With a clear desire to better understand global business, Christopher
Smith (MBA ’01) jumped into work in China with both feet when his employer,
Intel Corp., needed someone with his background and skillset to lead a finance
team overseas. The risk of accepting the new role without any prior experience
in China paid off, rewarding Smith with an expanded worldview and humbling
leadership lessons. During his 15-year tenure at Intel, which he joined
immediately following graduation from Darden, Smith has held various positions
within the finance organization, leading strategic risk management, financial
planning and analysis, and capital management functions. He has been in China
with Intel since 2012 and currently serves as the finance director for Intel
Semiconductor (Dalian) Ltd. Prior to his time at Darden and with Intel, Smith worked
as a civil engineer, focused on hazardous waste site remediation.
Please describe your
time working with Intel in China. What interested you in working globally?
I moved to Dalian, China, with my wife, two boys and our dog
in the summer of 2012. If you’re not familiar with Dalian, I wasn’t either
before this opportunity came up. Dalian is a tier 2 city in northeast
China with about 7 million people. It’s a beautiful city, sitting along
the Yellow Sea.
I had an interest in working overseas for quite a
while. As more and more of our business growth was coming from overseas,
it seemed to me vitally important to have a better, first-hand understanding of
how markets were evolving and how business is actually done overseas. I
put on my development plan — which most of us in Intel finance have — a goal to
get that global experience. As I had frequently been working with our
European offices, I had in my mind something in England or Germany. Then,
an opportunity opened up in Dalian that was almost tailor-made for me in that
much of my prior experience at Intel is what was needed for this role. The
problem was I had never set foot in China. But the overseas opportunity was
there, and it was a good fit for me. I figured I could do anything for two
years. I literally took the job sight unseen, and I’m now in my fifth year
of a two-year assignment.
In Dalian, I’m the finance director for our semiconductor
factory operations in northeast China. We manufacture 3D NAND, the memory
that goes into solid-state drives that most of us have in our laptops today. I
am responsible for all of the finance function at the site, leading a team of
mostly local finance professionals covering financial planning and analysis,
capital investments, trade, and tax functions. I also play a part in
people and organizational development as part of the site leadership team in
Dalian and the finance leadership team for the greater Asia region.
How has working
overseas influenced your worldview?
My worldview has been broadened by this experience, for
sure. I have a better understanding of the governments and politics of this
region and associated policy drivers. We have the American dream in the U.S.
Why would it be a foreign concept that there wouldn’t be a Chinese dream as
well? The rest of the world aspires to continue to grow and develop just
like we do in the U.S. And as the rest of the world continues to grow
and develop, the need for strong trading partnerships continues to grow as
In my day-to-day working with our local team, I’ve gained a
greater appreciation that there are many ways to get work done. Those of
us from the West may be more direct at times than we should be; that was an
early lesson for me that westerners do have a reputation for being too loud and
too direct. Understanding that either my style or the local culture would
need to change, it was an easy choice.
I was surprised, initially, how similar we all are. I
had never been to China before I took this role, and so I had preconceptions
and misconceptions about China and Asia. But as I sit here doing this
interview from a Starbucks in Dalian in a development owned by the same Chinese
company that owns AMC theaters and Legendary entertainment, it reinforces for
me the idea that the world is flat and continues to get flatter.
What were some early
leadership lessons you learned? What, in your opinion, makes someone a
As a foreigner working in China for a U.S.-based multinational
corporation, I view my role a bit like a goodwill ambassador. For many, I
may be the face of the West. As such, I think I need to hold myself to a higher
standard. That mindset has influenced my leadership style in that I’m not
just representing myself or even my company, but I’m representing the U.S. and
the West. I do think about the impression I want to leave with the Chinese
of a westerner.
As a global leader, understanding what the cultural barriers
may be to developing the future leaders around the world is an important
skillset to have. One of the things I found working in Asia is that local
management styles can sometimes be more hierarchical and top-down. I work to
ensure the teams I work with know it is not just OK to have a different point
of view than me, but it’s expected. We continue to work on expanding
critical thinking skills and candor so that we’re helping to build future leaders. That’s
one of the important roles of any leader: Build the future leaders.
Describe a time when
you realized the true value of your Darden education.
The general management focus at Darden was such a great fit
for a job in finance at Intel. At Intel, finance is embedded with the
different business units in the company. So our manufacturing organization
has a manufacturing finance team. Our sales and marketing group has a
sales and marketing finance group. And so on and so on. In these
roles, the finance teams are typically not the decision makers. We are the CFOs
to the decision makers. That’s where the Darden MBA is such a great
fit. We’re expected to provide recommendations to our business partners to
maximize shareholder value. Having that broad, general management perspective
helps you build broader insights to make better business recommendations.
When I think about the components of the Darden MBA, one
thing that I’ve found stands out is the quantitative analysis (QA) skills of
Darden MBAs. My experience has been that other MBA programs just don’t
have the rigor of quantitative analysis that Darden does. In a role where
your success is largely based on your ability to make and drive business
recommendations, those QA skills are invaluable in enabling high-quality
And one of the basic, but oh-so important lessons, that I
learned from Darden was that you have to have a point of view. That’s
something I try to instill in my team all the time: If you don’t have a point
of view, someone else at the table will, and that’s the point of view that’s
going to win the day. But the simple thought of “you have to have a point
of view” is a great starting point for critical thinking and developing some
unique perspectives. It’s been especially valuable as I’ve worked with my
teams here in China to have the conversations on what they would challenge and
What advice would you
give aspiring MBA students or recent MBA graduates?
Another of those important lessons that I took away from
Darden was from Professor Alec
Horniman’s leadership course: That a definition of leadership is a consistency
and quality of action. The Darden MBA is the equivalent of a Disney
FastPass to becoming a leader in the business world. With that fast pass
to leadership comes responsibility. My advice is to think about the kind of
leader you want to be and then be deliberate about becoming that leader. What
is the quality of leadership you’re going to deliver every day? How will
you demonstrate consistent leadership every day?