Op-Ed: The Changing Faces of Huawei

Huawei has an interesting leadership model. Photo: Wikimedia

Huawei’s innovative leadership style could help us ask some questions as to how we build and innovate in Africa.

By Nnamdi Oranye

The tech world is changing. It’s no longer being dominate by Silicon Valley, but instead there’s a shift happening. Huawei is an example of this shift in the mobile phone space. And its approach to leadership is a very interesting case study, especially when we consider African innovation.

Eight of the world’s top ten smartphone brands now come from China. Huawei is one of them. When Ren Zhengfei, an ex-military officer, formed Huawei in 1987, it sold telephone exchange equipment (PABX systems) from Hong Kong. Now it is a worldwide conglomerate and in many cases a worldwide phenomenon. Originally a typical Chinese “copycat”, the company is rather now known for producing quality, innovative products that are challenging the very perception of “made in China” itself.

Much digital ink has been spent writing about its products, and this is a topic worth talking about. But I want to look at its leadership style. Because its approach to innovation even boils down to its leadership style, where it is challenging traditional approaches. About 98.6 percent of the company is employee-owned, with only 1.4 percent owned by founder Ren Zhengfei himself.

Challenging perceptions

But where it really challenges perceptions is with its CEO model. It rotates CEO’s every six months. And that has proved to be a fascinating way of doing business, elevating the brand and its overall vision over and above a personality who we always seem to believe must be the driving force or hero of the organisation.

I think there is strength to a personality who represents an organisation and provides it leadership and personality, but it might not be the only way to do things – and is it also the best way to do things in Africa? I’m more interested in throwing this question out than drawing any lines in the sand. I just think we really ought to challenge ourselves and innovate not only in technology but also in leadership.

Strengths of the model

So let’s examine the reasons (and strengths) of the Huawei model. Zhengfei, the founder of Huawei, believes that if a company only has one CEO for a long time and that CEO passes away, the company is pretty clueless about its business direction – at least for awhile. He has a point. Look at Apple. It is still wavering without Steve Jobs’ vision. Perhaps you disagree, but it does appear that the edge of innovation is not what it used to be. Huawei, however, has developed a vision that seems to continue to perpetuate outside of its CEO – and that should create better longevity.

Apparently, the idea for this comes from how ducks. When flying in a “V Shape” together, ducks regularly change who is leading in the front. They’re all going the same place but they change who is leading them, giving that duck some space to rest. I think of how some CEO’s seem to be under so much pressure, for so many years, and who could have stayed much longer as a leader if they just had some space to rest and reflect a bit.

Zhengfei downgraded his own influence

This interesting model is all made possible with how Huawei is structured. Zhengfei has purposefully downgraded his own influence, keeping decision-making power under company control. No outside investor is able to gain relative control, so the company is under less pressure from the market when it comes to its innovation. So it can experiment in ways others can’t. Shareholders like a personality at the front that they can trust and come to know. But in this case, they would need to trust the vision of the company over a personality.

I find this a fascinating idea. Look at how Uber has been affected by the antics of its ex-CEO Travis Kalanick. What will become of Facebook without Zuckerberg? And when Bill Gates passes, will Microsoft continue to remain the pillar that it is? While individualism surely helps to generate strong leaders, there’s always a question of sustainability — that too much rides on single leaders, and that community flounders and vision vanishes when those leaders are taken out. I think we can do better if we look at the strengths of who we are and think about leadership and entrepreneurship in our context more seriously.

Innovating around African leadership

I’m not saying we need to adopt Huawei’s six-month CEO rotation programme, although it might be worth some organisation’s doing that. But my thinking revolves around African leadership, and how we can innovate in that space. Are we truly creating an African style of leadership in our business structures, or are we importing other cultures? Do we truly lean on the strengths of our own cultures?

Would Steinhoff’s crisis have happened if we didn’t invest so much into a personality, but more into the company itself? Would any personality feel like they can cut corners or just make calls without accountability if they knew that their time was short and they were going to pass things on to someone else? I think these are all good questions to consider. Within them, we might find an innovative answer to how we lead in the future. And as we all know, we need leadership in Africa!

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