Candie Jones (Executive MBA Class of 2020) recently returned from participating in the global residency to China, as part of her degree program. She shared some key thoughts and reflections, in her own words:
Why did I pick China? Inquiring minds kept asking me. With other equally worthy locales to choose among for my Darden global residency, why China? Within myself there had never really been any internal deliberation. How could I not pick China? That had been the more pressing question weighing on me. Doubtful that a more business-relevant destination existed elsewhere, I moreover doubted that I would ever take such an intrepid journey on my own. As far as I was concerned, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And with Darden leading the way – with particular focus on global leadership, economies and markets, and operations management – I was determined to take advantage of it.
Landing in Shanghai on a Friday night felt like taking off all over again. Gazing mesmerized out of the window, I savored my first glimpses of a city stirring with just as much familiar to me as foreign. Perhaps overly dazzled with the cosmopolitan bright lights and booming retail, I toured the “Forgotten City” of Shanghai with wonder as we stepped delicately through what felt like another world. The curves and bends of the road, we were told, followed course where a river once flowed. Beneath laundry hanging like canopies and amid gardens hidden like secrets, we wandered and welcomed the smiling faces and curious glances that greeted us. Perfectly content to browse the endless storefront markets and steer increasingly clear of motorbikes whizzing by at every turn, we lost track of time that – for a moment – stood still long enough for us to linger in riches where at first-glance there had appeared none to be found.
Toward the opposite end of a nearly 400 km/h train ride, Beijing beckoned our arrival. With the ancient distinctness of the city recognizable right away, it was hard to decide where best to aim your camera – the architecture, the monuments, everything called to be captured – even the spontaneous appearance of uniformed military men marching in perfect unison. Upon standing in the center of Tiananmen Square, my mind did a double take to a book report completed decades ago before bouncing back to the sobering surrealness of bearing witness on site. From there to the Forbidden City, keeping up gave way to sitting down and being present to the persevering awe all around, daring to be matched anywhere else in the land. Outdone only by the Great Wall itself, it was all I could do to give thanks for such clear blue skies and radiant sunshine beaming down, and acknowledge with historically informed gratitude the sacrifices of all those who labored to build its remarkably enduring construction.
Speaking of mastery of hands and minds at work, what a privilege it was to visit such an array of companies and organizations successfully doing business in China. Fortuitous timing allowed for touring the Winter Olympic Committee Park (formerly the Shou Gang Steel Industrial Park) and the newly opened Winter Olympic Exhibition Hall. In addition to hearing from the Committee’s Director of External Affairs, Xuejun Wan, also speaking insightful volumes was the visibility of its committed approach to being “green, inclusive, open, and clean.”
With no lack of iconic industry exposure to be gained, I felt something like a child while touring the General Motors factory. Finding myself behind the curtain of what motioned like robotic wizardry, I nearly began to perceive the machines as their own kind of creature working alongside us human ones. In other words, it felt a bit like walking through a movie – perhaps just my imagination getting the best of me. Just as fascinating was to learn from Gupta Rajiv, Senior Manager of Purchasing Department, Supply Chain and Logistics, just how different the Chinese consumer is from the American one. Noting that the average buyer of a Cadillac Escalade SUV in the States is a middle-age white male, Mr. Rajiv touted that in China such buyers are on average 28-years-old – a stat that admittedly left many of us observably dumbfounded.
Perhaps even more fantastical was our tour of the Santoni factory, where we observed the makings of everything from knitting machinery to knit apparel, to creatively varied footwear. Facilitated by CEO Gianpietro Belotti, it would not be a stretch to say that he had us at hello. From his engaging introduction, he entertainingly held our attention while walking and talking us through pertinent details of the factory and company operations. However, the highlight of our time together – and the highlight of my entire trip – was spent in the beautiful garden he had refurbished to picture perfect serenity, in which he generously shared his time and wisdom while answering our questions.
Listening to Mr. Belotti champion the reciprocities of distribution that he had found valuable to doing business in China, I became intrigued to gain more insight. Why and how was it that – as the chief leader of such a successful company – he understood value creation and allocation as belonging to all those involved, not only for a high-ranking one or only some. His answer did not disappoint – it was his job, he told us, to influence the very strategy and objectives of the shareholders such that the rest of the stakeholders are represented therein. This, he asserted, is the hardest thing that he has ever done as CEO. And he assured us that it will also be the hardest thing we ever do in the course of leading. Concluding our time together was a wonderful reception hosted in the glorious garden he had gifted, also sharing with us Italian wines and refreshments.
As if our residency in China could wind down any more memorably, we made a final stop at the Brickyard Retreat in Mutianyu. Co-founded by Jim Spear, together we enjoyed a delicious meal and listened to equally delightful stories telling of how he came to create such a wonderous space in such a wonderous place. An enterprise that came into fruition not at all at the expense of the native community already doing life there, but in harmonic partnership and empowering collaboration. With a gorgeously full moon following us all the way back to the hotel, our returning bus ride gave us much needed time for rest and reflection. What a day. What a week. What an experience to return home with.
Exhausted but enriched by the week’s travels, at the Beijing airport I could not help but fixate on a grandmother following the every move of her grandson while waiting for the same departing flight. Finally working up the initiative to approach them and politely gesture for permission to take their photo, she obliged with smiles and he with understandable puzzlement. I adore the photo and see in it my own grandmothers subtly beaming in such treasured moments of embrace. How fitting to part from China with such a beautifully poignant yet embarrassingly simple reminder. That for all of the differences constantly billowing between us – as individuals and more broadly as played out on the global stage – in the most fundamental dimensions of our humanity, we are not so different from one another after all.
In whichever continent or country or community we each find ourselves after Darden, I hope our class traverses through continued walks of work and life with this understanding carried close and opened generously. I hope for us to endeavor and succeed as exceptional leaders. That is, those who in the dealings of business and beyond are committed to discerning and pursuing opportunities of exceptional value – inclusively created and likewise allocated. This is what will truly set us apart, at work as well as in the world.
In closing, I am led to reflect on the same question I opened with – why did I pick China? As with most substantive learnings in life, I find myself pondering away with answers a bit different than those I had walked in with. My Darden global residency in China showed and told beyond the classroom just how possible it is to effectively balance the realities of fundamentally sound business with the diligences of exceptionally stewarded leadership. Especially with more time at Darden left ahead of me than behind, I do not take for granted flying across the world and traveling back home with such a compelling exemplification of my “why” – and I fully intend to put it to work.