Kitty Fok has her finger on the pulse of many global trends.
She serves as China Managing Director of IDC (International Data Corporation), an American research firm analyzing and explaining future technologies. Based in Beijing, Kitty manages over 80 specialized analysts and leads research for all of the China region, one of the world’s largest and fastest growing markets. She is an expert in the IT market, with a focus on emerging technologies, digital transformation, and policy implications on the tech sector.
We asked Kitty about her thoughts on several interconnected topics - technological innovation, change management, organizational development, and cross-cultural leadership.
Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Note: IDC is one of LeadersAtlas’ corporate clients.
You manage the China office of a leading American research firm, IDC – and China is one of the leading markets right now for technological development and innovation. What are you seeing?
Because of the size of the Chinese population, we are seeing a lot of innovative development in Chinese technology. Media platforms like WeChat, TikTok, and even Bilibili have really changed the way we communicate with each other and the way we run business in China. We want to use this technology to help the international market understand what’s happening in China and, at the same time, help local Chinese companies understand global standards and paths of development.
What do you think is important for people to know about technological change and the effects it will have on society?
We need to be very careful about technology increasing the gap between different groups of people. We easily bubble ourselves. When I was young, everybody got information by watching TV or reading a newspaper – we got news from the same place. But now, I can filter the type of news I want to the point of view that I like. And AI starts to learn what you want to know, and feeds that information to you.
So, we need to keep asking ourselves, “Are we within this bubble?” When we need to make a decision, do we have the full picture to make the right decision?
As a leader, how do you make sure that you’re getting the right information so that you’re as accurate as possible when making decisions on behalf of your team or organization?
I make sure that every day I look at news from every region of the world, so I’m not just looking at China. I purposely look at the Wall Street Journal, CNBC, the BBC. I make sure I look at news that’s different from what we are looking at in China.
I just try to ensure that I have a diversity of sources. I also try to talk to different types of people so I’m not in a bubble with people who have the same point of view as me.
How can large established companies adapt to technology that’s changing so rapidly every single day?
When we talk about digital transformation, it’s two parts: one is “digital,” the other is “transformation.”
To digitize everything is relatively easy. Change – transformation – is the difficult part. We need to stay open-minded. When we talk to companies with a long history or, like, state-owned enterprises in China, we need to start with the leader. The leader needs to understand the benefit of digital transformation.
The leader needs to think, “How can we implement a particular digital success story at our company? And what are the sorts of technology companies that can help us make that change?” So, being open minded and understanding the possibilities is really important. It needs to start from the top of the company and spread down to every business unit.
You told us back in Beijing that you were considering doing a Ph.D. The topic was, if we remember correctly, generations of technology in the workplace. Can you tell us a little about that?
I’m still trying to find the right professor. So, in the past, generation gaps were maybe 10 or 15 years. But now, the generation gap is getting shorter and shorter. If you talk to people born in 1995 versus 2000, they are very different in behavior because the way they use technology is different. They receive information differently and the way that they get their work done is different.
The more we come to understand your role as a leader at IDC China, the more we find it unique. And it got us thinking about the Chinese character “wang” (王), which roughly translates to “royal leadership”. A Chinese teacher said that the top bar is heaven, the bottom bar is earth, and the leader is in the middle and they’re connected by the vertical bar of virtue.
Your team is in China but much of your institution is in the U.S. Your job bridging those two has got to be some of the more complex work that any leader is called upon to do. Could you speak a little bit about how you’re able to bridge that gap and have IDC’s institutional vision fulfilled by people operating in very different contexts?
This is something that is complicated. So, I’ll first go back and talk a little bit about my background. I grew up in Hong Kong. Back then, my boss told me that mainland China was not performing very well. I raised my hand and said, you know, I’m in Hong Kong, I understand the Chinese language, I am Chinese, I’m just one hour from mainland China. Ultimately, I went to work in Beijing.
The first full year I basically cried every night, because things were not going how I wanted. I was seen as a foreigner being asked to work in mainland China just for a few years. My Mandarin was not as good as I expected. The first time I presented at one of our marketing events, I presented in English. Everyone was asking why, as a Chinese person, I needed to present in English. So that was really bad – but the second time I said, “OK, I’m going to speak Mandarin.” People appreciated that I was trying my best.
Culturally, it’s really quite different. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand Chinese, I often just didn’t understand the meaning behind what people are trying to say. Over time, I started to study and understand. When my Chinese colleagues say something, what does it really mean? What is the background? I needed to translate it and put it into perspective.
Another issue is that people don’t know what they don’t know. That applied to me. I did not know, for example, that because of the hierarchy, the boss is always right in China. Even if people disagree, they will never tell you (the boss).
Even today, I don’t think I know everything. But, at least I know what I don’t know. Now, when I talk to my boss in Singapore or our Global President in the U.S., they have the same problem. They do not know what they do not know. For the people sitting in HQ, when they set a policy, it’s based on what they see and know from their portfolio. My job is to try to tell them that there are other things that they may not know that they should consider. It’s my responsibility to tell them, in a way that they understand, the cultural differences and their impact.
Going back to that Chinese character “wang” (王), the way I look at it is, the top line is heaven, the bottom line is earth and the one in the middle is “people.” And the vertical line connects all three. That connection is so important.
There’s so much talk about “global leadership” and the importance of people being global leaders. What does that mean to you? How can people take steps to become global leaders?
I think leadership in general means having a passion to do something, a vision. My passion is understanding why people misunderstand each other. If I can stand in the middle and help these two groups of leaders communicate and understand each other, that’s my passion. The global leader has to have a passion to see both sides of the story and bring them together.
At LeadersAtlas, we think a lot about “organizational cycles.” There’s a Chinese proverb: “wealth only lasts three generations” (富不过三代). Basically every civilization has figured out this concept. You start out with something that’s real and true, and then that thing is overextended to its logical conclusion – and because it’s overextended, it collapses.
We think this applies not just to families and organizations, but also companies. And good leadership makes it so you can disrupt yourself and go through the cycle in a safe, controlled way. I’m curious if this cycle model rings true for you as a leader and how that applies to your company, IDC China?
It doesn’t matter if it’s a Chinese company or an American company. You always start with a person who knows the product well and is passionate about the product. The next CEO is often a marketing or sales person, because they need to actually put the product into the market. Both Microsoft and Apple took this path. Then, because they’re so focused on the marketing, they forget about the product. Then, Microsoft and Apple, for example, come back with the product people.
At different stages, you require different techniques to run your business. The board needs to take responsibility to ask, “What are the objectives? What are we trying to do? What should we focus on at this moment?” The board needs to spot the cyclical changes and spot when there is a slowdown and go and create a different path.
I always remind myself: When you feel comfortable, that is the time you really need to rethink your business position. When everything feels smooth, that is the time we really need to make some changes in the company so we can continue to grow.
How do you empower your employees and team to achieve their full potential at work?
We need to find a way that they can voice out – how can we help them to bring out their ideas? Even if it’s a crazy idea. I often start conversations with staff, not talking about their business work, but just about their daily life – what are they doing? What excites them? As management our job is to help them connect the dots. How can we get them to do things that make them excited? If we can find that thing for employees, how can we leverage that to help the business?
What’s your superpower?
Being super positive. I look at the bright side of everything.
I think, especially this past year, that positivity and that light has helped your team in ways that you probably don’t even know.
I hope so!
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