5min read

China 2.0: Four Things to Know Before Moving to The Wild Wild East

When I moved to China in 1998, it was impossible for me to find a Starbucks, a place that served an egg and cheese bagel, a roasted chicken for Sunday supper or be able to converse with waiters, or any customer service person in English. While I didn’t speak a word of Chinese, and to be honest, I still can’t grasp the four tones as accurately as I’d love to, I decided to make China the headquarters of my coaching business in 2006.

Why?, do you ask?

Well, I knew in my gut, that China was going to play a huge part in the global economy. There is no shortage of evidence that China, has arrived. In fact, she arrived long ago. To put things into perspective, I’m an American, and less than 50 percent of Americans own a passport. Those Americans who have been to China, I wouldn’t count on that being more than 5 percent. So I wouldn’t be surprised, if people still think the China today, is the China it was two decades ago.

In today’s new world, leadership and performance expectations are much higher, and privileges that a foreigner used to experience no longer apply. To survive in today’s China, you have to be agile, resilient and prepared.
So if you want to shake life up a little, and switch gears to China, below are four things you need to know before uprooting your life to the Wild Wild East.

1. Raise That Mandarin Bar

When I first arrived to Shanghai back in the ‘90s, you were paid less if you spoke Mandarin. This was because if you spoke the language, you were considered local. Today, C-suite and director level executives are expected to prove adept in dealing with other cultural nuances. If you can converse fluently in business mandarin, well… respect, because it is now a requirement for senior roles.

In addition, there is a growing premium on the “China experience”. I have noticed several fresh Western graduates doing year-long internships for free. Within that same year, these future-sighted young expats are establishing relationships and connections to launch a business of their own. They recognize that ripe opportunity is within China… the China Dream has replaced the American Dream.

What does this mean if you’re a senior executive? Book yourself in for a few Mandarin and culture lessons before arriving. Make sure you have a decent level of understanding of what’s required in doing business and networking in China, well before you start your new role.

2. Play by Her Rules

Times have changed: gone is the antiquated belief of being special and different just by being a foreigner. Foreigners who opt to stay within their existing social circles will struggle, and may ironically find themselves ousted from the new China. Those who can engage their local peers intelligently, laugh at themselves and ask lots of questions, will succeed by creating connectedness rather than separateness.

Americans, like myself, are socialized from an early age to think every country wants to be like us. China taught me that most nationalities really just don’t give a damn about the American way. I now understand and agree with them. As much as you are eager to jump in and “fix” things – don’t. Step back, look, watch, and listen. Notice how it’s through relationships that work gets done. Pay attention to the dynamics, and start creating alliances.

China has been around a lot longer than most countries – “they’ve got this”. Now it’s your turn to get it too.

3. The Road to China 2.0 is Filled with Leadership Insights

Redefine Your Concept of Time

In America, time has a value: it equates to money. In China, relationships are currency. And the time it takes to build this value is a very, very long runway.

The art of forming relationships is arguably the most valuable skill Western leaders in Asia can study, and re-apply back home to yield greater results. Rather than view time as a transactional commodity, slow down to have lunch with a business associate, versus “sealing the deal” over 15-minute coffee breaks or a 45-minute lunch. Rome was not built in a day. Take what’s necessary to build trust – even if it demands a year of meals and bai jiu.

Food, as a way of life, is also important. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I can guarantee you the first question out of anybody’s mouth is “Have you eaten?” In China, meals are the secret handshake. Take the time to not talk business when eating or drinking – allow things to unfold naturally, as they would. Trust that the business conversation will come slowly and indirectly when the relationship is solidified, which is not the first, second or even third date. Relationships take time, so slow down and enjoy the process, and meal.

There is Always a Way to Get to Yes

How do you turn that repeated “no” into a victorious “yes”? Of all the leadership lessons China has imparted, this is my favorite, because most Western leaders will face more respectful declines than nods if it’s your first time in China.

Again, it’s about shifting the mindset. The American transaction is often blunt; the Chinese have firm rules, yet often the rules are flexible. The secret lies in people – not in straightforward agreements. This ties back to the relationships being forged over time: a skill that I find useful, even back in the States.

This might feel slippery at first, because the path isn’t linear. It is possible to push boundaries through conversations, connections, flare, and fancy footwork, in order to eventually get to “Yes!”. There is always a way… always. If you can get to “Yes” in a complex world like China, you can make it happen anywhere!

Be Like Water,  As Bruce Lee Would

China has learned very quickly about the specific skill sets and competencies Westerners bring to the table.

In the past three decades, 4 million Chinese students have studied abroad, with 2.2 million returning home by 2016. The present-day workforce is extremely international, and capable of fulfilling roles once outsourced to foreigners. Expats are increasingly expensive for companies to employ. Unless you are transferred as a senior stakeholder, because your company isn’t ready to localize its leadership team yet; all Western leaders – new or experienced – must learn to be nimble and agile, and deal with indirect communication. Case in point: when their contract is up, expats have to choose between staying (re-new or find another role) or leaving. Most expats who thrive in China usually stay, or transfer to Singapore, Hong Kong, or another emerging market in Asia.

Everybody gets promoted. The question becomes: do you, as a global leader, want to stay in China, move abroad, or eventually head home? From there, move accordingly to develop the skills you’ll need. When in China, it is easy to become obsolete and unremembered at a global corporate level. So you will need to relentlessly make yourself and your work relevant, to ensure you are still a key player in the future growth of the company.

After all, China is but one stop in a series of opportunities.

4. Evaluate Your Leadership Blind Spots

For seasoned global leaders who are relocated to China to troubleshoot issues, it is important to remember that you are the new guy despite previous big wins. Just because you’re a rock star at home, doesn’t mean you’re going to be a rock star abroad. In China, I learned to watch how things get done first. Western leaders struggle with pausing; we simply aren’t used to slowing down to observe the norms, cultural values, or nuisances. Sit on your hands and stop talking.

For emerging leaders who have said yes to a role because it’s a stepping stone to the next career ladder rung, they must learn how to navigate the politics and resolve conflicts with their colleagues – or risk getting sidelined. It is a huge challenge for rising stars, who are just getting used to dealing with international colleagues, let alone a Chinese team. But those who can push through, and create relevance and achievement with their colleagues, will go far in China. Those who sit back and are conflict avoidant, or blame that the Chinese don’t know how to do it well or right, will risk being overlooked because their colleagues will work around them and supersede them.

Some final thoughts:

After living and working in China for more than 20 years, I’m still learning. China is endlessly fluid. I highly encourage you to consider pushing your comfort zone and go abroad. The Wild Wild East forces you to problem solve in unique and unconventional ways, cracks open your preconceived judgements of what will work (and doesn’t), throws you into ambiguity that has clarity through relationships, and delights you with food, friends, and freaky moments that can only happen in China.

It goes without saying: you have to be prepared. The road ahead will be bumpy and clunky – you will have “Why on *!@#* earth did I move here???” days (otherwise known as “I’m having a China day”), and yet, the very next day, you fall right back in love with her again. With proper time and resources invested in learning about the culture, cultivating key relationships and getting out there to listen, observe and learn, you will, undoubtedly, experience the ride of your life.

Buckle up…