Combining the strengths of East and West
Jacob Chen, Rouse Executive and head of Rouse’s Guangzhou office, is an impressive mix of Western commercial sophistication and Eastern traditional wisdom. I came away from a recent conversation with him, feeling I had a lot to learn.
Jacob’s early years were spent in central China, about an hour’s drive from the city of Wuhan. He attended the local school there without any real thought as to what he might do with his life, and certainly without feeling any pressure from his parents to follow any particular course. It is clear, though, that his mother, a teacher, was keen that both he and his sister (who is now a doctor) should do well academically and that they should continue studying. His father, being a businessman, placed less emphasis on education, but was very happy to support their studies.
When he left school in 1994, Jacob was one of the 10% of students in the class who went on to university. Since then, things have changed dramatically in China: now about 90% of the class would go on to university. At university, he studied English, which had always been one of his main interests, and after graduating got a job in a government department, working as secretary to the Governor. It wasn’t long, however, before he began to feel dissatisfied with the position: he was making almost no use of his English and beginning to feel overqualified for the job.
Then, in the course of conversations with a former university friend, he began to think that perhaps his future might lie in the law - perhaps a legal career would enable him to use his English in a professional context. Without any clear idea of what might be involved in a law course, or in the practice of the law, he decided to sit the LLM admission test and undertake the three-year post-graduate course at the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan. After graduating, he worked with a local IP firm for seven years, during which time he became increasingly interested in foreign-related IP law and determined to find a way to make better use of his English language skill. In 2008, he applied for a place on the Lord Chancellor’s Training Scheme for Chinese Lawyers, a collaboration between the UK and Chinese legal institutions. Fifteen lawyers from across China are selected each year to take part in the Scheme. That year, Jacob was one of them.
He spent a year in London: six months at SOAS, University of London, studying English law and English legal system; three months in a solicitors’ office; and three months in barristers’ chambers. The practical experience was invaluable, but so too was the opportunity to improve his English language skills, particularly reading and writing. He recalls reading the free Metro newspaper on the underground each morning, as he traveled from Colindale to Tottenham Court Road, setting himself targets and time limits in order to improve both his reading speed and his comprehension.
In 2010, he was interviewed by several Rouse Executives in China, they were immediately impressed by his command of English and understanding of both the Chinese and English legal systems - also by his commercial approach to the law. Jacob says, however, that some of the most important things, he has learned since joining Rouse. Being encouraged to undertake leadership training, and given practical leadership responsibilities, has broadened his perspective and forced him to think about life more deeply.
In order to reduce the pressure involved in managing the Guangzhou office, appearing in court, developing business, and taking care of his family, Jacob has, for example, turned to Tai Chi, disciplining himself to get up early each morning to join a group of local practitioners. This year he plans to take it more seriously and have lessons from a Tai Chi master. He has also been developing an interest in Chinese medicine and with it an awareness of the need for balance in all aspects of life. Now, in order to restore energy and sharpen concentration at work, he will sometimes go into a conference room to meditate, or do Tai Chi, for five minutes. Much better, he says, than a cup of coffee!
He reflects that for students in China the emphasis is always on study; there is little opportunity to develop other interests, broaden horizons, grow in other ways - and that perhaps is a pity. He talks with some regret about not having had the opportunity himself to read more widely - and with unrestrained enthusiasm about what he might do when he retires and does have more time – certainly read more, but maybe also study Chinese calligraphy, maybe paint (he loved visiting galleries in Paris and London); maybe play the guitar, maybe sing. The possibilities, you feel, are endless.
Now that he is managing the Guangzhou office, Jacob is as concerned for the welfare of others as he is for his own. “I tell my people”, he says, “that life is limited. I say to them ‘For five days a week, most of your time is going to be spent with your colleagues here –you will be spending more time with them than you do with your family. So it’s important that our relationship is a good one, that it’s a friendly environment and that we are happy to be working together as a family to do the best job we can’. I share with them some of the things I have learned”, he continues, “I say they will benefit from developing good habits; going to bed early and getting up early. I encourage them to eat healthily and at the right time, to care about their health and develop an interest in traditional Chinese healthcare”. This year he is planning seminars to the staff in Guangzhou on life-care issues and the importance of achieving balance in life. “It is for their benefit”, he says, “If they are healthy, they will be more energetic and they will be happier. It’s for their own good – and it also benefits the company.”