Managing in China: Bite the bullet or drink the Kool-Aid?

January 4th, 2011

Which are you – a team player or a lone wolf?

Not so fast there, tough guy. If you are a Westerner posted to China, you may face more difficult choice than you thought. Group-think is recognized as a business problem in the West, but here in China it’s called ‘harmony’ – and it’s considered a basic business skill. Consensus is the rule – until something goes wrong. Then your home office is going to blame your for not speaking up earlier.

You’ve got good news and bad news…

Here’s what my recent timetable for a recent trip from Shanghai to Hangzhou on China Rail’s gleaming new super-fast, ultra-smooth maglev train.

Train from Shanghai to Hangzhou: Approximately 45 minutes – super smooth and efficient.
Taxi line in Hangzhou train station : Over an hour in an unsupervised, jostling line.

That is the problem facing Westerners making business decisions in China. Do you take huge strides in infrastructure as a positive indicator and push to give your company’s China project a big thumbs up? Or are you more concerned by the persistent bottlenecks? This isn’t just about attitudes and outlooks – some business models are optimized for blue skies while others solve problems. The challenge is to stay objective about your business potential in China and send useful analysis back to the home office.

In the old days, an expat manager’s key negotiation was with Chinese service providers, bureaucrats and workers. More and more expats are having their key negotiation with their own HQ back in the US or Europe.

HQ – Front Line Disconnects:

1. Make sure you are sending a balanced message.

Guys who gush about the wonders of New China look bad when traditional problems arise. Your bosses may like positive attitudes, but you had better make sure they have the full story. Local Chinese staffers can be excused for giving ‘glass is half full’ analysis about mission-critical variables – you are supposed to know better. You are paid for getting the job done and the business moving forward at a steady, predictable pace. It’s funny when young Chinese grads tell you that the subway will arrive soon – but they really mean that the construction of the new line will be finished by 2014. It’s not so funny when your inputs to the China business plan are based on incomplete or inaccurate data you gleaned from local Polyannas.

2. Don’t drink the “relativity” Kool-Aid. Not everything is relative.

It’s great that China has progressed so fast, uplifted so many and overcome so much – but that’s not necessarily a critical success factor in your deal. China may be somewhat less bureaucratic, a bit less corrupt and significantly higher quality than it was a few years ago – but that may still fall far short of your corporate needs. Most of us are judged by our ability to deliver on specific business goals. It doesn’t matter how much you miss by, why you missed or how much closer you came than others. You hit or you miss.

3. It’s what they understand – not what you meant.

China can be hard to explain to bosses and boards back at HQ. This is no time for sound-bites or ambiguous big-picture generalization. Everyone wants to be a team player, but if your overseas boss expects you to ‘play hardball and get results’ just like at home, then you may have a problem. Internal negotiation is the most significant type of bargaining you will do.

4. It’s normal to catch yourself saying, “that’s not the way we do it here in China” – but think about how that message comes across in NY or London.

A lot of long-term expats ‘go native’ – generally not a good career move. A big part of the expat experience is building bridges, and that goes both ways.

5. Don’t assume that it’s going to ‘get better’ (i.e.: more like home) by itself.

Problems don’t take care of themselves. When YouTube and Twitter were blocked, it was common for expat managers to counsel patience and wait for things to ‘get back to normal’ after the Olympics, Party conference, full moon, etc. China and the US have different ‘normals’. Your success in China is about your ability to adapt and work around bottlenecks.

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