More Impressions of America
Loyal readers getting tired of this series of posts from recent travels won’t have long to wait before I move on to some fresh new topics, but in the meantime I have a few more observations to share from that trip.
It was great to be back in New York, despite the frigid weather. New York has a raw energy level and pace of activity comparable to what you feel on the streets of Hong Kong. It attracts talented, ambitious people from all corners of the globe. It’s a very competitive place. If you can succeed in your chosen field here, you must be very good at whatever that is.
The statistical side of the story of America’s rebound from the global financial crisis shows some improvement, and grounds for cautious optimism. In talking to people, however, there is still a fairly somber mood, underlined by fear and uncertainty about just how long this recovery is going to take. That’s inevitable when unemployment rates remain so high, with half of the unemployed having been that way for 6 months or more, and with another significant part of the population under-employed: ie cannot find work but have not filed for unemployment benefits, so they do not appear within the unemployment numbers.
One great thing about travel is that it can yield interesting new encounters and fresh perspectives.
One example of this was an informal lunch with the editors of FORTUNE Magazine in New York. The venue was their conference room, and the guest of honor was the CEO of a major global hotel group, who is younger, fitter, and much more globally minded than a lot of CEOs I have met. I won’t mention his name or company at this stage because I’ll be writing about them later. This was a relaxed, off the record chat, with sandwiches and soft drinks catered from outside.
What struck me most about the conversation was the CEO describing how, in an effort to make his top management team more globally minded in the way they think and manage, he will bring the whole top layer of the company’s management — more than 100 people — to China later this year. Not for a 3-day management meeting focusing on the China market. There would be nothing unusual about that. Instead, the whole management team will remain in China for one full month, and they will manage the entire global business from their temporary base in China.
Now that is impressive, innovative leadership showing tremendous commitment to going global and recognition of China’s importance to this major company’s business development. As mentioned, I will follow this experiment with great interest.
Later in my New York visit, I walked across the chilly streets of Mid-town Manhattan to Penn Station, and boarded the Saturday morning 7:37 a.m. New Jersey transit train. My destination was Princeton, New Jersey, a 90-minute journey by train, where I had been invited to give a talk on career planning to a group of undergraduate students interested in careers involving China.
Many of the students are undergraduates at my alma mater, Princeton University, but quite a few came from other U.S. universities. The one-day conference was organized by a student group called Global China Connection (GCC), which has chapters at Princeton and many other U.S. universities, as well as some in China and other countries.
This was the first time in something like 20 years that I went back to Princeton, so I was excited to see the campus and meet some of the current student body. My speech’s venue was the Woodrow Wilson School’s main auditorium. It was a kind of cool to imagine being on the other side of the lectern there for the first time.
My contact person at GCC’s Princeton chapter had suggested the topic of career planning after a discussion with the organizing committee. This suited me fine, for two reasons. First, it’s important and I have some fairly strong ideas about it; and second, because when I was an undergraduate at Princeton there were precious few sources of advice and information about careers involving China.
They asked me to speak for about 40 minutes, which is about twice as long as I would normally aim for, and field questions and comments in the remaining 20 minutes. Since I was the closing keynote speaker, I had some slight concern about audience fatigue and attention levels at that stage in the day, which turned out to be misplaced.
I decided not to use a powerpoint or other audio-visual aids, because I think we’ve become too dependent on these tools. They have their place, to be sure, but nothing hits home like a good story or anecdote to illustrate a point — these are often more memorable take-aways from a presentation than a chart showing graphs and boxes. A robot could deliver a powerpoint presentation. The unique opportunity in public speaking is to utilize human interaction to effectively communicate your key message(s). Also, robots lack a sense of humor, and a good presentation should have at least some entertainment value.
(To be continued next week…)