How Western Companies Should Go About Hiring Talent in China

August 26, 2014

For a lot of Western corporations, expanding in China is seen as the key to soaring profits and continued growth. Because of that many companies have tried to set up shop there and one of the first challenges they encounter is hiring talent. Is it better to import Western management to transplant to company culture or is it more sustainable to hire locally?

We reached out to Rosemary Coates, a business consultant and book author, who helps corporations expand overseas. Rosemary has counseled numerous companies through such expansions and offered a few tips to keep in mind when developing your management hiring strategy in China:

1. Seek to hire cultural hybrids.

Many foreign businesses fail when they come to China, explains Coates, because they bring in a Western manager with a great track record but that person can’t properly manage a Chinese workforce.

On the other hand, hiring a strictly Chinese management team with no knowledge of your company’s practices and culture can also lead to severe communications difficulties, says Coates.

The best chance at success is finding an executive who has experience with both cultures, perhaps someone who is originally from China or has a Chinese heritage, but educated in the West. Or a Western executive with many years of experience working in China, steeped in Chinese culture.

You need people who can act as go-betweens in order to translate your business model and operations clearly to a Chinese workforce. Without that hybrid, you will struggle.

2. Embrace the changing landscape in China’s workforce.

Since China has been largely industrialized only in the last three decades, the prevailing perception has been that experienced management can’t be found within the country. “Many corporations coming into China have had to import managers or train Chinese managers from scratch,” says Coates. But today with 700,000 new engineering graduates yearly, the landscape of China’s workforce is changing, and there’s a lot more opportunity for recruiting for management roles within the country.

3. Don’t expect your team to resemble its Western counterpart.

Whether it’s comprised of Westerners or Chinese or a combination of both, don’t expect your team to operate or communicate the same way as it would back home.

Professional decorum and business practices in China are completely different from Western practices. For example, the Chinese are taught from an early age to respect authority, and to that end they are never comfortable giving direct criticism or feedback, because it makes someone lose face, which is considered disrespectful. “It’s just not allowed,” says Coates.

So any business practice that requires executives to sit down together in a room and give honest feedback to one another may not be as effective in China. “It’s just more challenging to practice those types of Western communication styles in China,” says Coates. Your management has to understand these fundamental cultural differences and be able to find an approach that will both serve the purpose of the company, but also be comfortable to local employees and business partners.

4. Utilize Chinese resources.

It’s critical to cultivate business contacts in China. And if you don’t know where to start, there are a few websites that Westerners can use to help them get started locating good management talent. Rosemary recommends a large resource called Supply Chain China, which can be particularly handy at discovering qualified operations talent.

5. Hire locally.

When hiring Chinese nationals, it’s important to keep in mind that “the Chinese people are traditionally not as migratory as Americans or Westerners tend to be,” says Coates. They live within in the same region where they’ve lived for most of their lives, in order to be close to extended family.

“As much as we think Americans are family-oriented, the Chinese are much more so,” she explains, and many won’t be happy if they have to move far away from extended family in order to take a job.

Assembling a management team in China is not an easy task, but if you can put in the time to understand the culture, you’ll have a much better chance at creating a team with roots that take hold. And when you do, you’ll be well rewarded.

“China is just an amazing place,” says Coates. “It’s just full of energy and hard, working people who are thirsty to learn. It’s like no place else on earth.”

* image by Carlos Donderis

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