“What’s it like, leading in China?” I get this question a lot. Partly because many haven’t been to the country in quite a few years, or ever. And partly because the dramatic policy swings have gained worldwide attention! So one thing’s for sure: running an agency in China offers a master class in leading through ambiguity! Here are 4 tips that have worked for us:

Tip #1: Look around the corner.

While no one has a crystal ball, we can do our best to understand the past, and identify key factors at play today. With past and present in mind, leaders need to look to the future and anticipate what’s coming next. Some changes may be expected, based on history or what’s happened in other countries. Other changes may be unprecedented, like kindergartens or workplaces being locked down for a couple of days (early 2022).

China CVID lockdown headlines

Coworkers found themselves locked in the office for weeks! They learned to share stale snacks from the pantry and took turns taking “sink showers” in the bathrooms. As CEO, I was most keen to ensure this didn’t happen to McCann Worldgroup, so we constantly monitored the market. And I’m grateful that we got our people and their technology home THREE days before the March lockdown! No sink showers for our people! 😅

Tip #2: Care for all of our people’s needs.

Another unexpected change in 2022 was the three-month shutdown March – June! The Shanghainese were told to go home for a couple of days, which then unexpected extended for months. With few vetted delivery folks relative to the huge population in Shanghai, people struggled to access the most basic necessities like food and potable water.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Have you heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? That’s the pyramid above, which I find to be a helpful framework for considering people’s every level of wellness. For instance, during the lockdown, we didn’t hover in the higher order when our people lacked basics. That’s when our ET or enabling team (Heads of Ops, Finance, HR and me) rolled up our up sleeves and worked around the clock to ensure we could deliver food baskets to each of our employees. Their photo expressions of appreciation made all that hard work more than worth it!

McCann food boxes shipped during lockdown

Tip #3: Exercise operational discipline.

This is a less exciting but highly important aspect of leadership. What are the policies we need to implement for our teams? For instance, the policy just changed dramatically at the start of 2023. Suddenly, China walked away from the Zero-COVID policy and we could anticipate that everyone would soon fall sick. So, we batched our people before the policy lifted, ensuring that every team had some folks who could keep working, while others fell sick. As leaders, we must regularly review our policies to ensure we are aligned with government mandates. And over the last few years, our ET has been on high alert, convening within 15 minutes of any major news or changes to ensure we could design and roll out clear communications and plans. We also recorded a weekly short video to maintain visibility when folks were all working from home.

McCann leadership weekly videos

Tip #4: Maintain a unified leadership team.

While we have the benefit of outstanding leaders, I don’t take for granted that we also have a unified leadership team. You see, no matter how amazing our leaders are, if they communicate different messages, the organization will experience high anxiety. They won’t know who to listen to or what to believe. For this reason, leaders must ensure we are closely aligned on our message. This builds trust, and reassures folks that all is well. This is why, no matter how busy we get, our leadership goes offsite once a quarter to invest in ourselves as individuals and as a unit. At our last quarterly two months ago, we were nearly kicked out of the tea room for being too boisterous!

McCann China leadership team

Those are my 4 tips for leading through ambiguity. Do you have any other tips you’d add?

If interested in life during lockdown, you can find some of my lockdown posts here:

Also, the Wall Street Journal interviewed me in April 2022 about the lockdown and food shortage – if you have a subscription, you can check it out the wsj article here.

Photo reference for Maslows’ pyramid