An interview with Dr Anne Tsui, Motorola Professor of International Management: Part I – the scholarly journey

Journal of Chinese Human Resource Management

ISSN: 2040-8005

Article publication date: 13 September 2011

Citation

Ke, J. (2011), "An interview with Dr Anne Tsui, Motorola Professor of International Management: Part I – the scholarly journey", Journal of Chinese Human Resource Management, Vol. 2 No. 2. https://doi.org/10.1108/jchrm.2011.46502baa.002

Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


An interview with Dr Anne Tsui, Motorola Professor of International Management: Part I – the scholarly journey

Article Type: A fisherwoman in the China Sea From: Journal of Chinese Human Resource Management, Volume 2, Issue 2

Introduction

During the past decades, increasing attention has been devoted to Chinese human resource management (HRM) research. According to Zheng and Lamond (2009), at least 107 empirical studies on HRM in China have appeared in leading international journals between 1978 and 2007. Despite these efforts, researchers have just begun to scratch the surface. China has a unique socioeconomic structure and cultural context that must be taken into account to advance Chinese HRM research and practice. For this reason, many have called for contextualized and indigenous studies (Sun and Wang, 2011; Tsui, 2006). Worldwide management researchers are facing a challenge in building a Chinese theory of management. At the same time, worldwide academics, particularly junior scholars, are experiencing increased pressure on publishing research papers in order to advance their careers through tenure and promotion processes. While limited literature is available in guiding faculty self-development (Lindholm, 2004), even less has been documented to offer real-life role model cases for junior scholars in their career pursuits. To help researchers understand the nature and challenges of Chinese HRM research and to show junior scholars a scholarly role model for inspiring their scholarly journey, I interviewed Dr Anne Tsui on these two important topics and some of her related professional experiences.

Dr Tsui is Motorola Professor of International Management in the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University, Fudan University, and at the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University. She was on the Faculty of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University and, the Graduate School of Management, University of California, Irvine, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She is the Founding President of the International Association for Chinese Management Research and the Founding Editor of the Journal, Management and Organization Review. She is currently the President of Academy of Management for 2011-2012.

The interview

Dr Tsui has analogized Chinese management research to fishing in a vast sea, and urged interested researchers to “plunge into the China sea” and catch new fish with new tools rather than being limited to the use of current species to describe a new beast (Tsui, 2006). In this interview, Dr Tsui was invited to share her career journey as a management scholar and experience and insight on Chinese management research. The interview was conducted through telephone in the middle of Dr Tsui’s busy schedule. Given the restriction on the length, the interview report will appear in two parts. In this first part, Dr Tsui will share her professional journey, including career and research collaboration experiences. The second part, which will appear in an upcoming issue of Journal of Chinese Human Resource Management, covers her insights and initiatives on Chinese management research.

Jie Ke: When did you start your academic career? How did your personal values influence your choice of career and research focus?

Anne Tsui: My academic career choice started in 1981 when I was finishing my PhD studies. I actually took a leave of absence from the company that I was working for as a HR professional when I started my PhD program in September 1978. The company, and I too, was expecting me to go back to the company after I finished my degree. However, by the time I finished up my dissertation, I liked research so much that I wanted to try a research career. I talked to the company’s general manager, and told him “I would like to try an academic career for three to five years. If I found out that I did not like it, could I come back to the company?” He said, “Yes, of course, you have to follow your interest.” There was one more reason that influenced my decision. I was thinking that if I worked for Control Data, I would be helping Control Data, a single company. If I do research and teaching, I could be potentially helping many more companies. That very naive thought pushed me toward an academic job. So, this theme of having impact and trying to have a difference pretty much influenced a lot of things that I do, and did.

I think my decision to pursue a PhD also might imply the kind of value that I have. I was working with these managers about training and development. The managers would ask questions about group design, motivation, leadership and so forth. At that time, I only had a Master’s degree in Human Resources. I felt inadequate to help these managers. I decided that I should get a PhD and learn more in order for me to be more useful for these managers. I had full intention to go back to the company after the PhD. As things turned out, I liked research a lot, so I did not go back and never went back. I hope these two stories give you a sense of the values that drive my decision making.

