LEADer/ Facing Yourself

Zhengzhou, 27 October 2015 — Meet Sun Feng, a language graduate with a passion for dancing who became a master of science in water management and a leader in international cooperation for healthy rivers. What can we learn from her leadership journey, and what are her 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?

Starting out

Sun Feng was born in 1964 in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, the cultural heartland of China’s Han civilization. Both of her parents served in the army. Her father flew military cargo planes and her mother worked in logistics. 

As the middle child of three, with an older sister and younger brother, she experienced what many second-born children feel, being proud to take responsibility for her choices and actions at an early age.

Growing up in an army camp in Dang Yang town, in a mountainous rural area of Hubei province—close to where the Three Gorges Dam is now located—she felt surrounded by talented and committed people with origins in all parts of her vast country.

Early on, she developed a passion to become a dancer, and she found warm support for daily dancing practice in her community of army families where excellence in physical performance and musical skills were prized highly, including dances from China’s many ethnic minorities.

At the young age of 5, Sun Feng started performing dances on stage, and she loved the daily physical practice to support her passion.

She describes her parents as serious people.

“I remember being inspired by my father’s love as a mountain, with high expectation yet without requirement, without pressure, always there when I needed help, and quietly stimulating and understanding me. It reminds me of the cherished words in the Dao De Jing: Wú Wéi Ér Zhì – to govern by doing nothing that goes against nature."

"My mother used a different style for bringing out the best in me: she always pushed me. On the other hand, she always took pains to support my education. When I had to study, she would gladly do housework chores in my place."

Becoming independent

At age 15, Sun Feng’s mother sent her to a boarding school in her family hometown of Zhengzhou to pursue a better education than what was available at the army camp in rural Hubei. She describes loving the experience of boarding school and becoming independent, seeing her parents once every six months.

During middle school she was inspired by her English language teacher, who encouraged her to study English and introduced her to interesting stories—very different from her traditional school books.

She chose arts and literature in high school, and continued her education in English literature in Zhengzhou University, where she also served in the student association as events organizer.

Outside her studies, she excelled in athletics—frequently winning medals in the 100 m, 200 m and relay events—and in dancing, which became more popular in the early 1980s as the country opened up more.

She gained the trust of teachers to organize more events in her department, which helped to grow her confidence further. By her example of leading at the front, she also became an example for students from neighboring rural areas who admired her performance and what she stood for. 

After graduating in 1986, she was offered an opportunity to work at the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC), one of the largest employers in Zhengzhou. She started in the information center, where she was the youngest staff in the office and was tasked to research overseas water resources management experience and translate publications into Chinese. 

A hardship test

In accordance with the government’s policy for young staff to become familiar with the needs of grassroots communities, Sun Feng was then assigned to a remote rural area in Zhoukou prefecture for a year, where she taught English at a teacher training school.

“Conditions in the school were poor, and the education level was even poorer, especially the teachers’ English pronunciation. When I could not answer all of their questions, I realized that I had to learn more about how to teach. It inspired me to keep learning."

Without heating, the winter was bitterly cold.

"I was the only woman in my group, and I learned to live in tough conditions. There were rats too. I learned to face and accept such hardships, and I appreciated what I learned from the experience. The rural people I shared life with were poor, honest, kind, and warm-hearted. They were always ready to help. It gave me a new perspective on what we regard as tough challenges in our life in the city. Now I knew more."

Upon return to her job in Zhengzhou, she received a certificate from the Henan provincial government recognizing her ‘advanced performance,’ given on the recommendation of the teacher’s school she had supported for a year.

Entering the international stage

Two years later she was requested to join the international cooperation department of the Ministry of Water Resources in Beijing to gain further practice.

“This opened my eyes to the international stage and to working at a much higher level. I learned about international cooperation projects—such as for the large Xiaolangdi dam in the Yellow River—and how to work with the foreign experts she was assigned to accompany in their work."

In 1991, she transferred to the international office of YRCC, where she worked for 5 years with World Bank experts on the large Loess plateau watershed rehabilitation project, covering 4 provinces. There, she gained valuable lessons how to manage and supervise project work, organize public participation, raise awareness, and introduce innovations in project design and implementation.

Being tested abroad

Her international exposure increased dramatically when she won a scholarship to join a master-of-science program in water resources management at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands. With her background in literature, this was a huge challenge for her, and she met it full on.

During her 1.5 years in Delft, she also took on the deputy leadership of her batch of 15 students from China, got involved in the association of Chinese students in the Netherlands, and stepped forward to organize China’s participation in the annual Asian Night at UNESCO-IHE, including a solo cultural dance performance.

“No one really wanted to join, because they were busy or shy, so I took the lead. Representing your country when abroad, you come to love it more. And while you see shortcomings also, you are determined to show your best side. During our time in Delft, some of my fellow Chinese students lost 10 kg, and I gained five. I loved what I was doing, even if it was very tough, with more than 40 exams per year. Perhaps my supervisors didn’t know that I was actually a literature graduate. Yet I gained high marks in the end. What I learned there boosted my confidence further."

Rising with a learning attitude

Back in China in 2001, Sun Feng kept learning. She now focused on improving her communication skills further, taking every opportunity to do so. 

