Seeing below the surface

A couple of years ago, Dave and I attended an Intel CEO Forum event in Beijing. We always looked forward to these events because of the quality of the content and the caliber of the attendees. Annually, Intel went to great effort to bring together the CEOs of its investee companies to both deliver information about its strategy and allow CEOs to mix and mingle in an atmosphere that was conducive to forging business relationships. Intel was and remains a large investor in the technology sphere with investments literally spanning the globe. These CEO events were top-notch, and it was clear the level of attention and focus that Intel paid to making them worthwhile experiences for attendees.

Two man exchanging money under a table

The Beijing event was the first time that the Forum had been held outside the United States. The China World Hotel was the conference hotel and offered both great accommodations in the hotel rooms and the conference facilities. The food and all of the amenities were perfect for a western palate. It was clear that hosting international visitors was something that the hotel had done many times and had perfected.

The conference itself was up to the usual standard. The agenda was engaging, the speakers were well prepared and the pace was perfect. One part of the program offered the opportunity to visit some government R&D labs or a university responsible for training all government bureaucrats. Dave chose the labs, and I went to the university.

Seated in the audience along with a few hundred other Forum attendees, I was immediately impressed by the head of the university who spoke to us at length without notes, seated in an armchair in the middle of the stage in a large auditorium. He spoke near-perfect English as he carefully explained the university’s origins and mission. It was interesting to learn about the devotion to education and investment in people as this huge country attempted to modernize and bring its people into the global community and economy. Then, about 15 minutes into the presentation, everything changed. The speaker’s voice lowered, his eyes narrowed and his index finger repeatedly wagged at the audience as he began a section of his speech that started with an abrupt “You people.”

At first, it was hard to appreciate what was happening, but the more he spoke, the more it became clear. He was chastising us westerners for all manner of behavior, bad acts and circumstances. The strange thing was that he clearly didn’t know that many in our group were CEOs of companies headquartered outside North America, reflective of the significant geographic diversity in the Intel investment portfolio. We were all painted by a negative brush as westerners.

Immediately after the formal presentation I spoke to a couple of attendees, and our conclusions were the same – over the prior 2 days at the conference we had been lulled into seeing everything on the surface and assuming that everything was as we saw it. The hotel rooms were western. The menu and services were as we would find them in North America – or better. The conference facilities offered a wonderful venue for a familiar event, at least equal to any North American facility that had been the host location. But clearly, many philosophical, economic and political issues were right below the surface that caused this senior bureaucrat to attack and vilify us as a group.

This was a good wake-up call for me to never be too complacent or accepting of what I see and experience – the lulling needs to be over. Asking questions is key. What are the potential other issues at play? How might the other party be motivated differently than I? What is left unsaid that is critically important to a full and deep understanding of the situation?

While we may accept what we are seeing and hearing, it is always worthwhile to exercise a filter that validates our assumptions and understandings. As the passengers on the Titanic learned all too well – much is often below the surface, and it can hurt you.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.