In our recent interview with Ming Chen, Chief Culture Officer at EF Education First, we take a deep dive into the essence of culture in the world's largest privately-held education company. EF specializes in language training, educational travel, academic degree programs, and cultural exchange. As a 55-year old entrepreneurial company, EF has over 50,000 people across 600+ offices and schools in more than 100 countries. Ming runs EF's global marketing, branding, communications, and propaganda based in Hong Kong. She has extensive experience in international and Chinese consumer marketing.
Before joining EF, Ming worked in television at Star TV Network and Turner Broadcasting. She has co-authored three children's books (Sassparilla's New Shoes, Ling Ling Looked in the Mirror, and most recently Escape: One Day We Had To Run), she blogs, and has run 73 (!) marathons and counting. Ming is a board member of the Keswick Foundation that funds non-profits in Hong Kong and China. Ming holds a BA from Harvard University with a concentration in East Asian Studies and MBA from Harvard Business School.
Henrik Totterman (Henrik): Hello Ming, it's great to have you here. I'm pleased to interview you. I've known you for several years, and in your role at EF, you inspire all of us worldwide. With that, I want to start with my first question, which relates to Creactive Leadership. I've been observing leadership for a long time, and I am a big fan of creativity. At the same time, I think creativity in leadership is not enough. You also need to be action-oriented and put things into place; otherwise, it's just mere art. So with that, my first question to you is: How would you define your leadership style?
Ming: It's interesting because when I was preparing for this, I read a Harvard Business Review article about a tech woman who described her leadership style as problem-lead leadership. She didn't seek to manage people or lead or inspire people because she didn't define her personality type in that fashion. Instead, she felt like she could attract the right people by solving complex problems, mainly since she worked in tech. You know, you take a big hairy situation and get the best people to solve it, which is the kind of leader she was.
I wouldn't say I'm that type of problem-led leader, but she made me think about the other leadership styles, so you talk about creative leadership, and there are people leaders and political leadership. Then there are highly charismatic leaders, and what I like to call very inelegantly the high-up-the-totem-pole leaders, and people who are promoted to a leadership position based on their performance at work. I would call myself the open office type of leader. At EF, a completely open office plan is quite literally right in front of my desk. We've always had that type of leadership. People do not have assistants, I don't have an assistant, we do not have our own offices per se, and I think that's the leadership style that we thrive in.
Henrik: Excellent. My second question is: Why do you see an increasing need for Creactive Leadership? For instance, I like what you just mentioned about your open plan and being very approachable for your team and all of that, and I think that resonates well with Creactive Leadership.
Ming: I don't know whether you listen to the same things, but that word comes up when you think about advertising or when expressions in social media have an authentic connection to audiences. Authenticity in leadership might be overused. Still, I think it's very accurate in leadership that the more genuine you feel a person is, the more likely you are to believe them and connect with them.
Henrik: Thank you. I want to move on to discuss innovation and strategy. My first question is: How can we in a primarily disrupted world maintain a positive outlook, direction and keep a winning concept current?
Ming: Okay, I have to be honest with you. It has been very brutal in our business in the past two years. I'm sure a lot of the people you've interviewed have said the same thing. We are in the education and travel business. Both have been really, really hit hard worldwide, so not one person in any country hasn't suffered a commercial blow. I think that's really tough, and I believe you have to recognize that people are human beings. They combine work with life, and you must look at both elements during this Covid pandemic and consider both sides. You know, for myself, I've stayed sane by exercising and making sure to do it before going to the office or after the office to have stability. Some people have been working from home, so going outside to take a walk or making sure that your desk is somewhere you can actually see out will help. So it's little human touches that help to keep a positive mental outlook.
Henrik: Thank you, and then my next question is: Any advice on data collection and analysis, especially for companies that are just waking up to the quest for generating business intelligence?
Ming: Well, obviously, there's been a tremendous digital transformation which hasn't been so much a transformation for us, but more of a tsunami because we had to pivot all of our in-person students. So I would say we pivoted about 300,000 students online in China ASAP within two weeks, so you get a sense of the scale. Generally speaking, the first thing is to be super practical because data for data's sake doesn't work. We have business analysts and intelligence analysts collecting data based on our global student body. Data needs to have an efficient application to customize what you offer, target the people who want your services or build a new product. Those are the three ways that I think we should use data.
Henrik: Excellent, awe-inspiring numbers, huge volumes, and I can imagine what it implies to turn around in just a couple of weeks. My next question is: With Creactive Leadership and overall performance in mind, what kind of key performance indicators do you favor?
