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Taiwan's Future Leaders

Building Their Own Stages to Shine On


Building Their Own Stages to Shine On


The future belongs to those who create their own opportunities. CommonWealth Magazine looks at some of the future leaders who will reshape Taiwan in the years to come.



Building Their Own Stages to Shine On

By Ming-Ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 468 )

The curtain rises. Spotlights are focused. Applause suddenly breaks out as the charismatic star appears, his stage presence dazzling the audience.

Many stars live off their charisma. But there is another kind of star who creates his own stage, by constructing the set, installing the lighting, writing the script, and beating the drums to get attention for his production.

The new generation of leaders understands how to create stages. But are there enough of them? In the past, when Taiwan was in the grip of rapid economic growth, the times made heroes, but today, Taiwan needs heroes who can make the times.

Every five years, CommonWealth Magazine focuses a spotlight on the future, searching for young leaders less than 45 years old. In the 100th year of the Republic of China, who are the people worth watching and what social values do they represent?

Tougher to Stand Out in Today's World

During the process of conducting the search, some suggested that finding new leaders in Taiwan would be difficult.

Jack Tsai, a former managing partner with Accenture Taiwan, set up the Taiwanese office of worldwide executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles with the intention of finding 100 Taiwanese general managers for either domestic or foreign companies. In the past two years, his firm has been selected by the World Economic Forum as Taiwan's representative to judge candidates vying to be chosen as a WEF Young Global Leader. The honor recognizes individuals less than 40 years of age for their professional accomplishments, commitment to society and potential to contribute to shaping the future of the world.

"It was really depressing," Tsai says, because while China (23 winners), Hong Kong (11), Singapore (13), and South Korea (4) all had individuals selected as Young Global Leaders last year, Taiwan has not had anybody make the cut in the past two years.

That changed this year when Industrial Bank of Taiwan managing director Tina Y. Lo, Shin Kong Life Foundation executive director Cynthia Wu, and Timothy Chen, the vice president of Business Development and Strategy for Via Technologies, Inc. were all named among the WEF's 190 honorees in mid-March.

Despite this breakthrough, Tsai believes that the rise of prominent young leaders from Taiwan is being constrained, not only because the island lacks a strong strategic position in the world, but also because many Taiwanese in their early 30s are not given appropriate opportunities or stages on which to excel. He estimates that over half of Taiwan's companies remain unable to free themselves from the burden of their past success or are too busy focusing on short-term issues to recruit outside talent for positions where they can have an impact.

Stan Shih, founder of the Acer Group and now chairman of iD Soft Capital Group, sees the issue, however, from a different perspective. He believes that because Taiwan is an open and diverse society, "everyone can have their own place in the world. The opportunities are boundless, but you have to create your own stage."

To Shih's way of thinking, leaders should mobilize resources, talent, and even social conventions in areas that provide the biggest return on investment and fight through obstacles and bottlenecks in the value chain to allow the gathered resources to flow freely and create even greater value.

To achieve that, two conditions must be met. First, leaders must have a thorough understanding of their fields and find within them value that has yet to be fully expressed. Second, they have to be able to innovate, using new technologies, management techniques or organizational models to rectify problems in the value chain.

The future leaders chosen by CommonWealth Magazine all embody these kinds of values.

1. Self-made Entrepreneurs: Rising from the Ground Up

This group of leaders has risen from the ground floor, proving step by step that they are leadership figures in a particular field. Only after earning repute for repeated successes were they able to gain appeal and influence in their sectors of specialization.

When Wu Pao-chun was 17 or 18, even he did not think highly of being a baker, and wasn't particularly impressed with himself. But he was determined to be one of the world's best, and 20 years later he won "Master Baker" in the bread category of the 2010 Bakery Masters in Paris. The triumph not only erased any lingering sense of inferiority, but also gave him the momentum to change the status of baking and Taiwan's agriculture-based businesses.

