Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For paving the way to better collaboration

Zeng Fan trained as an electrical engineer. Then he started working on his first project, a gas development in the Chinese province of Sichuan. And after that, he never looked back. "It motivated me to want to understand everything I could about project management," says Fan, deputy project manager at China Petroleum Engineering & Construction Corp. Southwest. "Now I have over 11 years of learning by doing."

One lesson learned? Keep one eye on the big picture, the other on the small details, says Fan (who fittingly runs a side business as an eyeglass maker). 

Case in point: the Amur Gas Processing Plant megaproject, which became operational last year. Fan served as project controls manager, overseeing a team scattered across four locations in three countries. And as delays started creeping up, Fan got to work, pinpointing exactly where the lags were happening—helping the team and protecting the company’s interests. 

On such global teams, Fan also makes it a point to bridge linguistic and cultural differences among team members so everyone has a shared understanding of the project. On a natural gas development in Peru, for example, Fan led a team in time zones spanning 13 hours. To keep the team functioning as one unit, he integrated the workflows and dataflows so all project information could be shared seamlessly.  

The common thread across his projects is also the one element that Fan doesn’t see shifting. "Tools and methodologies may change, but it’s fundamentally about managing people to accomplish work, and this will always remain the same." 

Q&A: Zeng Fan on empathy, educating execs and White Deer Plain

What’s your project management superpower?

Empathy. My frontline roles have taught me to understand and even foresee stakeholders’ needs and wants. Now I can apply that empathy to my direct reports and explain why I ask them to perform certain assignments, instead of just relying on the chain of command.  

How are young people changing the world of projects now? 
With IT developments. In my early days, in 2012, I used spreadsheets to process data and maintain project controls. Around 2017, I used a program to accomplish the same job. Today, we have web-based platforms and databases. Tomorrow, maybe we’ll use an AI-powered platform. Who knows? But it definitely will be developed by young people. 

What’s the biggest challenge facing young project leaders right now? 
In China, project management professionals often are seen as secretaries who serve technical professionals. The challenge is educating people, especially higher-ups, about project management.  

What TV shows or movies are you obsessed with recommending right now?  
If someone wants to learn about society in rural China, the TV series White Deer Plain should not be missed. I’m also a big fan of Spider-Man: No Way Home.