I think my values also influenced my research interest. My dissertation was on the topic of managerial effectiveness from the multiple constituency points of view. I analyzed how responsive a manager is to various stakeholders. The idea of being responsive to others is always a central theme of my research. It influenced my second big project, which is on the human resource departments’ responsiveness to the expectations and needs of managers, employees, applicants and so forth. Being responsive, living up to your duties, and so forth drive my behavior, influence my choice of research topics, and decision making throughout my career.

Jie Ke: I want to go back to the point that you said you wanted to do the PhD because you wanted to help those managers. If I understand correctly, you initiated the process of going for a PhD, not the company, right?

Anne Tsui: Yeah, that is correct. Not the company. It was my choice.

Jie Ke: So, if I could make an inference, your value for knowledge was one of the motivations.

Anne Tsui: Yes, it is openness to learning, a sense of responsibility, or duty. If you do not have all you need to do the job, you have to learn. For me, it is clear. I saw other people in the company with PhDs. Control Data, at that time, had a very strong human resource group, and the director of corporate human resources had a PhD. Many PhDs were working there. I was in one of the factories outside the corporate headquarters, but I had a lot of interactions with the HR people in the headquarters. I saw that they were very smart. So I knew I needed more education. I am motivated by smart people around me.

Jie Ke: After your PhD studies, you had a choice of going back to your previous employer in industry. What made you pursue professoriate instead? How did you assess the two career options you had and what were your goals?

Anne Tsui: I had no particular goals that I wanted to pursue. All I knew was that I enjoyed research. I really enjoyed crunching data, writing papers, and talking about ideas. Then, I also had this naïve idea that if I do research, the papers I write would eventually go into textbooks. Also I can be a consultant, and so forth, which I actually never did very much. I had the idea that being a researcher; I would have the opportunity or potential to help more people than I would if I work for a company. And, I always knew that if I do not like research or an academic career, I could always do something else. So, I had options. I knew that I am a capable person, and that there are always alternatives that I can pursue. I never believe anything I do is permanent. If I am stuck, there are always other choices. At any point in time I choose to do something that fits my ability and interest best. It is something that I enjoy doing and add values at the same time. Eventually, I will have some impact. So, these were my wishes, not my goals. I never really plan what is going to happen. Five years ago, I did not know what I am doing today. I do not plan for what is going to happen in five years. I like what I am doing now. As I see it, five years later, something may happen along this line, but you cannot control the outcomes. You can only control the process. You can control what you do, but you cannot control what is going to happen.

Maybe it is a matter of language, which words you use. For example, you can say: being free is a goal, having intellectual freedom, managing your own time, your own projects, deciding when and where you want to work. Are these goals? I never made a goal of wanting to be an associate professor or a dean five years later. Some people do, but I do not. My goal is to choose what I like to do today but I never know whether I will succeed or not. So, I just do it, and whenever I do, I do the best I can. The problem for me is that I always have too many opportunities […].

Jie Ke: So when you began your PhD program, you did not know you would be fond of research.

Anne Tusi: No, I just wanted to go and learn, and learn enough so that I could be a better employee.

Jie Ke: Could you tell us about some important decisions that you have made, such as choosing the doctoral program in University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) over some other programs?

Anne Tsui: I was admitted to Northwestern at the same time, and I was an older student. I was 29 at that time. I wanted to finish the PhD no more than four years and possibly shorter. I found out that the Northwestern program was a minimum of four years. UCLA did not have a residence requirement. I was eager to finish and so I chose to go to UCLA. Of course, the Southern California weather is also hard to beat by Northwestern. I graduated in three years.

Jie Ke: What was the first research paper that you published? What was it about?

Anne Tsui: My first research paper was actually published in a journal called Hospitals. I did it all by myself when I was working as a Research Analyst for the Personnel Department of the University of Minnesota Hospitals. I was working full-time during the middle of my Master’s program. The department head, Mrs White, was an extremely kind lady. She gave me total freedom, she said, “Anne, we have some jobs for you to do like filing papers in the personnel folders or completing EEO-1 forms, but beyond that, you do whatever you like.” So, I said, “You know, there are a lot of nursing turnover, I would like to do a nursing turnover project.” She said, “Go for it, and go ahead.” So I did. I gave them the report, wrote up the study and sent it to the journal called Hospitals. And it got accepted the first round, no revision.

