies together," Amelio says. "Imagine doing that with different ideologies, backgrounds, and histories."
More and more companies, of course, are undergoing the same sort of cultural mashup, as American firms scramble to stake out turf in fast-growing foreign markets and vice versa. With Lenovo finally picking up steam after two years of post-merger adjustment, I asked several of the company's top execs how they've learned to manage language barriers, diametrically opposed time zones, and cultural gaps. Some of the guidelines Lenovo has developed:
Find a common language. Mandarin Chinese might be a popular business-school elective, but Lenovo does business in English. "Look, we're sorry that the language of business is English," says human resources chief Ken DiPietro, "but if you want to function in a multicultural world, you have to have that in your back pocket." Employees are trained to avoid the slang and jargon, though, since they add to confusion. And interpreters and note-takers sit in on many meetings, to help clear up language questions.
Slow down. "Westerners tend to speak fast and then listen," DiPietro says. "Easterners tend to listen, then speak." So in meetings, gung-ho Americans are urged to talk more slowly. Diffident Asians are encouraged to be more outspoken. One company guideline: When a decision is on the line, ask participants, by name, what they think.
Rethink routines. Despite many global hubs, Lenovo has no official headquarters. "At any established company, there's usually a lot of bureaucracy associated with headquarters," Amelio explains. At Lenovo, he says, "there's no gravitational pull to any one place." Instead of all the standing meetings and other corporate routines that calcify around an HQ, Lenovo convenes its executives every four to six weeks in different cities around the world—exposing company leaders to different regions and keeping them in the field, close to customers. The company also declares "meeting-free zones" during certain daytime hours, so that employees in Asia or America don't have to take conference calls in the middle of the night.
Figure out what everybody's good at. Not surprisingly, Lenovo's Chinese and American managers have different styles. "The China team is very focused on a set of goals," says Peter Hortensius, who runs the company's notebook division. "They're very metric-driven. The American managers are more general." A 2006 survey of employees, in fact, found that workers on the Chinese side felt the former IBM-ers were somewhat undisciplined. As the Americans got more comfortable with their new company, they began to realize it had strong operational and technical standards, and many of the performance measurements and manufacturing expertise today come from the Chinese side. The Americans brought strong marketing skills and relationships with important business customers. A continual challenge, Amelio says, is making sure good ideas work their way up to the top without snagging on cultural or communication obstacles.
Form one team. After the merger, there were two internal factions—then three. "We were labeling people as legacy IBM, legacy Lenovo, or new hires," DiPietro recalls. "At one point, Bill [Amelio] and I got really frustrated with everybody talking about three streams. We said we need to stop doing that." The company also aligned its various facilities. Lenovo had the feel of a start-up, says DiPietro: "Their offices in China felt like they could be in San Jose." IBM's Raleigh offices, by contrast, "almost felt forlorn." So a new $154 million research center in North Carolina will feature bamboo, stonework, interior tide pools, and Oriental décor. Is it Asia? Or America? Maybe both.