Seeking Balance in Constant Change
In a career spanning over two decades, Adam Cui (MBA ’04) has worked in almost every imaginable area, from state-owned enterprises to private and foreign businesses.
There is a method to the madness. From his first job at Sinopec; to venturing into management consultancy at Bain & Co., taking charge of sales in Lenovo’s international department and running the business group for Associated British Foods Group; to his current position in an American pest control company, every career decision Cui made was decisive.
However, no matter the role he took on, something remained, constant, unchanging. “I think a valuable quality of a person is that they can survive and thrive in any environment,” Cui says.
Choosing the Darden School
Harking back to the summer of 1998, Cui graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University and got his first job as a project development assistant in Sinopec.
At the turn of the century, China was still a few steps away from becoming a member of the WTO and embracing the opportunities offered by globalization. However, Cui was among a large number of ambitious young students and enterprise leaders already embracing the desire to learn advanced management concepts from the West. By this time, they were studying in both Europe and the United States and applying to MBA programs in the business schools of international universities.
When applying, he prioritized one thing above all else: The school must be one that highlighted the case study teaching methodology. Cui chose to attend Darden.
In 2002, an ambitious and hopeful Cui bade farewell to Sinopec, where he had worked for four years, and went to the United States for his MBA program. As a newcomer, Cui was hungry to learn advanced Western business management techniques, and everything about Darden’s relatively reserved learning environment was novel to him.
Business students who can withstand the trials and tribulations of the case method are often able to confidently face completely unfamiliar industries and fields in their future roles. In the face of unknown challenges, they adapt and overcome, instead of being stunned and overwhelmed.
Recalling his time at Darden, Cui expressed the firm belief that not only was his MBA program an educational experience, but it gave him the means to overcome his personal deficiencies and prepared him to be a more well-rounded business talent.
“An MBA program can offer you a basic toolset to deal with a variety of challenges,” Cui explained. “Over the past 10 years and more, much of my current management experience has been built upon the knowledge I learned from my MBA program."
The Importance of an Adaptable, Agile Mindset
Cui emphasized the importance of the ability to adapt to different environments, noting his most recent job-hopping experience. After working at Associated British Foods for over a decade, he gave up his position as the group’s president and joined ServiceMaster, an American pest control company that was practically unknown in China.
In the traditional Chinese mindset, "cleaning and pest control" is the responsibility of the Committee of Patriotic Health Movement. However, foreign professional pest control companies have turned this seemingly unimportant work into a big business. After several acquisitions and mergers, ServiceMaster emerged as an industry leader. When the head of ServiceMaster wanted to expand his business into China, he found Cui.
“I talked to him a lot about the uniqueness of the Chinese market,” Cui said. In the United States or Europe, M&A can allow a company to quickly scale and acquire market share in a short period of time. Conversely, in China, due to its unique national conditions, the Western way of doing things may not be applicable.
ServiceMaster approved the company’s development strategy according to "Chinese characteristics", making Cui the first employee to manage the company’s business in China.
On Leadership Styles
Leading a large and complex business at Associated British Foods, Cui realized the limitations of a hands-on leadership style are magnified in a larger corporation. On the contrary, an excellent leader will know how to delegate and encourage employees to make decisions by themselves.
Business leaders who try to manage everything personally have been replaced by “inspiring leadership,” which is the style Cui tries to model. The biggest characteristic of an inspiring leader is they can delegate, and effectively convey their ideas to others, so that the wider workforce can know what the goal is, and then achieve this goal.
“Business leaders should work together with employees, and sincere cooperation and mutual support are key to efficient success,” Cui said. “What business leaders need to do is give employees some values and promote and execute corporate culture.”
The Challenge of Pursuing Reasonable Assessment
Cui shared his suggestions for new graduates who have just entered the workplace. In addition to consciously pushing forward their learning ability, new employees should also master the ability to confront challenges after evaluating the risks, he said.
Every job brings a valuable experience. In the beginning, they should not focus too much on rewards such as salary, instead following their heart and focusing on developing core skills through their jobs.
Industry is also important. Ten years ago when Cui joined the Associated British Foods, the fodder industry in China was booming. The breeding industry was growing at a rate of 5–6 percent every year. When Cui left Associated British Foods, the number of large-scale fodder factories had dropped to a mere 3,000, and it was continuing to shrink.
Cui suggests that young people should focus on industries with growth opportunities when job hunting, not just on the size and reputation of the enterprise itself. In growing industries, investment and production are expanding, and there is huge room for talent to develop.
There’s No Restart for the Game of Life
An avid video game enthusiast, Cui notes that life is different from games. There is no restart. Of course, one thing he will never regret is that he chose to study in the United States and at Darden. He said that if he had not gone to the United States, he would have stayed at Sinopec and climbed the career ladder step by step.
The path of his career life would have been clearer, but he would have missed out on countless opportunities.
“Going to America opened a new door to my life, enabling me to explore many opportunities and possibilities.”