That is kind of cool. The second research paper was the dissertation paper. My degree was in 1981. I finished writing it and asked my advisor, “Which journal should I send?” We considered AMJ, ASQ, OBHP. He said OBHP might be the best for this topic. At that time, OBHP was considered one of the best journals. I also won the Best Dissertation Award in the 1982 Academy of Management Meeting and that small success reinforced my love for research.

Jie Ke: So when you first published the paper in Hospitals, you found it was really interesting. Can I say your interest in publishing started from then?

Anne Tsui: No, the Hospitals paper was published in 1975. In January 1977, I went to work for Control Data Corporation. In 1978 summer, I went to UCLA. The Hospitals paper gave me confidence that I could write.

Jie Ke: What triggered your interest in research during your PhD program?

Anne Tsui: It was the first semester in UCLA. I took an independent study with Charles O’Reilly. He is an extraordinary scholar, very well known. He was in UCLA, but he was leaving to go back to UC Berkeley after that semester. So, I took an independent study with him. Basically, we did very little in that class except that he gave me a dataset. He said, “Here is the dataset and go and see what you can find.” I took the dataset and looked at all the variables. I thought about what I was reading, and I found an idea. I went to him and proposed the idea. He said, “hmm, that is doable, and actually that is good, you can go ahead and analyze the data”. Then, I analyzed the data, and showed him the results. He said, “hmm, good, go ahead and write it up”. Then, I went back and wrote it up. We did not have much discussion, just that I could do the next step. We then sent the paper to a conference and I presented it. Afterwards, we sent it to a journal, might be the Journal of Applied Psychology. It came back and the editor said: “Sorry, the idea is interesting, and result is interesting, but it is a common method study. We do not publish a paper with a common method problem”. That was 1978-1979. So, Charles said, “Sorry, common method, no hope, let’s put it away.” Even with this rejection, I found the research was a lot of fun. So the first semester with Charles built my interest in research. Then I went to University of Southern California and volunteered to work for a professor who was very famous in leadership research. I was an unpaid Research Assistant for him for two-and-a-half years. We had several presentation papers, but we never published any of them. I had publications with a couple of other professors. I was doing a lot of research as a student. You see, UCLA program is nice because it does not have too many classes, so I had a lot of time to do research. I learned a lot about research by doing it, especially quantitative research. I guess the message here is that I chose carefully who I work with and who I learn from.

Jie Ke: What had been the most challenging part in conducting research for you? How did you overcome it and become a proliferate researcher?

Anne Tsui: Research is never easy, every part is challenging. Therefore, I always choose a topic that I like. I have never worked on a project that I do not like.

I like doing work with people. Most of my research studies are collaborations, even though I have done a few papers on my own. I enjoy that process too. The challenging part is, of course, developing good theory. I have never created a theory by myself. As such, not many people do. I tried to use theory wisely, and tried to use right theory. That is one of the pitfalls in a lot of papers that I have seen. People try to find multiple theories and they contradict each other sometimes. They use theories without much thinking. I try to choose the right theory to explain a phenomenon, and also push the theory a step further. That is where the contributions come from. A question I often ask is, “Is the theory improved with your research?”

Once you have a good topic, a good idea, the right theory to explain it, the rest is hard work, a lot of hard work. You do not know how much hard work it takes to do a good project. I am not smart enough to do it quickly. Each paper and each project takes a long time.

Jie Ke: Well, you are so proliferate […].

Anne Tsui: I have not published that many papers, but I owe it to my good collaborators. In the earlier years, the collaborators were senior to me. As I grow older, most of the collaborators are junior to me. It is kind of a life cycle in a wheel. All junior people should try to collaborate with senior people. I always give this advice to young scholars: “Do not collaborate with people who are more junior than you because you still are learning. Always try to find somebody who is better than you. That way, you can learn.” With senior collaborators, your contribution is to work hard, to make a senior collaborator’s life easier. That way, they are happy to collaborate with you. When you become senior, it is your duty now to help younger people.