Ming: As a leader, I think there are two types of KPIs. One is how your customers feel, and one is how your employees think. Let's say, for your customers. I believe that if you're doing the right thing, you have word of mouth, and that is the most beautiful KPI that any company could get that offers a service like ours. For employees, I think that retention is a good KPI.
Henrik: Excellent, and now I would like to move to my second section, and it's about compliance and intrapreneurship, so talent more generally. The first question is: Can you provide examples of employee engagement and corporate innovation activities? How does this impact overall well-being and retention?
Ming: One of our major divisions, Language, ran an entrepreneurship summit. So Language was forced to hibernate about 30% of their staff during Covid because everything was closed, all borders were closed, nobody could travel. We had a tough, tough time. We decided to run an entrepreneurship summit, which gave teams of four the opportunity to come together and figure out how you would innovate in our space. It was interesting. For some of the ideas that came out, we offered $50,000 for implementation. The winning idea was actually: 'let's use TikTok,' I mean very specifically, for us to communicate better with our customers. That sounds very basic, but it required a pause in the business to look at all the emerging channels and things we should do to reach our customers.
Henrik: Thank you, a great example of turning hardship into an opportunity to innovate and engage everyone in that process. The next question is: How are companies safekeeping their intellectual properties and keeping their knowledge base intact in your industry?
Ming: One is that we listen closely to our clients and customers. We have people on the phones talking to customers or potential customers every day. So really listening to what they're saying and listening to what they want to buy is a very pragmatic way of approaching, you know, keeping ourselves current. Also, we pay close attention to the channels. In every single market that we have, we have different tracks. We started as a direct mail brochure company in 1965, but now you know we're online, and I work closely with China. China's digital ecosystem is a Wild West, yet a vibrant ecosystem to reach clients and customers. There I think content is super key.
Henrik: Yeah, I've been studying WeChat and other Chinese digital platforms, and I'm just amazed by their connectivity. I can imagine that they're very different from, for example, US or European markets.
Ming: Sure, yes, yes.
Henrik: Excellent. So if we look at the next category, cooperation and impact, my first question is: How are you/your employer engaging with the surrounding society and specific industry?
Ming: So I guess we're talking about how we engage with the environment, and I think the buzzword here is ESG. We have done several things. We are working with the EDEN reforestation project because we are a travel company, and we're very mindful that we cause carbon. We plan to remove all the carbon EF has emitted since our founding in 1965 by being carbon negative every year, starting this year. We are also very active; obviously, we teach English, and teachers are our best asset. So in a market like China, we've worked with Central Western China to provide teacher training, and we do many other activities to help local communities.
Henrik: Excellent. Then my next question is, how are you interacting with different customer segments? Of course, you have been talking extensively here about how the markets have changed during Covid, so I am curious how that affects the different customer segments?
Ming: We just did a deep dive into our Chinese segments. We were one of the only foreign English Language schools in China for a very long time. We started in 1997, and what we have seen this year is an enormous regulatory pressure that has caused this artificial impact on business, particularly in the kids and teens segment. We've also seen much anxiety with our adult segment as more people demand more mobile ways to consume and learn. Everybody in China has a mobile phone, on which they spend much discretionary income. So how do you design a course that fits into a tiny screen? So we have pushed, and I talked about the digital tsunami earlier to enable content in this context. So the question we keep asking is, how do you create the right content and learning materials for this format?
Henrik Totterman: Very interesting. I'm, in fact, now teaching the final classes of Digital New Product Innovation, building mobile apps, and so forth.
Henrik: Totally. So then my next question here in this category is, how do you assess the risks and opportunities when it comes to key partners and suppliers?
Ming: I'll talk about partners, let's say the Olympics. We are the official language training partner of the Beijing Olympics. In one country, that's considered a plus; it might be viewed as a minus in another country. I think overall, we've been the Olympic partner for seven Olympics. Altogether, we've found the Olympics an enormously positive force and point of pride for obviously the hosting country and our employees.
Henrik: Well, that's impressive. Seven Olympics is a long time and commitment, and of course, an essential contribution to bringing the international community together.
