Dillon Powers helps Lenovo manage collaborative relationships with Western technology companies as the only native English speaker on his team. In our interview, Dillon shares insights on cultivating professional mentors, using English and Chinese strategically at work, and handling high-impact projects at an international Chinese company:
How did your career in China begin, and how did you get brought on at Lenovo?
I studied history and Asian studies at Harvard and did four years of Mandarin including a summer in Beijing at [Harvard Beijing Academy] and just really fell in love with the language, and at the end of college didn’t really have a very clear career path. But I knew that I wanted to come to China for a period. I also knew that I wanted to be outside of Beijing and Shanghai because I knew that I would fall into the rut of hanging out with a bunch of expats.
I asked to join the Nanjing office of an education company, which they were very excited about. So I did college counseling for a year and my Chinese went through the roof. I was spending a lot of time with Chinese friends, spoke a lot of Mandarin with my Chinese colleagues. I even got to do sales with the parents who would come in and wanted to speak with the teachers and they really valued that I could speak with them directly.
Then I moved to Beijing – I had no clear plan but one of my college classmates’ parents is a professor at PKU and she was very interested in having a native English-speaking research assistant to help her write original papers for Western scholarly journals. I learned a lot about the Chinese healthcare system from an economics perspective and did that for about nine months as I was auditing classes at PKUandthinking about doing a grad program there.
I got an internship at AmCham China, learned a lot, spent about six months there and spent a lot of time networking and learned a lot about how to meet people and build connections. By the time that I was looking for a fulltime position, a friend of mine from my pub quiz team said, “Hey Dillon, I heard that you are interested in working for a big Chinese company. How does Lenovo sound?” I said, “It sounds fantastic. I would love to talk to them,” and that’s where I met my boss.
When you met with Lenovo, did they have a specific position in mind or just say, “Hey, here’s a smart guy. Let’s see where we can fit him in?”
They had a specific position, a new position, and they knew that they wanted a native English speaker. I wasn’t replacing anyone. The company was growing and that was a communications position with the tablet portfolio.
They said that I have to have fantastic communication skills in English and Chinese, that it would involve a lot of writing and giving presentations and managing expectations, both with sales teams in different regions and also when we have sales conferences at headquarters – really building strong ties with them and being able to clarify and justify our strategy with them.
That’s what I was brought on to do. I did it for about two months and just as I was getting my bearings, my boss asked for a one-on-one. He said, “I’ve been promoted to a new job, a new position, creating a new team and I want you to come with me. You’re the only person that I could take from the current team.”
He asked if I wanted to come. I said, “Sure,” and things have really taken off since then.
Now I’m working for a team that manages the strategic alliances for Lenovo’s Mobile Business Group or MBG, which mainly covers our smartphones, our tablet business, and now also Motorola.
We manage MBG’s relationships with our five or six biggest partners. On the software side, that’s operating systems. On the hardware side, that’s the chipset manufacturers. In my day-to-day work, we negotiate with these companies to try to get their investment or their technology into our products such that our competitors don’t get them.
For instance, one of our partners might want to invest marketing or engineering funds. They might want to give marketing and engineering funds in exchange for us building products with their technology, their software, or their hardware in it.
We negotiate for the amount of funding that we would receive or the terms and conditions of what we would be able to sign on. This involves a lot of communication internally with our research and development, with our product management teams, with our marketing, with our legal teams as well.
It’s a very cross-functional role, then also being the face and the representative for the entire business group to our partner companies.
Can you speak to the scale or dollar value of some of the negotiations you’re taking part in?
I can’t give total specifics, but I can say that the deals that we negotiate bring in millions for our company. Some of the other legal issues that we advise on for licensing reach the hundreds of millions. It’s a very exciting place to be and I really don’t think that I would have an opportunity to be at this high level if I weren’t in China because this wasn’t a role that I was brought on to do originally and both of my alliance manager peers are in their 30s.
So I’m the young one on the team and I think it was because I was already there that I was able to transfer over and take on these new responsibilities.
What do you think it is about your work or about your relationship with your boss that they feel comfortable giving you this responsibility, and they were able to find this role for you?
Well, this is one of the benefits of what’s often a very vague concept, the cross-cultural expertise, right? Some of our partners have teams of native Chinese speakers who interface with our team, based here in Beijing, but others don’t. So it’s important to have someone who can really have smooth communication with the Western company in that sense. That was one initial reason why my boss felt comfortable giving some of the big accounts to me.
