Few foreigners have had the opportunity to run Chinese organisations, and when they have been given the task it has not always proven an easy experience. Just ask Bill Amelio, the American who ran Lenovo between December 2005 and February last year. Unable to merge his Dell-bred business ethos with the PC maker’s Chinese management culture, Amelio was dismissed. In his stead the company’s founder, Liu Chuanzhi returned.
The latest man to discover the difficulties of ‘managing China’ is a French fencing coach. After an initial burst of success, Christian Bauer was notably absent from this year’s Women’s Sabre World Cup in Tianjin. And it soon emerged why: state media reported that he’d left the country, resigning from his head coach position.
Bauer – known as the ‘Sabre Godfather’ – had led France to a fencing silver in the Sydney Olympics. He was then headhunted by a China team keen to sharpen their rapiers ahead of the Beijing Olympics. Bauer delivered: Zhong Man became the first Chinese to win a men’s fencing gold, and the women’s team won group silver.
“The moment I knew Bauer left, I was very shocked,“ says his protege, Zhong Man. “His departure is a loss for everyone.“
Bauer was not the only foreign coach to be lured east ahead of the 2008 Olympiad – Jonas Kazlauskas from Lithuania was also made basketball coach. But Bauer renewed his contract afterwards, and was expected to stay on till the London Olympics in 2012. So what happened?
WiC has discussed China’s sports management system before (see WiC14). Insofar as talent management goes, the vaguely Stalinist regime doesn’t necessarily sit well with foreign coaches. And in explaining the European’s hasty departure, the head of the system‘s fencing department, Ji Daoming seemed to agree: “Bauer couldn’t quite understand the local culture, customs, and administrative regulations in working and communications. Working and living in a completely strange environment for a Westerner causes him difficulties.”
Ji added that Bauer concluded that he would not be able to repeat his earlier successes in London – especially after the Chinese mens team finished 15th in the Sabre World Cup in Tunisia last month. There had also been a spat between the Frenchman and veteran female fencers, Tan Xue and Wang Jingzhi.
An insider told the Beijing Legal Times that if a team member made even a small mistake Bauer “would criticise that player ruthlessly, and over time the gap between him and the team got deeper.”
Ji seems to concur: “Our athletes are relatively restrained, and coupled with the language barrier, it is difficult for him to integrate into the team or understand what the players really think.”
Many in the local media think that politics within the General Administration of Sports didn’t help either. After the Beijing Olympics, fencing fell under the sway of Pan Zhishen, who step-by-step weakened Bauer’s influence, commentators reckon. A battle over whether the fencing team could take a Christmas break was one seemingly innocuous area where Bauer was outmanoeuvred.
Bauer, in his own defence, has acknowledged there are different management approaches in China and the West, and that there were communication problems in the team. “To succeed, the team and the coach must absolutely trust each other. Maybe the situation now is that there are too many people making speeches, so the athletes do not know who to listen to. I know there are some who may not like me. “
Defiantly pointing at his own red shirt, Bauer told reporters “If the coach says this is green, not red, then team members cannot say it is red.“ Whether such a management philosophy can be labelled a Western one is doubtful. If anything, Bauer’s colourful remark sounds uncannily similar to the management style of Mao Zedong.
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