Gina Qiao, senior vice president of global human resources at Lenovo, moved to the U.S. in 2005. She left Beijing to help with Lenovo’s acquisition of IBM’s personal computer business—and, at the time, she knew less than 100 English words.
“Our company made the decision that English [would] become our official language,” Qiao said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women International Summit in Hong Kong last month. “I thought maybe it’s time for me to quit.”
Qiao didn’t leave Lenovo, which now has more than 60,000 employees. Instead, she dove into negotiations with IBM and quickly learned a plethora of English words, including business jargon—like “defined-benefit plan.”
The tech exec, who is also the co-author of the book The Lenovo Way: Managing a Diverse Global Company for Optimal Performance, joined the $39-billion-revenue company 24 years ago as the secretary to the founder. She moved her way up, working on marketing and then leading the firm’s global strategy and planning. “Many people ask me, ‘Do you feel boring just working at the one company?’” she said. “I say, ‘No, I never feel boring… I still feel nervous,’” adding that she likes to challenge herself.
On stage, Qiao also spoke of lessons the world’s largest PC-maker has learned since that IBM deal in 2005. The company realized its leadership team didn’t have global experience—nor, like Qiao, did many of them know English. “I didn’t know how to work with people with a different background and at that time our business performance was not so great,” she remembered.
Lenovo recently acquired IBM’s low-end server unit and Google’s Motorola Moblity unit—and it’s put a priority on cultural integration. This time around, Lenovo has developed a standard to assess leaders across cultures. It’s also prioritizing integration, starting with Motorola’s supply chain and leaving sales and marketing merging for later.
At the end of her interview, Qiao offered the audience a bit of advice: “The best way to learn is to learn from your mistakes. The best way to learn is to expand your comfort zone.”