Foreign Entrepreneurs in China is a blog we highlighted a few weeks back in our “best blogs” post. Last week there was an interesting post featuring Kevin Lai, Asia General Manager for New Zealand multinational Actronic Technologies.
I’m the China baby of the Imports Oriental team, having spent a mere 7 years here; I was impressed by some of the insights Kevin had to share from only 3 years in China. The whole set are worth taking a look at (you can read them here) but I’ve chosen a few to highlight and add my own thoughts on.
1. Language Barrier: It’s not the Only One.
Lots of companies do not appreciate how different China is. They assume language is the barrier but there is a lot more to it. Culture, taste and behaviour add to the difficulty to interpret what is going on. And the value system is so completely different that at times you don’t know whether to react outraged or ignore a situation.
That last line really speaks to me. I still find that on occasion I have no idea what the correct response to a situation is. I know what is going on, and how I feel about it, but I don’t know how to convey my feelings appropriately. Sometimes I simply have no idea if what I am feeling has anything to do with what the other person intended to convey!
I don’t think there’s much of a shortcut to learning this stuff, but my best suggestion is to ask questions of local friends and expats who have spent more time in Chinese circles than you have. Listen to their advice and insights, even if it doesn’t seem applicable to you; sometimes it won’t make sense to you until you’re in a similar situation.
5. Statistics are Good but Don’t Let them Fool You.
Statistics may provide you with a good overview, but don’t forget they’re just an average and they hide a lot of information.
A friend of mine once said “everything you’ve ever heard about China is true….somewhere”. I still quote this as I find it very apt. China is a very big place; it’s not uniform throughout. Assuming that you know every place in China just because you know one place (and so on) is problematic. It’s good to remember that no matter how long you’ve been here, you don’t know it all.
6. Market Research & Reports: Be Ware of Polite or Aspirational Answers
Reading market reports is good, but you need to understand what you are reading. You may be asking somebody: Would you go to New Zealand? And they will say yes, but it is more their aspiration than a reality. Same goes for polite answers. Some people would be embarrassed to say no.
This point actually got me thinking on a different track. There are significant differences between the English words “will”, “want to” and “can” and their Chinese counterparts. The word yao could be translated “will” or “want to” depending on context; the same word can indicate an aspiration or a concrete plan. I think this leads to ambiguities in understanding the intent behind a person’s words, regardless of what language you’re speaking.
7. “Do It Yourself” … Not Worthy Here (for entrepreneurs)
You need to seek help in order to settle here so that you can focus on the core business. Helps is available for free. Just ask! Contact your own country’s expat networks, your Government Agencies.
A good thing for all new expats to keep in mind! People have done this before – so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Most expats who’ve been around a while are more than happy to share some tips. Trying to go it alone and work it all out yourself is a waste of your time and energy – and adjusting to a new place will take enough of that as it is.
10. Trust- not just an Empty Word. Once you Gain Trust lots of Doors Open.
The value of trust is not a China myth. Chinese people are very caring when it comes to their families, friends and network. They will ignore you if you are not in the circle, but once you make it, once you gain their trust and become part of their network they will start caring about you in a very personal way.
I am often surprised by the strength and shown to me by long-term Chinese acquaintances. These aren’t my close friends (that isn’t so surprising) but rather people I have known for years in a more casual way. For example, drivers I would hire to drive me back and forth between Langfang and Beijing, or a landlady I only saw often enough to pay rent, or the manager of a nail salon I visited regularly for years. In many cases I sense a difference when I am “promoted” to a closer circle, rather than being merely a client/customer etc.
As with one of my previous comments, I’m not sure there’s a shortcut here. The important thing is simply to recognize that this is how things work. It’s worth investing time in building relationships – not just in a personal context (with friendships) but with vendors, services and the like. Once that trust is built up, by virtue of continued association, things change. You can’t necessarily anticipate that change – when it will happen and what it will look like – but it will be a pleasant surprise when it happens.
12. Hire Somebody you Can Trust.
Lots of companies send people here who don’t speak the language so they’re completely relying on their Chinese employees. It’s quite common to hear stories about people hiring a local manager who initially performs really well but turns into a bad story.
This is a point that comes up over and over in discussions about China. I suspect this is true in any context where you are dependent on an employee for translation and cultural understanding. The counterpoint to needing to find people you can trust is to not be dependent on any one person. When you get in that sort of situation, either you are wrecked when that one person leaves, or keeping that person becomes such a high priority you can be blinded to other things.
14. Keeping your Employees… You may need to pay for it.
In general people like to work for big companies. It gives them status and security. So when you are part of a small/medium business you may need to pay above the average when you hire your local employees.
I agree with the principle of this – in general, people do like the status and security of working for big companies. So when you try to recruit top quality employees to a small business, you need to have something else of value to offer them. I don’t believe that need necessarily be a high salary – there are other ways to make your company attractive. Perhaps it is flexible working hours, greater access to training and personal development, or a manager who cares about them as a person.
For example, when hiring an administrative assistant for our head office in Langfang, we were interviewing several shortlisted candidates. One candidate was particularly attractive to us, but seemed put off by the salary – she had clearly expected more. The Chinese employee conducting the interview with me had a discussion with her about the other benefits of working for our company -such as insurance coverage, more personal holidays and sick leave than mandated by local labor laws, and a nice lunch provided every day. That short discussion totally changed the candidate’s attitude toward the position. I think that a particular strength of our company is that employees feel cared for as individuals, and therefore also want to care for their employers by doing their best for the company.