As part of SRi’s ongoing efforts to promote gender diversity globally, we interviewed the Managing Director of Infront China, Anne Zhao, to offer her own opinions on gender balance in China, and her experience as the leader of one of the front-runners in the Chinese sport industry.
Female leaders in the sports industry are extremely rare in China. In comparison to the sophisticated markets of the West, China is still not at the stage where conversation about gender diversity in the workplace is happening. Zooming in on the sport industry in China, it is still very much in the development phase and facing a shortage of talent. As a result, the Chinese Sports industry does not have the luxury to be gender selective. Managing Director of Infront China, Anne Zhao, discusses her thoughts with SRi on her own personal experience as a female leader in the Chinese sport industry, and the challenges she has faced in such a position.
SRi: What do you think about gender diversity in the workplace?
AZ: Everyone has a different view. Personally, I do not feel that at the management level, there needs to be an emphasis on gender. However, I do support diversity vertically and across an entire organisation. Having a diversified team promotes greater motivation; men and women have varied perspectives and ways of communication and can complement one another. At the General Manager or CEO level, though, I think the emphasis should be on their ability rather than on their gender. For example, at Infront, we have an annual global leader meeting and I am the only female present. Our parent company Wanda also has Ironman, etc. and there were a few occasions where we all came together and other than two females from the US, it was an all-male leadership team.
If we “diversify” at the leadership level for the sake of diversification, it seems like we are sending out the message that women are not strong or capable enough in their own right and need to be “allocated” a position.
Women have their strengths, but I do not think that women should be considered for leadership positions because they are women. There are many female leaders in China. I had this discussion about how women naturally excel in some areas and so while men can do a fantastic job too, many women end up leading in these fields. For example, there are many outstanding male translators, but women seem to have an inclination toward languages and maybe they are in general more open to other cultures; and that is why there are more female than male translators. I think such “imbalance” is normal. For Infront China, up to the Director level, there are quite a few females on the team, which is different from other offices around the world. In general, there are more females than males in supporting functions globally, even in higher management, e.g., in HR, administration. But IT and legal have lesser females. A phenomenon that is uniform anywhere in the world. As for a position as senior as MD, to me, it really depends on the needs of the company – what kind of person does the company need for this particular role?
SRi: What’s the male/female ratio from Director level and above at Infront?
AZ: I think it is about 50:50. It is a healthy proportion.
SRi: Maybe this is because it is a Western company and Western companies tend to have a more gender-neutral recruitment process.
AZ: That is true. I have noticed that this was often the case at other foreign companies I have previously worked for. The male to female ratio was also quite balanced.
SRi: You mentioned that whomever with the right ability should have the job. This is fair. So let’s take you for an example. As you accumulate more experience, your family responsibilities are increasing too. Do you think family responsibilities or societal pressure have affected you personally?
AZ: Besides childbirth, I think the pressure and responsibility is shared. It should not be the case that just because you’re a woman, you should stay at home to take care of the house and children and if you’re a man, you are not obliged to. For me and my husband, we are clear about our commitment to the family and career. He’s a very successful man in his own right but we always make sure to make time for our family equally. It’s all about balance. For example, my husband is currently working overseas so I am taking care of everything here in China. But because we have always maintained a shared responsibility, we don’t feel like we “owe” each other anything by doing more or less.
In an earlier role, I felt like I was constantly working, staying late and getting up early to have video conferences with offices in different time zones. There was no work-life balance then, but this was irrespective of one’s gender; it just was not ideal for any person to be working such long hours every day.
SRi: Share with us more about your career with Infront.
AZ: The initial years with Infront were stressful and challenging, as Infront was not doing so well in China at the time. Of course, we subsequently did really well with the rights, but no one knew how hard it was at the start! We were also practically the sole operator in the Chinese market, with no precedence to follow. We earned the Chinese Basketball Association rights in 2005 and before the 2008 Olympic Games, Paul Wong left. We did try to convince him that things will take a turn for the better… At the time, as Chief Financial Officer, the pressure was on me to make the numbers work. As I had government connections, it was understandable that I became the point of contact, but because the company’s new business development team was struggling, some of their work including negotiating with basketball clubs fell on me. What started off as finance correspondence eventually turned into partnership/sponsorship negotiations. After all, to resolve finance issues, you must first bring in revenue.
I did not think that I would do exceedingly well or go this far in this industry but after Mr Ma joined the company, his experience and knowledge of the sport and industry inspired and helped me tremendously. He convinced me that with hard work and diligent networking, Infront could stand to gain a strong market hold in China. I had the privilege of working with Mr Ma for eight or nine years and it was a strong working relationship. After Mr Ma announced that at 60 years old, he was ready to step down and take on an advisory role instead, Infront HQ hired a new MD, Winston Zheng. He was great but I personally think he did not understand the Infront business. Mr Ma reminded HQ that they always had a Plan B and that “Plan B is Anne”. After a few months of unsuccessful integration, HQ decided to give me the position.
The entire sport industry is evolving; major players are switching up and positions are constantly transforming to meet today’s business and consumer demands.
Unlike when it first started, Infront now faces fierce competition and our greatest challenge is maintaining our leader position in the market. Our partnership with CBA is going well; Yao Ming is very smart and he has been managing and strategizing football in China very well. He has also been maintaining open communication lines with us. We have been receiving extremely positive feedback over the many years of collaboration and this is very satisfying to me.
SRi: What can you share with us about Infront’s mid-term (3-5 years) plans?
AZ: As market leaders for basketball in China, we will be working with international and national associations and clubs to develop the game to a standard that can match, if not surpass, the CBA standard. We will soon launch a new championship games similar to the AFC Champions League. There are many conversations going on in parallel, many of which are new. We have also been discussing data analytics and group trainings. We have the best resources and we are committed to this.
SRi: As MD, operations and building your team are part of your core responsibilities. Did you have those as well when you were CFO?
AZ: I had some of that backend administrative work when I was CFO but as MD, I find myself overseeing more of those. We have a great team, with many employees having been with the company for five to ten years. Our new staff integrate into the Infront culture well. In the past two years, we have noticed greater talent competition, but we work hard to retain and attract great employees. We constantly ask ourselves how we can make them feel involved and have rolled out several initiatives that seem to be working. From 2004 till present, I honestly think that our employees are one of our greatest assets.