Front Row Seat

Living and working in China, Chris Heckscher ’90 sits center stage amidst Asia’s explosive growth.

Chris Heckscher ’90 is based in Hong Kong and manages 1,400 employees at Cisco Systems. Chris Heckscher ’90 is based in Hong Kong and manages 1,400 employees at Cisco Systems.

If you had asked Chris Heckscher ’90 15 years ago if he could ever see himself living and working in the Asia-Pacific region, he would have shook his head. Today, he’s just as surprised as any that he has lived more than a decade in Hong Kong and regularly travels throughout the region as one of Cisco Systems’ superstar executives, managing 1,400 employees in China but also Korea, Indonesia, Japan, India, and Australia. During that time, the political science major has grown Cisco’s consulting services from $100 million to more than $450 million in five years.

“I came here intent on staying just a few years, and lo and behold, I’ve been here 12,” said Heckscher, who met his wife in Hong Kong and married her last year in Sonoma, California. “I moved in 2000 at the top of the tech bubble and when it burst, going back to the U.S. wasn’t really a great option. A few years later, I thought about going back and then the financial crisis hit, so Asia has turned out to be the best place to be.”

How is the corporate culture different in Asia-Pacific as opposed to the U.S.?
The pace of life and work is much harder here than in the U.S. People typically don’t work weekends in the U.S. unless you have to. Out here it’s borderline 24/7. There are a lot of things going on, a lot of deals happening, and it’s totally normal to get calls at night or on weekends. People are much more career-oriented here. You see people who put their jobs above their families. Everyone is just so eager to move up to improve themselves and their families. When you don’t have much, you work hard. I have people on my China team who are the first in their families to go to college and to own a car. Now several of my leaders in China make more money than people in the U.S.

Culturally, what’s it like managing 1,400 people across Asia-Pacific?
The hardest part of managing people from other cultures is understanding that you have to manage them slightly differently culture to culture. Coming from the United States and growing up in a diverse environment has been a huge advantage. It’s why you see so many leaders in Asia-Pacific from the U.S. or Europe. When you have lived in a one-culture country, like China, there is no diversity; it’s harder to transition from culture to culture.

In my role, I get to participate in so many different cultures and economies, from sitting on the doorstep of China and India, to more developed countries like Australia and Japan. If you look at places like Seoul, Beijing, or Tokyo, they are only 800 miles apart and seem similar from afar but they are very different places to do business.

I’ve learned to listen a lot and recognize that people from different cultures react differently to different management styles. There is so much money coming into this part of the world but there is not enough talent to service this demand. Holding on to good people has been the number one skill I’ve had to learn. You have to learn to attract talent, develop talent and motivate talent if you want any hope of keeping them. 

What’s your take on Asia’s rapid growth?
Because of the internet and globalization, things have happened in a much more compressed time frame. It’s definitely challenging the global political landscape. Governments, politicians, and policy just can’t keep up with this pace of change. They are still ruling the way they always have been yet the world has dramatically changed. It’s probably what makes today’s times scarier than any other time in history. But it’s also fascinating to watch this evolve and change right before my eyes, and it’s interesting watching how everyone deals with these challenges. I really feel like I am watching history unfold.

For so many years, the U.S. and Europe have been such dominant economic partners, and yet you have half of the world’s population sitting in Asia. What’s interesting about historical trends is that while it may have taken the U.S. and Europe many years to become such powers, Asia, especially places like China, have really only risen to power in a meaningful way in the last 20 years. When I went to China in 1998, people were still riding around on bicycles. Today, they have built entire cities in just four or five years. It’s all happened so fast. They seem to have come out of nowhere to become the second largest economy in the world with 3-trillion in reserves, while the States has that much and more in debt. 

Any plans to move back any time soon?
I have come to the conclusion that this is my niche—running large Asia-Pacific teams. I love what I do and it’s a rare skill in this part of the world. I started with managing 200 people and five years later I now oversee 1,400 people. You come to a point where all the stars start to align together. I’m having a lot of fun out here, and this is where I want to be.