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Teaching executives to be better leaders – and better people

Voices: Duke Community Contemplations
Liang Yu M.B.A.’13

Do you think Super Mario Bros. would be as famous today if it started play at the most challenging level?

I did not know Duke Kunshan University’s “difficulty level” when I signed up to manage its executive education department after three years of study and work in the U.S. However, I soon realized I had chosen a very demanding game. In Super Mario Bros., you always have unlimited lives to start over. At DKU, there is little room for mistakes, as the reputations of Duke and its founding partners are at stake. 

I earned my M.B.A. from the Fuqua School of Business between 2011 and 2013. I wanted to have the best global education in business and leadership development so I could help Chinese leaders step up into global roles after I graduated. The experience was intellectually challenging and culturally rich. For example, in my two-week client consulting practicum in Johannesburg, my team and I advised a South African NGO to sell its carbon offset in the European emission trading market. I knew barely anything about carbon credits then, and we had to figure out how to sell this product in a foreign market and present our recommendations to the NGO founder in two weeks. It was intense. However, there are hundreds of such experiences at Fuqua, which trained me to be a quick learner in order to understand the novel context and the complex expectations of critical stakeholders.  

I landed my dream job at DKU, where I can combine my passion and skills through the startup of its executive education department. In my line of work, we customize executive education programs for multinational corporations and design leadership experiences rooted in their business context.

Most of our clients’ leaders must focus on the Chinese market while effectively understanding the global megatrends that shape the local environment. As I began my work, I had a sad realization that I needed to relearn about my country, as I could not articulate solutions to our clients. I learned topics from economic or health care policy to technological innovation to sustainability. The experience changed me profoundly, as did my Duke M.B.A. I now see China (and the U.S.) from different perspectives and have formed a habit of questioning assumptions about business and leadership orthodoxy. As a result, I have gained a much deeper understanding of my country. I never felt so rooted in China and connected with the world, even in the small city of Kunshan.

With nearly 15 years of managerial experience, including eight years at DKU, I have realized that only people with unique qualities could thrive here, where tremendous cultural tensions exist. I have learned that the ideal DKU team member is not a video game player, but a professional basketball player. On a pro basketball team, players practice to improve team performance; at DKU, a perfect talent also practices with the team to hone the skills essential to navigate global business. These are the necessary qualities and skills we also teach our students – curiosity, relentless trust in our partners, a growth mindset, and full accountability. My DKU experience is a journey in which I continuously reflect on my leadership and teamwork behaviors and try to develop a strong team – like a coach of a professional basketball team does – even though we are ordinary people.

DKU, indeed, is a challenging game to play. However, re-creating higher education innovation in the Chinese cultural context benefits us all. It is not only creating bridges in an increasingly divided world; it is also making everyone involved in the venture a better team player, a better leader and a better person. 

Liang Yu M.B.A.’13 is the director of executive education and government programs at Duke Kunshan University.

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