The following are my response to two Zhihu questions regarding Ren Zheng Fei’s comment about getting rid of employees over 34 years old at Huawei. The comparison I make to Trump in my first response is actually a positive one. However, my second Zhi hu response is much more critical after his follow up comment continued to strongly criticize mid-career professionals. Do you think the comparison to Trump is reasonable?
知乎：如何评价 2017 年初华为开始「清理」34 岁以上的职员？
I don’t know if there’s anyone who wants to be compared to Donald Trump these days, but this comment from Ren Zheng Fei sounds a bit Trump-like to me. Mainly, saying that you plan to get rid of employees over 34 because you believe they are lazy and just want money is an extreme thing to say. However, coming from an extremely successful business executive, you have to think that he’s saying this to try to make a point and shake things up. So from the perspective of an American and as a foreigner working in China, it sounds a lot like something that Trump would do and say.
Just to say, like Trump, clearly, Ren Zheng Fei knows how to build and lead a large organization that is highly competitive and innovative. Clearly, he recognizes that his statement is extreme. But if your objective is to upgrade the culture and mindset of your organization, and to do it as quickly as you can, then this is the type of thing you might say to shake up and change the status quo.
If this comment came from a much less successful and respected person, you might take it literally and be highly critical of the person who said it. It’d be like hearing a dad complain about his kids and say, “My kids are lazy and only care about money.” You’d think, “Well, whose fault is that?”
But successful executives like Ren Zheng Fei know a thing or two about identifying, attracting, and motivating the right kind of people that are needed for their organization to grow and meet its objectives. They know something about creating a winning culture and innovative environment. But no matter how well you do this, the natural tendency of people as they get older is to become more settled and to seek fewer challenges.
Typically, many people start their career with the ambition and drive to be successful. You want to fulfill your potential and do something that motivates and interests you. However, as time goes by, you become less proactive, more conservative, and have lower expectations. This may happen earlier to employees in some companies compared to others, but it’s the reality for most people as they become older and get later in their career. So if you’re leading an organization that needs to remain aggressive and innovative, you do need to weed out those in your company who don’t have a similar orientation.
From my 20+ years running a recruitment firm, I can also tell you that 34 is considered the prime of a person’s career. At that age, you have at least 10-12 years of solid experience. You’re likely at a manager to senior manager level and still are on the upside of your career. If you’re in your mid-30s, you’re still in the first one third of your career, with most of your future still ahead of you. So at this age, many people are still motivated and willing to work hard to give them a brighter future.
I am quite certain that the Ren Zheng Fei has an intimate understanding of this. And I am quite sure that he recognizes what level of experience he needs for the many key roles in his organization, as well as what age most people hit their peak in their career. It’s certainly not at 34. If he said that he wanted to get rid of many people in the company who are over 44, then that would have made much more sense. However, it would have been much less attention-getting too.
These days, even if you don’t like what he says or how he says it, it’s hard to ignore the leadership tactics and incredible success of Donald Trump. Especially if you’re a leader who wants to get people’s attention, he’s a person that is worth observing. The recent comment from Huawei’s CEO is extreme, especially coming from such a successful and insightful person. I’m not saying that what he said is rooted in what Trump has made an art out of doing. However, it does look and sound like something Trump would do and say.
Again, this comment sounds veryTrump-like to me, who also likes to “double down” on something he says that may initially shock people.
I know Ren Zhang Fei says things that are very straightforward. And I don’t believe there’s anything I know about leadership more than him. However, “You become a product of your environment.” That’s the first thought that came to mind when I heard Ren Zheng Fei’s follow up comment criticizing many mid-career professionals for being lazy and still expecting to get paid. You can criticize and be skeptical of people for how they think and act, but you can just as easily criticize and be skeptical of the companies and leadership that nurture and perpetuate their mindset and behavior.
So while his initial comment on this topic made sense to me, I’m surprised that in his follow up comment he continues to make such a strong, one-sided statement about how crap many mid-career people are. Successful leaders like Ren Zheng Fei know that the overall mindset, culture, and approach to doing things in any organization are driven from the top down. And they’ll tell you that it’s the organization and leadership that influences how its employees will act and think.
The classic example is people who work for the government. The reality is many people can’t even get a government job because they can’t pass the entrance exam. So most government employees are fundamentally smart and begin their career being disciplined and hardworking.
Over time, however, you become embedded in a bureaucratic, slow-paced, highly structured/highly controlled environment. Because these daily realities restrict you from being proactive and ambitious, your mindset changes. Eventually, you become less aggressive and more conservative. This will happen to you no matter how self-motivated and hard-working your personality is.
So when you hear a leader say highly critical things about the people who work for them, like they’re lazy and unmotivated to work hard, you have to wonder, “Well, whose fault is that?” Perhaps these characteristics are deeply rooted in the personality of your employees. But who made the decision to hire these people? Who are they being influenced by each day?
Just to say, negative comments about the shortcomings and undesirable qualities of your employees are also a reflection of those who lead
them. As a leader, you hired them. You created the culture and run the environment that they work in. So if they lack the values and orientation that you need from them, as a leader, you have to look at yourself first and ask yourself why your employees are this way.
Actually, you expect subordinates to throw stones and be critical of their leadership for things that aren’t happening the way they want. But you expect your leaders to show accountability, a balanced perspective, and strong leadership and confidence when trying to fix or improve something that isn’t the way they want it to be. That doesn’t exactly come across to me from Ren Zhang Fei’s follow up comment. Again, it sounds a lot like how Trump says things, which is often more bitter, sarcastic, and defensive in tone and style.