My boss has been a fantastic mentor and the fact that I accepted his guidance was really what I think earned his trust. That’s one of the benefits really of starting your career anywhere is you can have an opportunity to understand the mindset of an organization that has already been operating successfully.
He really encouraged me to find out who the key decision makers are at the company and try to interface with them directly as much as possible. Find who’s really making the decisions, backend folks who are pulling the strings. I worked hard to do that and my boss is very glad that we were able to get more face time with these top leaders who had previously not really paid much attention to what Lenovo was doing.
Another thing that I think he found very useful was that I put together an analysis of the characteristics of Google specifically, what type of company Google is. We used this as a briefing to our senior executives to manage their expectations for the way that they should be interacting with Google executives because it’s not the same as with some of our other partners with whom we have old relationships. They operate differently. They have a different mindset.
Google is very disruptive and they think and interact with us very differently. So the fact that we were able to provide a framework for our executives and help them kind of achieve their strategic goals was really, really clutch.
That’s fascinating, to have you framing for senior executives what the competitive landscape looks like and how these companies operate – I would imagine it has got to be one of the higher value things that you’ve touched in terms of how that’s going to influence how they allocate resources and their approach.
I hope so. I’m really grateful that our executives came at things with a very open mind because they realize that they didn’t have the relationship currently. So they were willing to really look at ways to innovate from the sense of, “How do we change our approach to these U.S. companies? How can we leverage our strengths to help them better their business goals?”
I speak a lot in English. My boss wants to leverage every opportunity he has to get better English and I’m happy to help him with that. At the same time, it’s good for our team to show that we’re so international – that also increases our team’s credibility overall.
English is the working language at Lenovo, and executives need to have great English in order to move up, so I can use English as a way to get access to top managers who wouldn’t otherwise be speaking to a 26-year-old in the company without a more expressionable urgent purpose.
So if I need to talk to the head of another department, I can go over and have a quick conversation in English and he’s delighted to be able to practice a bit and we’re able to have a productive exchange. There’s no barrier.
Even though it’s absolutely imperative that I am able to understand Chinese, especially for a lot of meetings where Chinese is spoken very fluently and very quickly, I would say that speaking English is often my key to get access to people that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to talk with.
How are your relationships with your colleagues? Do you work very collaboratively on projects or are you on an island in the company?
We do a lot of internal alignment with different functional teams within the company. So this means that I have to have very close working relationships with my Chinese colleagues across divisions. I enjoy being able to talk with them and it keeps my job interesting because I’m always talking and meeting with new people and interacting with them and they’re all experts in their field. So it’s great, especially for someone like myself, who doesn’t come from a technical background. It has been a great way to learn really about all the different aspects of the industry.
I generally have a more open work style than maybe the average employee at Lenovo and that’s something that I’m just trying to bring to the table day in and day out and maybe make small changes as we go. Just have a more open work style where there’s an easier and more comfortable exchange of information.
What would you credit in your approach that’s allowed you to be successful at Lenovo?
I think the number one first thing that I would say is that Lenovo is still a Chinese company. At its heart, it’s still Chinese, especially in the mobile division, which is where my experience has been. They’re trying to grow and become more international but [foreigners] have to accept the company culture as it is.
Be a force for internalization but you’re not going to change things overnight and if you’re not willing to play the game that’s there to be played, then you won’t have a very enjoyable time at a big Chinese firm.
A lot of people graduate with great Chinese, but aren’t exactly sure what they want to do. How did you decide to make the commitment to Lenovo and start yourself down this track?
Well, there was a time where I was a little bit unsure of what I wanted to do and the best advice that I got was do something, right? Don’t flounder in a sea of indecision. I had a personal interest in mobile technology because it has just been growing so much over the few years and has started to determine so much of the way that our entire economy works.
It felt like a safe choice from the point of view that now saying that you work in mobile technology is sort of like saying that you work in the global economy. There is so much that is going on to mobile devices that there will hopefully be plenty of lateral moves within the industry in years to come that might touch upon mobile healthcare or mobile gaming or mobile anything, right? There will be mobile anything, so that was one reason.
While I was at AmCham, my interaction with the different companies that were out there hiring made me realize that I really wanted to be working for a big Chinese firm. I wanted to work for a company that was going abroad in a meaningful way and I also wanted to work in an industry that was going to be very relevant and so it was from that that I really started looking specifically at Chinese companies and also ones that were doing business outside of China.
I focused in on mobile tech, green energy, and logistics and Lenovo is the first one that clicked that I was very excited about. It’s a fantastic brand outside of China and so that’s how I made that decision.
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