How to succeed in China

, ,

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.

Finally, check out Melanie Parsons Gao’s blog. She is a Sun employee who blogs about making the transition to China. She posted a list of what to bring that is interesting even if you never go.

6 replies
  1. Jasmine
    Jasmine says:

    It’s quite exciting to read your post regarding something in China, because of course I’m here being one of your audience in this country:-).

    I’d also like to compliment on Everhart’s list of success traits – they are so true! I have witnessed and also am working with a lot of expatriates who I’m sure went through the struggling phase. Some are more successful than the others. Your point, Penelope, on dealing with “uncertainty & ambiguity” is very to the point. This is a country where literally everything is changing, evolving. It’s exciting but also terrifying sometimes, thinking about changes happening so quick, decisions made so fast.

    You have not worked in China, I guess, however this post could certainly be helpful to those who are intrested to any degree in coming or working in this country.

  2. Eric Wong
    Eric Wong says:

    Hi Penelope,

    My company invests a primarily in Chinese companies and I have had a chance to go to China for business trips a couple of times. Even as a Chinese Singaporean, the Chinese culture comes as a shock to me, the Chinese are a loud people (yes that means they talk really loudly!)and business dealings tend to be a bit shady at times with a lot of side deals happening. A case in point is that there was a clamp down on government purchase of medical equipment because of kickbacks received by hospital officials from medical devices companies to purchase their products. Such corrupt
    practices are common place in China and sometimes it is the only way.

  3. Emme
    Emme says:

    Hello! it was great reading this blog post. I am a trailing spouse living in Shanghai who has been searching for a job for 3 months now with no luck. As an expat who doesn’t speak the language, it is very tough to find work in one’s field, and if one does, it pays pennies. I have an interview today for a customer service position/english training in a big company, but the salaries are usually very disappointing, so I am going to set my expectations low. It was a great help to read about your recommendations on how to handle salary questions. I will try them. I am trying to be optimistic, but working in China seems a bit harder than I thought. One could teach English, but it is just not what I want to do.


  4. Staying Young
    Staying Young says:

    A friend who does regular business in China took on a Chinese partner who handles the China end. It seems to be working OK with no problems so far. It cuts down on the learning curve as long as you have a partner you can trust – but that’s true of any business relationship.

  5. Scott
    Scott says:

    One of my best mates moved to Shanghai to give it a go. He started off learning Chinese and now has moved into managing recruitment companies. He has been there 5 years now and still hasnt settled in properly.

Comments are closed.