Ming: When you talk about risk, in my role, I've been very fortunate to see us launch, for instance, our international boarding school EF Academy, our development of Hult International Business School, which started as Arthur D Little School of Management; and launching our business in China. You know, in 1993, when we sent our first-person, a Chinese-speaking Swede, to Shanghai. It was really interesting because no one would have bet that a Chinese-speaking Swede would be able to open this massive market for us. But back in 1993, we're like, 'well, we have nobody else.' Some people can say that's such a considerable risk, but we said we have nothing to lose. Time and time again, I've come to realize that if we had a five-year plan about what would happen in China, or even a two-year plan, we would never have succeeded there because the market changed dramatically every single year. We were able to grow by remaining agile.
Henrik: Excellent, then my next category is delivery and transformation, and the first question is, how do you prepare and make decisions? Describe a typical process from strategy to implementation.
Ming: So the way we make decisions, you were talking about intrapreneurship before, so I define intrapreneurship as saying that nobody says this is not my job, but they must know three words, and they don't need a fancy MBA for that. They need to "own-their-jobs." So intrapreneurs own their jobs, so from a leadership position, we take an idea and run it through the creative and design team in our Hong Kong global studio. We will have an idea, make it, and then see how the market or the audience reacts. I would say that's not supposedly strategic, but it's how you get things done: by testing and seeing.
Henrik: Love it. How is your organization engaging in explorative activities to verify assumptions? I think this goes a little bit back to the previous and your 1993 entering China example, but perhaps you have some other examples.
Ming: Well, EF Hello, our mobile APP that uses AI to teach English is a perfect example. We have a sizeable tech team developing the systems and keeping the machine running to deliver our digital products. But, EF Hello grew out from a small team of people. One guy developed a mobile app previously and assembled a small team. It was what companies do with skunkworks, and that's how you try things because we have to keep the machine moving. We set up our own little forward-thinking skunkworks team to innovate.
Henrik: Would you say you typically structure skunkworks, or do they happen from an individual who has an idea to move forward?
Ming: Well, in this case, we saw a need to incorporate AI and experiment with how that would work in mobile. A talented colleague used to work for us and then left to go to China and start his own mobile app business before we convinced him to come back. We knew he had the skillset and smarts to do this. We trusted him, and that's a lot of what EF has been able to do in taking risks. We trust resourceful, intelligent people to make things happen. That is how our founder Bertil Hult has opened up many markets.
Henrik: Very impressive, thank you. My next question is, how are you assessing implementation and driving improvement? It perhaps takes us a little bit back to the KPI question, but makes us realize that nothing is final when launched, so how to implement and continuously improve along the way?
Ming: We just launched this hybrid class. Many people are learning online, and one way we want to make it more immersive is to establish a hybrid version. The way that happened was that our ed-tech studio was experimenting, made it work, and now we're rolling it out to the sales teams. So we have to see what sells to improve things. I mean, it's super practical, and you get much feedback from the customers when you try to sell something.
Henrik: When we talk about digital, do you do A/B testing with different versions?
Ming: Yes, that's typical for creative, let's say for advertising, there's always an A/B test, or even when you build products, you know if we move the button here, how does it work.
Henrik: Do you have some examples of A/B testing that you've done that you would like to share?
Ming: I can talk about what we're doing in China and A/B testing. Right now, we are seeing a significant shift. It used to be that 70% of our customers bought the in-class product, now 70% of our customers buy our online product due to everything moving online and mobile. One thing we've been A/B testing, we've always talked more about the importance of learning English versus how our product works. So we are A/B testing different versions of product-based ads, which we call Masterclass ads, by comparing product ads vs. testimony or brand-related ads.
Henrik: Excellent, thanks for sharing. Then I have a bonus section based on four different words. Without overthinking, when I mention the word, I would like you to answer what comes to your mind, and my first word to you is Influence?
Ming: A force for good. Do you want me to elaborate?
Henrik: You can elaborate a little bit if you have something to add.
Ming: I think that influence comes in many ways, and I believe soft influence can be an influence for good. I always think of that as making a positive impact with whatever influence you hold.
Henrik: Excellent, and then my next word is about Agility, and that was a word you used already earlier. But I'm giving it back to you now formally. Please go ahead.
Ming: Flexible and sporty. I would say that's agility.
Henrik: Excellent, and then the next one is Resilience.
Ming: Recovery - Quick recovery.
Henrik: And then the final one is Efficiency.
Ming: Don't be too precious. Get things done. Don't overthink things.
Henrik: Fantastic Ming, it's been an absolute pleasure and an honor to have you here on this interview. I look very much forward to following your Creactive Leadership. You're a great role model for all of us. Thank you.
Ming: Thank you, Henrik.
#growth #people #business #innovation #creactiveleadership