Tiger Mom as CEO

What’s wrong with the “made in China” model?

12 April 2011, Tracey Swanepoel

Amy Chua a Chinese American and self proclaimed Tiger Mom (Buy this book here), recently set the cat among the pigeons with her manifesto on parenting the Chinese way.

Without mincing her words Chua cocked a snook at western parenting models which build self esteem, value learning through play, emphasize social skills and develop emotional intelligence.

In her view, play in any shape or form (be it play-dates, sleepovers, drama, art, TV, movies, parties, computer games and even sport) is a complete waste of time. Enjoyment is the result of mastery as opposed to being a pre requisite for it. This is something that she demonstrates in her pre birth decision to make each of her daughters master a musical instrument, to the extent of depriving them of food, sleep and shelter, should they fail to bend to her will.

My initial “call the child abuse hotline” reaction slowly receded as it dawned on me that in fact Ms Chua is doing nothing more than outlining the recipe for raising the perfect employee. The “people as production units”, command and control style and fear driven performance concepts have somehow got a form of diplomatic immunity in the corporate world. Out of that context, the very same principles are laid bare in all their hideousness.

The way we do things around here

It’s a chilling thought that there may be a Tiger Mom in the corner office near you! And there’s no doubt we love them, or more specifically - the results they deliver. Admittedly very one-dimensional results, but it happens to be the (only?) dimension the world cares about. Whether measured in return on investment (ROI) or EBIDTA or any other acronym, it boils down to a financial metric. Of course that metric is important, it is the fuel of our economy, it enables growth, employment and all that good stuff.

In light of our current infatuation with China, particularly their impressive educational statistics (in global tests assessing ability in maths, science and reading, Chinese students scored a decisive first in all three categories - clearly driven by the Tiger Mom type approach) it’s no surprise that there’s a strong drive to emulate their model. It’s even more compelling when stacked up against the prerequisites of our prevailing management style. A match made in heaven! Isn’t it?

What Tiger Mom can’t answer

Not so fast! Like the lid atop a seething cauldron the “Tiger Mom as CEO” model feels wobbly and fundamentally unsustainable. Beneath the lid, questions bubble. Isn’t the very existence of a highly unionised workforce testament to the abusive model? What are the implications for the next generation (Generation Y) who are nobly reared to pursue purpose, passion and a significantly different version of success? Their disdain for red tape, impatience with bureaucracy and general contempt for the corporate world means Y Gen brain drain is a serious concern. What about business itself and its insatiable need for renewal, innovation and new ideas to drive growth? Do we really think that’s going to come from the “don’t think just do” little robots our current model works so hard to perpetuate?

It’s not working

The writing is on the wall even if it looks like graffiti right now. Research by Towers Perrin conducted in 18 countries among 900 000 employees found that nearly 75% of employees around the world feel disengaged at work every day. And engagement is directly correlated with return on investment. Companies with the most engaged workforce showed 28% growth in earnings per share. Those with the lowest levels of engagement showed an 11% decline in earnings per share.

Tony Schwartz author of “The Way We’re Working isn’t Working” makes the case that we are neglecting four core needs that are the energisers of great performance: physical sustainability; emotional security; mental self-expression and spiritual significance (not quite the Tiger Mom recipe is it?).

So where does this leave us?

China’s stats (maths, science and reading wise) are awesome, there’s no debate. The likelihood that therein lie the building blocks of emotional security, mental self-expression and spiritual significance? Not high. Picture an Olympic swimmer gracing the centre court at Wimbledon. Highly skilled? Certainly. Able to win? Unlikely – because it’s a completely different (ball) game.

And yet, the discipline and the focus on excellence in the Tiger Mom approach is appealing. There are echoes of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10 000 hours (in Outliers) here. But for discipline to be sustainable it has to come from within. Externally enforced discipline is only one command removed from anarchy.

Our greatest opportunity lies not in trying to “out Chinese” the Chinese (although there are certainly areas we can learn from) but rather in doing what they are simply not allowed to do - play!

Play is the precursor to all innovation. Through play we develop the ability to think conceptually, imaginatively and creatively. We learn to co-operate and collaborate. Play encourages us to think for ourselves, make decisions and take initiative. It is only through play that we learn how to create something out of nothing – to innovate. Play sparks in us a natural motivation to learn. We don’t play FOR something (unless you are a professional sportsman – and…ah well let’s leave it there!). We do it because we enjoy the activity for what it is.

The results of play? Well, it’s no surprise that Silicon Valley, Disney or Google were not, like many other things - “made in China”.

If we believe that people (engaged, motivated and innovative people) are key to growth and sustainable business success, then we need to start playing at work, not just because it’s fun, but because fundamentally it is the future of our business.

Read published article on MoneyWeb site