Her next challenge was to take the lead and represent YRCC in the international Challenge Program for Water and Food of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, where she worked with top international researchers from many countries, with frequent international travel. She also represented YRCC in the newly established Network of Asian River Basin Organizations, and continued to use her involvement in projects to expand her abilities. 

In 2002, she was selected to become deputy division chief through a competitive recruitment process that involved making a public presentation. She succeeded, and served for two years as acting chief before being promoted to chief of international cooperation division.

With her new responsibility, she practiced for 5 years how to coordinate international project management, coordination of overseas capacity development programs for YRCC staff, receiving overseas experts, and organizing events and meetings.

During this period she contributed to the creation of the International Yellow River Forums, and supported YRCC’s participation in global water events, developing partnerships with organizations in Europe, Asia and Australia for knowledge sharing and developing capacity of YRCC’s staff.

Using the experience she gained from her international work, she taught YRCC staff how to raise their standards for international performance and representation, with confidence, professionalism and effective behaviors.

Leading a small division, she frequently had to borrow staff from other divisions, and learned how to coordinate with different departments to get their support, how to assign staff to jobs according to their ability, and how to mobilize funds to support these international initiatives through international partnerships.

YRCC’s growing exposure on the international level led to an important recognition in 2010, when it was awarded the prestigious Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize in Singapore for its practice and accomplishments to restore the river to health. The award was reported widely in the press, and Sun Feng joined a TV interview that was rebroadcasted on China’s CCTV.

For Sun Feng and her team, it was a crowning achievement of their years of hard work and investment in their capacity, including effective communication and building international relations as a water knowledge hub in the Asia-Pacific region.

In 2011, she was promoted to deputy director-general for international cooperation.

“For me this was a further step in my growth from improving myself, to working with others, and then to support others. To stand behind them, and guide them. I am especially keen to encourage young staff to grow as professionals and develop their leadership."

A succession of leadership roles

As Sun Feng described her evolution, she also highlights what stayed unchanged.

“From early on, I have cultivated my outgoing personality. I love to talk with people, and I feel warm hearted to help others. I often volunteer for challenges, and I always practice to learn from other people and projects. I also enjoy listening to other people making presentations, because I want to improve my communication skills further. Meeting and working with professionals from other countries has given me new eyes to see where we can learn to do better as professionals in China. Our decision to invest in capacity development overseas has paid off very well. And we also need these partnerships to work together in tackling the water challenges we are facing in Asia."

She underlines the importance of teamwork and motivation.

“We need to model by being a good example. It is important for young people to learn in teams and projects. Even if you are strong, you cannot do it all, you have to work together with others to be successful."

“Sometimes young professionals complain that they get too much work. My response is that when their boss asks them to do more, it means they get a chance to learn more and learn quicker than others. I tell my younger colleagues that I will be very happy if they all get better than me. I want to create a good environment for them, and to listen to their ideas in meetings, to give space for them to show up with all they have."

Three recommendations for aspiring leaders

So what are Sun Feng’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?

First, become confident in your abilities. You can face any challenge when you gather your courage and believe in yourself.

"Say yes to challenges, then prepare well, and look like you are professional. That’s the way to become professional. It is what I did when I was assigned to speak at a big conference in Stockholm in 2004. It was a big challenge for me. By taking on such challenges, we grow. With courage."

Second, warm your heart. Love the people working together with you, become a warm-hearted leader. 

“As you keep learning, help the people around you. While you will often be assessed on your results, it is your character and behavior that matters most, and inspires trust." 

Third, practice tolerance for different views and styles. This advice is also for senior professionals and managers.

“Engaging talented young leaders in open discussions is important. We need to welcome a variety of personalities, characters and communication styles, including direct and strong ways of expression. If we don’t accept their ways, we cannot lead them. We are working together for better results. If we tolerate conflicting views today, we may get better solutions tomorrow. In our Chinese culture we can say that we need to work with strong Yang energy as well as receptive Yin energy. Young leaders want to do things in a better way, and they need space to show it." 

What is next?

Sun Feng is already looking ahead at the next challenges.

“While we have grown in our work over the past decade, the world around us has changed too. We are now exploring how to partner with water professionals in other Asian countries about climate change adaptation. And our government’s policies for investing in international collaboration have changed as well. We are focusing more on partnering in projects, research and capacity development, and less on hosting international events.”

“As we become stronger in China, funding from international partners is increasingly directed to other developing countries. We are now working to increase the support from our government ministries and our China Yellow River Foundation. We are proud that China becomes stronger, and it also brings new challenges."

Sun Feng keeps focusing on developing the capacity of her colleagues.  

“We need to invest more in the abilities of water professionals, here in China and also in other Asian countries. It is what some people call the soft skills that matter very much. We need to look beyond investing in infrastructure and hardware. We are now the first river basin commission in China to set up a foundation to attract more investments in people. We still have a lot to learn how to do this, and also to attract private sector investment in our capacity development work."

For Sun Feng, these challenges always turn out personal.

“Facing yourself is always the biggest challenge. We are our own biggest enemy. We must do our best to be our best,” she concludes.

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