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For China, which claims a civilisation dating back thousands of years, a survey covering two decades might not sound that impressive. However, a 20-year study tracking the careers of more than 100 Chinese business school graduates promises to provide a remarkable window on to a business culture undergoing dramatic change.

Launched two years ago by a New York-based consulting firm, Katzenbach Partners, “China 2024: A New Generation of Leaders” aims to track the professional and personal lives of 110 Chinese MBA students who graduated in 2004.

As well as an annual survey of the participants’ progress, the company will conduct in-depth interviews every five years, discussing everything from business challenges to personal goals and the development of family lives. Over the next two decades, the report will produce an insight into what motivates the new generation of business leaders.

“This is a subset of a unique generation because they are the first professionally trained managers in China,” says Stacy Palestrant, executive director of the study and a senior associate at Katzenbach Partners. “It’s the bridge generation – they grew up in communist China and, in the 1980s, the country started to change. So they have a foot in both worlds, the old China of their parents and the new China. We will watch through their eyes the changes in China as they enter the workforce.”

Several other historical factors make this set of business leaders unique. China’s Cultural Revolution turned education on its head, sending professionals and academics to work in the countryside and denying a generation of young people any education at all. At the same time, Chinese enterprises were, for many years, state-owned monopolies that were not being run with profitability in mind.

Thanks to their education and growing up in a more globally connected world, today’s Chinese MBA graduates have a breadth of international knowledge and experience inconceivable to their parents.

“This is a project that’s really about how a group of extraordinary people play a role in shaping one of the most significant business trends of our generation,” says Niko Canner, a co-founder of Katzenbach Partners who, along with Ms Palestrant, spearheaded the creation of the China 2024 study.

“It’s a way for us to stake out a territory, in a very long-term sense, in what will be one of the world’s most significant markets.”

The company used an extensive application and review process to choose those students it wanted to track. The study’s organisers were careful to select professionals working in a broad range of industries. The final group covers sectors ranging from consulting, banking, marketing and media to retail, healthcare, government, transport and natural resources.

During the selection process, graduates answered questions on everything from family background, pre-business school education and job experience to how they chose their business school, what they gained from the MBA programme, their career plans and their views on China’s future.

The participants came from both Chinese and US business schools. In China, the schools included leading institutions such as Peking University, China European International Business School and Fudan University. In the US, schools included Columbia, Stanford, Harvard and Wharton.

The two groups of MBA graduates will have had distinct experiences over the past few years. Those who studied in China may not have gained the same insights into business practices overseas as the graduates from US schools. However, they have had the advantage of working and studying in China during a crucial period of change for the country, particularly in terms of its business culture.

For those that were in the US during this time, working in global companies and studying at US schools will have given them a more international outlook. These executives will, says Ed Tse, Booz Allen Hamilton’s partner in China, take back with them a different set of perspectives on business from their colleagues that remained at home to study. “The people returning to China are bringing a way of doing things that is different – a set of norms, behaviours and values.”

The graduates from US schools will return with entrepreneurial skills. Hau Lee, professor of operations, information and technology at Stanford, believes that MBA graduates from US schools will contribute to China’s growing band of young people that set up their own businesses.

“US schools have always been at the frontier of entrepreneurship and many graduates are going back to China and establishing a small but growing venture capital community,” he says.

The views expressed by Kathy Wang, a Chicago GSB graduate who is one of the participants in the study, support Prof Lee’s prediction. Ms Wang, who with a friend is running a small financial consulting company, says she hopes that by 2024 some of the companies she establishes will have been listed on the stock market and sold to other investors.

With part of the proceeds, she intends to set up a fund to support female entrepreneurs. “I can see the difficulties and pressures facing the entrepreneurs but I still see this as a challenging and exciting job, because I’m working for myself, and I will have a cause that can last for my whole life.”

Ms Palestrant and Mr Canner believe that such views provide powerful insights into the hopes and aspirations of China’s new business leaders – not just individually but also as a group.

For the participants the project provides a networking opportunity and a chance to exchange views on their different experiences – particularly since they will meet every four years for a conference.

“It is a unique platform to connect foreign MBAs and domestic MBAs,” says Ms Wang. “In China, there is a natural resistance between these two groups – the local MBAs normally think that foreign MBAs don’t understand the Chinese situation, while the foreign MBAs think their domestic counterparts don’t have enough international exposure and are not professional enough . . . China 2024 gives us a good opportunity to understand each other.”

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