Wu openly passed on the bread recipe that won him the competition in Paris and set out to nurture potential Taiwanese contestants for the next Bakery Masters. Beyond those moves, however, he also recast bread as a value-added product within Taiwan's agricultural sector to help farmers, and sent out ripples of inspiration to those around him by opening new stores and even appearing in a television drama series.

Another of these self-made success stories is Wei Te-sheng, a movie director closing in on 40 who gained fame in 2008 with the box office blockbuster "Cape No. 7." Wei mastered his craft through his incessant attention to basic details. Once renting the movie "Hill of No Return" to study at home, he drew sketches of the three-hour film scene by scene, imagining the camera angles used, to learn the basics of filmmaking. Then he searched for the story he wanted to tell, waiting for the day his vision could be put before an audience. Today, he carries the expectations of many people who hope he can be among those leading the revitalization of the Taiwanese film industry.

Then there is Vivian Lien, the 42-year-old director of the Industrial Development Bureau's industrial policy division and a key figure in the negotiations on the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China, signed in June 2010. Since joining the Industrial Development Bureau after graduating, Lien has sharpened her negotiating skills in the field of battle over the past two decades, starting with tackling trade deficits in 66 crucial types of components with Japan, then moving to negotiations paving the way for Taiwan's entry into the World Trade Organization and talks leading to four free trade agreements signed with five Central American countries.

Even more importantly, her experience has conditioned her to be aware of the complex voices competing for attention in a democratic society and to take into consideration the interests of all the stakeholders affected by a particular policy, skills enabling her to assume a leading role in negotiations on the controversial ECFA.

2. Pioneers: Transcending Difficulties

Future leaders do not wait for the wind to blow their way or sit around hoping for the sudden appearance of a mentor to help advance their careers. If they do have a mentor facilitating their professional development, these leaders capitalize on the opportunity to soar to greater heights. But if they don't, they are capable of creating their own stage.

Many of them have carved out success in sectors that have been mired in the doldrums.

Taiwan's advertising industry, for example, has struggled in recent years as local companies relocate to China, and competitors have been caught in a vicious circle as they fight for survival.

But the 37-year-old Jennifer Tang, the deputy managing director of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather Taiwan, insists that if you want to survive, you have to be creative.

"The advertising sector has been really stagnant the past seven or eight years, but I want to work with clients to improve the situation rather than get dragged into a price war," says the energetic Tang, gesturing freely to make her point.

To overcome the market's weakness, Ogilvy & Mather Taiwan has devoted more time in recent years to helping domestic companies develop brand identities. It also began last year to capitalize on its reputation for successful campaigns and dynamism by cultivating clients abroad, in the Chinese cities of Xiamen and Fuzhou. As a result, Ogilvy & Mather has not only grown steadily in Taiwan's depressed advertising sector, but also gained a foothold in a new market and now earns Chinese renminbi.

The financial services sector is another listless industry desperately needing to extend its reach outwards. In recent years, Alex Lee, the 46-year-old president of Yuanta Securities, has moved aggressively to elevate Taiwan to the level of a regional player. He has recently recruited companies from other parts of Asia, such as one of China's biggest mobile phone makers TCL Corporation, to issue Taiwan Depositary Receipts (TDRs) on the Taiwan Stock Exchange, helping internationalize Taiwan's capital market.

Unwilling to bow to disadvantages and eyeing markets and opportunities with a new vision, future leaders have come to be their own pillars of support.

3. Innovators: Bravely Carving Out New Domains

Some of CommonWealth Magazine's future leaders have distinguished themselves by bravely venturing head-on into sectors characterized by high risks and the unknown.

