My Chinese radar really perked up last week when I read the Economist article about Alibaba. This Chinese company is the largest online business-to-business marketplace in the world, and it just purchased Yahoo! China, which makes Alibaba the12th most popular site in the world.
I checked out the site right away, and, guess what? It looks just like eBay, except that the testimonial on the home page is from someone who lives in Vietnam. Moments like this make me think career advice really needs to address the China issue: How will you survive in China? But the answer is, of course, that you probably won’t. Which is why I don’t write a lot of advice about it.
Some people will do well in China, though. So let’s take a look.
There is a brisk business in Chinese nannies for American babies. New York Magazine reports that, “The lycee is passe (old Europe has no trade surplus), and some parents are scouring Craigslist and placing ads in the China Press for sitters who speak Mandarin, China’s official language.”
One of those parents says, “Even if my little girl weren’t very smart, she’s always going to get a job because she’ll be totally fluent in Chinese.”
This is not true. It takes a lot more than speaking Chinese to succeed in China.
China is among the easiest countries to attract outsiders to work but is also one of the hardest places for them to succeed, according to David Everhart, regional practice leader for Asia at the recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International.
Everhart gave me this list of five traits of people who succeed on a Chinese mission:
1. You are generally a very patient person, with a high tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.
2. You already have a certain knowledge of Chinese culture — not only societal, but also the business culture.
3. You have evaluated your company’s China strategy and are empowered to manage expectations at the home office about what it will take to meet your goals.
4. You have researched and secured extra support so your family will be able to adapt socially in China.
5. You arrive in China and immediately begin thinking about succession planning: how to develop the leaders of the future who will allow the firm to localize its management team.
Most of us will never work in China, but there’s a lesson in this list. You need social skills and a big-picture strategy for any job you take. In China, because of a cultural gap, you need them even more. But don’t kid yourself: If you can’t tolerate a certain amount of uncertainty and ambiguity, you will flounder in a leadership position anywhere, not just in China.