HOW MODERN WATER’S LINIAN LI LEADS WITH AN ENVIRONMENTAL EDGE
Linian Li takes the lead in managing and developing Modern Water’s business in China, formulating and guiding the company’s strategy. She joined Modern Water after a 10-year management career in international companies including JCDecaux, GM Europe GmbH, Carat, and Rouse. She holds an MBA in natural resources, energy and environment from the University of Alberta, Canada and a Masters in management from the Grande École Programme at EDHEC Business School, France.
What inspired you to get into your current industry?
I believe humankind should work together to build trust today and secure a sustainable tomorrow. By working in an environmental management industry, I can directly contribute to the improvement of the environment on a daily basis. Modern Water is a pioneering technology company specialising in membrane water treatment solutions and advanced monitoring products. Our headline technologies can be used to tackle complex wastewater treatment problems while being simple to operate and at a reduced cost compared to standard processes.
Have you ever experienced a tough time that made you want to give up?
I was Modern Water’s first employee in China, starting the company from scratch. I have formulated the company’s strategy and grown Modern Water’s business in China for the past 10 years. It was not easy to achieve this or to be accepted as a female leader in an industry dominated by male engineers. It took me two years to enter the water management industry, even though I have an MBA in Natural Resource Energy and Environmental; I was criticised by a chief engineer when I found he’d made a drawing mistake and was discouraged by colleagues not to go to our Oman project because there were no toilets for women on-site.
I was discouraged by colleagues not to go to our Oman project because there were no toilets for women on-site.
Life is full of challenges, but I try and stay true to my original goals. Take the year 2020, for example. Due to the pandemic, there was a decline in factory capacity. However, ecological environment emergency testing projects in several provinces and cities in China were still in urgent need of our heavy metal and toxicity testing instruments. Over the course of several weeks, we communicated with three foreign factories, reassigned orders, adjusted production shift systems, staggered work shifts, restored production capacity as soon as possible, and quickly adjusted logistics and transportation strategies so as to meet the delivery time required by domestic projects.
Li at the 2021 China Social Impact Awards, where Modern Water won the Universal Healthcare Award
How important is it to have a role model or mentor? Who is your role model?
A good mentor can help you build confidence and set you up for success. In the past few years, I joined Vision of Women (VOW), a female leadership development programme in operation since 2015. During the VOW programme, I met my mentor, Andrew Moss, who was then vice president of GKN China. He taught me to keep learning, to try new things and to adjust my strategy according. By providing me with tools, techniques and methodologies for modern business leadership and strengthening my personal professional networks, Andrew improved my level of business understanding, increased my leadership capability and helped me grow and succeed. I was a mentee with the programme in 2016 and a mentor in 2017, which was organised by CBBC.
Confidence is the ability to overcome life’s challenges. Many of these challenges will stem from other people’s biases, so it is important to listen and understand why people have these biases and how they might affect you
What is one thing people can do at work to help eliminate gender bias in the workplace?
Gender balance on boards not only encourages better leadership and governance, but diversity further contributes to better all-round board performance and ultimately increases corporate performance for both companies and their shareholders. Companies should start with small actions, such as investing more in employee training about gender diversity, ensuring that hiring, promotions and reviews are fair.
Environmental engineering is a male-dominated sector. But I’ve got a lot of help from my colleagues in this industry, and I feel it’s important to recognise who we are and that female power is one of our strengths. I have also seen women who try to conform or “act like a man” in order to fit in. Being empathetic can be a natural advantage for women. When we are empathetic, we listen more and understand other people’s positions. It helps us to make better decisions and lead more effectively. Knowing how to connect and trust others in the workplace is an important step.
I have sponsored a number of programmes aimed at nurturing female graduate students’ innovation and creativity by working with British Universities. I provided a Practice Track project as a part of Bath University’s Engineering Management Masters programmes, supporting a group of Chinese female graduates to prepare for future engineering and technology management roles. We arranged a visit to Modern Water’s UK office and laboratory, and the students had the chance to work on real-world engineering business or technology management challenges together with our employees and be involved in developing company strategies. The project helped the female students to put the skills and knowledge that they have learned into practice, giving them more confidence to look for job opportunities in the environmental industry after they return to China.
If you could sum up your best bit of business advice in one sentence, what would it be?
Be confident, be bold but be humble!
Confidence does not mean that you are not afraid, but rather that you have the ability to overcome life’s challenges. Many of these challenges will stem from other people’s biases. It is important to listen with an open mind and understand why people have these biases and how they might affect you, but also to listen to your heart and do things your way. Enjoy life, don’t follow the crowd, and time will take you to the right place.