Jie Ke: So, how did you get to collaborate with those senior scholars?

Anne Tsui: I ask them, “I have a research idea, would you have any interest to work on it with me?” It helps if the senior scholars know you or your work. Total strangers do not work so well. They have to see some of your publications, and they know that you are a serious scholar. Once you have published one or two papers, it is easier. You have an idea and you have a record to show that you are serious about research. They know that you are dependable. Then, all you have to do is to be assertive, to seek out and ask them. The worst thing that can happen to you is a No. Then, move onto the second person. You must NOT be shy. Even today, I still occasionally find a senior scholar to collaborate with me or when I feel my junior colleague has difficulty in areas that I do not have enough expertise.

Jie Ke: Can you give us an example on how you managed to do it?

Anne Tsui: Okay, I can tell you. One of the collaborators was Professor George Milkovich, who was my Master’s program teacher. I took a class with him. He wrote a recommendation letter for me to go to UCLA’s doctoral program. He was a good friend of a Professor at UCLA. He took a sabbatical at UCLA when I was there. We worked on a paper together. I was the third person on the team. After I graduated, I decided to write a grant proposal to study human resource departments. So, I wrote up the proposal. I asked him to give me some feedback on the proposal. After I got the grant, I asked him, “Would you join in this project?” At that time, he already knew about my project, he already knew about me, and he became my collaborator on one paper, and it was published in Human Resource Management. That iss one example.

After I went to Duke, my first job, I took one-term leave and went to Berkeley to spend a semester there. I wanted to work with Charles O’Reilly. I talked with him and we found an idea in my dissertation dataset. We published that paper in AMJ. I saw an opportunity for another idea in another dataset, I e-mailed him: “Charles, I have another dataset and I have an idea that we can work on. Would you work with me?” Then, he looked at the idea and said: “Yeah, that looks interesting, sure.” So, we collaborated and we published that paper in ASQ. So, that is two.

The third collaborator is Barbara Gutek, who was a Psychology Professor in UCLA. She was on my dissertation committee. She knew about my dissertation, and said: “Hey, Anne, there might be a gender paper in here, you see?” I said, “Yeah, okay, I know, I will be happy to work with you.” I worked with her and had a gender paper which was published in AMJ. Later, I invited her to join me on my demography book.

You can see all three collaborations were with senior scholars. When I talk about working with senior people, I am referring to these three. (It) is because they knew me and I was not shy to ask them. The bottom line is that do not be shy.

Let me tell you another story. It is also about not being shy or do not take things too personally. I was collaborating with one of them on a paper. The paper was sitting in that person’s office for about either six or nine months. I sent fax, I sent e-mail, and I left phone messages every week. Most people, by the end of the third month, would say: “The person does not want to work with me” and they would just give up, right? I did not.

I continued, continued, until six months later, one day, I got a phone call (from that person), “Anne, sorry, I have been really busy, I am ready now.”

I have considered many times to give up on this person. Do I go on without him? How do I tell him? I could not say afterwards: “Sorry, you did not answer my phone calls, therefore I had to go on.” I could, but I just decided that I had to wait, and I had no choice.

Jie Ke: We really need to learn from your persistence.

Anne Tsui: The funny thing was that the data for that paper was from a dataset totally unrelated to the topic. I guess I was creative in seeing the possibility. The paper got published and won a big award. I always think about the consequences of what one does. You make choices, and you make decisions. You have to think about the consequences. “If I succeed, what will happen? If I fail, what will happen?” In that case, I could not face him later if the paper got published and he got dropped. I just did not feel that was fair to him. Also, I had a student working with me on this paper. I could not give it up because of that student. The paper was important to her.

Jie Ke: Why was it important for the student?

Anne Tsui: The student put a lot of efforts into the paper. I did not want to show a bad example of dropping someone from a project without knowing why that person did not respond. I also could not give up the paper. If he (that professor) dropped out and we published the paper, I would feel bad. If I gave up the paper because he dropped out, I would feel bad for the student. I had to persist on the paper with his involvement because he was involved from the beginning.

Jie Ke: So, this was one of the important decisions that you have made.

Anne Tsui: Yes, I guess it is related to one’s value. I do not want to disappoint people; I want to live up to my commitment. I also do not want to bring negative consequences to my student. It has to do with responsibility. The student worked hard on this paper, so I wanted to make this a successful paper for her. I committed to work with this professor. People have reasons for why they are busy. I never take things personally. I never thought that he did not like me or whatever. I just said that: “I am sure that he is very busy, and there are tons of other people who want his time, and want his attention […]” So, I just said: “I have to keep trying to get his attention.”

When you do not think things personally, and you feel you have obligations to others, you will persist. You will do the right thing because you know that what you do will bring values to others.

Jie Ke: You have made some important decisions in your career, such as choosing to go to Hong Kong and start a new management department there. At that time, you were just a researcher, and you did not have much administrative experience. How did you tackle those changes and challenges?

Anne Tsui: Well, since we are talking about critical decisions, I guess I can tell another story about moving to Irvine from Duke. That involved some pretty hard soul-searching too. I had a tenured Associate Professor offer from Colorado, Boulder, and an untenured Assistant Professor offer from UC, Irvine. Most people would have gone to Boulder, right? I chose to go to UC, Irvine, because of what Lyman Porter, one of our gurus in our field who was at Irvine, said: “Anne, come as an assistant (professor), and you will get tenured next year, that is almost a certainty. One of the most famous professors in psychology at Berkeley moved from associate tenured at Yale to assistant without tenure at Berkeley. So, it happens, do not worry about it.”

If Lyman has that kind of confidence in me and compares me to this famous psychology professor, I should not have anything to worry about. I appreciated Lyman’s confidence in me. So, I said: “Okay, that is fine with me.” I went to UC, Irvine.

That move clearly was not an advancement in my career, it was going backwards. I had the confidence that if you do good work, people will recognize it. Also, we should think long term, which maybe is a Chinese thing. Do not look at only present value, look at the future. It did take me a lot of thinking on whether or not to take an assistant non-tenured job over an associate tenured job. So, that was an important decision.

Now back to the question of how I felt being an administrator. I did not know what I was getting into. All I knew was just that I wanted to help this university to build a world-class management department. I just did the best I could. I told myself: “I will do it as long as the Dean wants me to; and I will stop when the faculty decides that my time is up.” The transition was not too difficult. We had good staff support. I had two very capable assistants in the department along with a personal secretary. That was so cool; I never had a personal secretary before. There was one department office manager and a clerk, a total of three, four including myself. We also had a few faculty colleagues who joined either before me or at the same time. We did a lot of recruitments during the first few years. Every year, we hired two to three new faculty colleagues. The toughest part of the job was tenure and promotion review. We had to deny tenure to one person. That person took it very hard, and it was very hard on me too. That was a hard one.

Jie Ke: What was the most memorable coaching experience you have had, either you were the mentor or mentee?

Anne Tsui: I mentioned several of them already, George Milkovich, Charles O’Reilly, Lyman Porter and Barbara Gutek. They were all very helpful. As a mentor to my students, I try to make sure what is best for their careers. One time, a student wanted to finish in Four years, I said: “You can not, you are not ready.” I held him back for a year and that was the best thing for him (at least I hope, but I think he agreed). Another time, somebody asked me to be the editor for a professional (executive) journal. I recommended a student of mine because I know that student would be very good at it. It turns out very good for this student’s career and who is now very successful. In my mentoring, I tried to prepare them, support them, offer them opportunities, and I know they will do well.

Jie Ke: Would you do differently in your career if started it all over again?

Anne Tsui: I have asked myself this question many times of “the road not travelled.” “What would I do differently if I had a second chance in my career?” I think that I am called to this career. I really feel strongly that there is a higher spirit guiding my way in life. I have to say that it is been a life with a lot of challenges, lots of joy, and lots of meaning, so, I am not sure that I would do it differently, but I might take a different major in graduate school.

I have a background in Psychology but I think I am more like a sociologist. I like social psychology a lot better than any other branches of psychology. If I started all over again, I would study sociology as my major. I probably would enjoy being a sociology professor more than being a business professor. I tend to think big problems, working at an institutional level, helping a field overall. That has been tremendously enjoyable and tremendously rewarding. However, if I had a corporate job, I probably would enjoy it just as much. I really believe in doing the best you can, and you do that, people will give you opportunities.

Jie Ke: What advice do you have for junior scholars who are taking the journey of professoriate?

Anne Tsui: We refer to our job as a professor, a researcher, or an academic scholar, whatever word you choose to use. I really would like every young scholar to understand what this profession means, what are the duties and what are the responsibilities, and what are the possibilities and rewards that come with this job. I would like everyone to know that it is not just a job, it is a profession. It is a calling. Being a professor is something bigger, more meaningful, and more sacred than many people realize. Some people just teach, write papers, and they treat it like a job. They agonize, and they stress out. They do not see themselves being in a profession that is probably at the top of the pyramid of jobs in a society. A professor/researcher’s job is very sacred. You have a lot of freedom to do what you want to do. But with freedom comes with responsibility. You are not supposed to use the freedom to make your own life better. That freedom means that you have to do work that makes the society better. That is what science is about. Science is about making society better through your research, and through your teaching. You have to have this higher purpose, the bigger mission in mind as you step into this job. I am worried that a lot of people do not think about it this way. As a result, they lose what it means to be a professor. As a result, they find frustration, stress, which is really unfortunate. That is one thing I really want my younger colleagues to keep in mind, and that is, you are in a very meaningful profession. You have to ask yourself, “Is this for me? Do I have the values to contribute to larger good? Am I called to do this job?” If this is not you, you would better off go to work for a company and make lots of money, and make the company better. If being in a company makes you comfortable, you will do something that contributes value to the company. In the university, there are not a lot of accountability measures. The main thing is promotion and tenure. The promotion and tenure system is so flawed. If you are tied up with the promotion and tenure criteria, you are not living up to your mission of contributing to the good of the society because you are just writing papers to better yourself. Our promotion and tenure system is not consistent with the basics of a scientist or a scientific career. If you want to live up to the ideal of what science is all about, and what a professor is all about; you have to put yourself above day-to-day pressure of writing papers. Our duty is not simply writing papers. Our duty is to create knowledge, to make human life better. As a result, we make the world a better place. I want our junior scholars to keep this in mind.

Reflections

In the first part of the interview, Dr Tsui shared her career path started as an HRM practitioner. Along the journey, many internal and external factors have influenced her career choices and decisions, including which PhD program to take and whether to seek a professoriate job after graduating. For instance, in her decision to enter a PhD program, Dr Tsui was motivated by what she called a “naïve” impulse to help, by her sense of valuing education, and by her understanding that learning more about management would make her a more effective manager. At the same time, she was supported by her company and encouraged by the corporate environment in which learning was valued. As Dr Tsui became increasingly fond of research, she was enthused by a desire to find the answers to questions that interested her and by the confidence gained after publishing her first paper.

An interesting aspect of the interview was that Dr Tsui did not have a strong sense of planning to achieve certain career goals when she began her scholarly journey. Instead, she stressed that her career success was the result of her value, persistence, passion towards the profession and hard work. Furthermore, Dr Tsui considered collaboration with senior scholars critical to her growth in academic world. Towards the end of the first part of the interview, Dr Tsui emphasized that the rewards of the research profession may not be as immediate as those of other careers, but that they can be very deep and far reaching. The desire to make a difference is critical.

In the second part of the interview, Dr Tsui will talk about her research practices and services. She will explain what have shaped her interest in Chinese management research, the challenges and issues that she has encountered and her views about future directions in this area of study.

Jie KeManaging Editor, Journal of Human Resource Management

References

Lindholm, J.A. (2004), “Pathways to the professoriate: the role of self, others, and environment in shaping academic career aspirations”, The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 75, pp. 603–35

Sun, J. and Wang, G.G. (2011), “Integrating disparate literatures on voluntary career transition and voluntary turnover: implications for research in the Chinese context”, Journal of Chinese Human Resource Management, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 23–42

Tsui, A. (2006), “Contextualization in Chinese management research”, Management and Organization Review, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 1–13

Zheng, C. and Lamond, D. (2009), “A critical review of human resource management studies (1978-2007) in the People’s Republic of China”, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 20 No. 11, pp. 2194–227