With a clear desire to better understand global business, Christopher Smith, a 2001 graduate of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, jumped into work in China with both feet when his employer, Intel Corp., needed someone with his background and skillset to lead a finance team overseas. The risk of accepting the new role without any prior experience in China paid off, rewarding Smith with an expanded worldview and humbling leadership lessons.
During his 15-year tenure at Intel, which he joined immediately following graduation from Darden, Smith has held various positions within the finance organization, leading strategic risk management, financial planning and analysis, and capital management functions. He has been in China with Intel since 2012 and currently serves as the finance director for Intel Semiconductor (Dalian) Ltd. Prior to his time at Darden and with Intel, Smith worked as a civil engineer, focused on hazardous waste site remediation.
Below, he describes some lessons learned from his time working overseas, including tips for navigating cultural differences in business and leading global teams.
Q. Please describe your time working with Intel in China. What interested you in working globally?
A. I moved to Dalian, China, with my wife, two boys and our dog in the summer of 2012. If you’re not familiar with Dalian, I wasn’t either before this opportunity came up. Dalian is a tier 2 city in northeast China with about 7 million people. It’s a beautiful city, sitting along the Yellow Sea.
I had an interest in working overseas for quite a while. As more and more of our business growth was coming from overseas, it seemed to me vitally important to have a better firsthand understanding of how markets were evolving and how business is actually done overseas. I put on my development plan — which most of us in Intel finance have — a goal to get that global experience. As I had frequently been working with our European offices, I had in my mind something in England or Germany. Then, an opportunity opened up in Dalian that was almost tailor-made for me in that much of my prior experience at Intel is what was needed for this role. The problem was I had never set foot in China. But the overseas opportunity was there, and it was a good fit for me. I figured I could do anything for two years. I literally took the job sight unseen, and I’m now in my fifth year of a two-year assignment.
In Dalian, I’m the finance director for our semiconductor factory operations in northeast China. We manufacture 3D NAND, the memory that goes into solid-state drives that most of us have in our laptops today. I am responsible for all of the finance function at the site, leading a team of mostly local finance professionals covering financial planning and analysis, capital investments, trade, and tax functions. I also play a part in people and organizational development as part of the site leadership team in Dalian and the finance leadership team for the greater Asia region.
How has working overseas influenced your worldview?
My worldview has been broadened by this experience, for sure. I have a better understanding of the governments and politics of this region and associated policy drivers. We have the American dream in the U.S. Why would it be a foreign concept that there wouldn’t be a Chinese dream as well? The rest of the world aspires to continue to grow and develop just like we do in the U.S. And as the rest of the world continues to grow and develop, the need for strong trading partnerships continues to grow as well.
In my day-to-day working with our local team, I’ve gained a greater appreciation that there are many ways to get work done. Those of us from the West may be more direct at times than we should be; that was an early lesson for me that Westerners do have a reputation for being too loud and too direct. Understanding that either my style or the local culture would need to change, it was an easy choice.
I was surprised, initially, how similar we all are. I had never been to China before I took this role, and so I had preconceptions and misconceptions about China and Asia. But as I sit here doing this interview from a Starbucks in Dalian in a development owned by the same Chinese company that owns AMC theaters and Legendary Entertainment, it reinforces for me the idea that the world is flat and continues to get flatter.
What were some early leadership lessons you learned? What, in your opinion, makes someone a global leader?
As a foreigner working in China for a U.S.-based multinational corporation, I view my role a bit like a goodwill ambassador. For many, I may be the face of the West. As such, I think I need to hold myself to a higher standard. That mindset has influenced my leadership style in that I’m not just representing myself or even my company, but I’m representing the U.S. and the West. I do think about the impression I want to leave with the Chinese of a Westerner.
As a global leader, understanding what the cultural barriers may be to developing the future leaders around the world is an important skillset to have. One of the things I found working in Asia is that local management styles can sometimes be more hierarchical and top-down. I work to ensure the teams I work with know it is not just OK to have a different point of view than me, but it’s expected. We continue to work on expanding critical thinking skills and candor so that we’re helping to build future leaders. That’s one of the important roles of any leader: Build the future leaders.
Describe a time when you realized the true value of your Darden education.
The general management focus at Darden was such a great fit for a job in finance at Intel. At Intel, finance is embedded with the different business units in the company. So our manufacturing organization has a manufacturing finance team. Our sales and marketing group has a sales and marketing finance group. And so on and so on. In these roles, the finance teams are typically not the decision makers. We are the CFOs to the decision makers. That’s where the Darden MBA is such a great fit. We’re expected to provide recommendations to our business partners to maximize shareholder value. Having that broad, general management perspective helps you build broader insights to make better business recommendations.
When I think about the components of the Darden MBA, one thing that I’ve found stands out is the quantitative analysis skills of Darden MBA graduates. My experience has been that other MBA programs just don’t have the rigor of quantitative analysis that Darden does. In a role where your success is largely based on your ability to make and drive business recommendations, those skills are invaluable in enabling high-quality decision making.
And one of the basic, but oh-so important lessons, that I learned from Darden was that you have to have a point of view. That’s something I try to instill in my team all the time. If you don’t have a point of view, someone else at the table will, and that’s the point of view that’s going to win the day. But the simple thought of “you have to have a point of view” is a great starting point for critical thinking and developing some unique perspectives. It’s been especially valuable as I’ve worked with my teams here in China to have the conversations on what they would challenge and why.
What advice would you give aspiring MBA students or recent MBA graduates?
Another of those important lessons that I took away from Darden was from Professor Alec Horniman’s leadership course: that a definition of leadership is a consistency and quality of action. The Darden MBA is the equivalent of a Disney FastPass to becoming a leader in the business world. With that fast pass to leadership comes responsibility. My advice is to think about the kind of leader you want to be and then be deliberate about becoming that leader. What is the quality of leadership you’re going to deliver every day? How will you demonstrate consistent leadership every day?