Wilber Huang, the 44-year-old CEO and president of antibody manufacturer Abnova (Taiwan) Corporation, was a dermatologist in the United States when a working draft of the entire human genome sequence was produced in 2000, sparking demand for large volumes of antibodies for experimental purposes. The methods used by laboratories to generate antibodies at the time were relatively slow and were unable to consistently control quality, but Huang, after extensive research, discovered a way to apply the electronics industry's control model to the process. The finding spawned Abnova Corporation, which has posted steady growth in the notoriously high-risk biotechnology industry and is now the world's biggest antibody bank.

Then there is Donald Yu, the senior director of Delta Electronics' Voice Division Research Center, who achieved success at Microsoft and Google but eventually decided to join Taiwan-based Delta. His new battleground was the company's voice recognition technology, which had been vainly struggling to find a market for the previous 10 years, and within five months, Yu had picked up an account that generated US$1 million in revenue a month for Delta.

eMemory Technology Inc. president Rick Shen is another electronics industry veteran unafraid to pioneer a high-risk path. Concentrating on technology and R&D, he developed a niche, licensing his company's patents to semiconductor companies, including industry leader TSMC. This strategy follows a business model diametrically opposite from the subcontracting model favored by most Taiwanese companies.

4. Integrators: Creating Platforms, Mobilizing Resources

Some people's strength is mobilizing resources, and they are able to create platforms that unleash the greatest value for businesses.

Chou Wen-chen, the 44-year-old secretary-general of the United Way of Taiwan, has nearly 20 years of experience in the nonprofit field. In the 13 years she has been with the United Way, she has built a platform that has brought together experts and academics, corporations, and social welfare groups. In recent years, Chou has realized that in the new era United Way can no longer focus solely on fund-raising. Even more important are efficiently using the funds it has, mobilizing resources from a diversity of fields, and forging social reform.

Liu I-cheng, the chairman of EasyCard Corp., has made promoting a more convenient lifestyle his professional mission, envisioning a Taiwan where with the EasyCard in hand, people are freed of the inconvenience of carrying cash and better able to enjoy life. Liu has built an alliance of companies in many sectors, hoping to facilitate the use of the card as widely as possible. Liu has also set his sights on promoting it in central and southern Taiwan, where it has yet to gain traction, and has visited many city and county chiefs trying to convince them to let EasyCard Corp. handle their smart card business.

"We even joked with the Kaohsiung City government that their card didn't have to be called ‘EasyCard.' We could even call it ‘Kaohsiung Overtaking Taipei' if that's what it wanted," he said laughing.

5. Networkers: Strengthening Taiwan's Links to the World

In many cases, mobilizing domestic resources is not enough to have an impact. Most future leaders have international connections, drawing strength from the world to create platforms for change.

Tu Wen-ling, an associate professor in the Department of Public Administration at National Chengchi University, has participated in student environmental movements since her college days, frequently taking part, for example, in international environmental conferences while studying abroad.

She later built the Taiwan Environmental Action Network, which is dedicated to raising awareness of local environmental issues in business, government and academic circles, and even in the international community.

Another future leader connecting Taiwan and the world is Hsiao Bi-khim, the 39-year-old deputy director of a new Democratic Progressive Party think tank on the party's China policy. Involved in the party's Department of International Affairs since she was 25 and now its director, Hsiao has built a solid network of contacts around the world.

The future will be the age of the "self-made leader" who can create his or her own platform on which to stand.

Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp. chairman Ou Chin-der believes that leaders should not only develop broad visions but also work their way up from the ground floor. After earning a Ph.D. in geotechnical engineering in the United States, Ou himself sacrificed a high-paying job to return to Taiwan and help build its first north-south freeway, toiling side-by-side with construction workers.

"To lead a major project, you have to begin at the basic level," he says. "To be adept at controlling the big picture, you need that kind of practical experience."

The president of the DPP's New Frontier Foundation, Wu Nai-jen, says that in cultivating political leaders, for example, success is a journey that takes a lifetime. Even though these young leaders have already distinguished themselves, they still face many challenges and repeated obstacles during their careers. But only by being steeled in battle can one be forged into a leader.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier