Haier CEO Zhang Ruimin is transforming a manufacturing giant into a platform for entrepreneurship — and his employees into self-governing entrepreneurs.
We live and work in an age when the need for corporate reinvention is treated almost as a given. Countless CEOs talk about reducing hierarchy and increasing agility, flexibility, and connectedness to the market, and virtually every large company is “transforming for digital.” Yet in most organizations, lip service to change remains more the order of the day than real change itself.
Then again, you might work with Zhang Ruimin. The CEO and chairman of the Qingdao, China, white goods giant Haier Group Corp. has done what most chief executives dare not even dream about. He blew up much of the administrative structure of a global manufacturing enterprise, eliminating 10,000 management jobs that once held it together. And he has guided the organization to reemerge as a network of entrepreneurial ventures run by employees, whose compensation is based on the success of their products in the market.
In its transformed state, Haier is no longer a traditional manufacturer corporation so much as a platform that provides financing, support, and coordination for microenterprises all focused on developing products and services for the “smart home,” the internet of things (IoT)-based concept of a fully connected and networked household.
Haier calls its management model Rendanheyi, a term that refers to connecting employees with users. The company sees it as a “win-win” model for reducing the distance between the organization and its end users to zero and moving as close as possible to a state of co-creation with the customer.
This isn’t the first organizational innovation Zhang has led at Haier during his three decades with the company, but it is certainly the most profound. The 68-year-old executive, who has been named to a number of “most admired” and “top thinker” lists, received the Legend in Leadership Award from the Yale School of Management’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute in 2016. In noting the honor, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a senior associate dean of leadership programs at Yale, called Zhang “a genuine global business giant who inspires mythic awe in his competitors, his peers, and his fellow Chinese business leaders.”
During a spring 2017 trip to Washington, D.C., Zhang sat down with MIT Sloan Management Review editor in chief Paul Michelman to discuss Haier’s latest reinvention. The interview was conducted through a translator, and a further exchange took place via email.