I have now been building teams in China for the last eight years.
From a small office in Shanghai, we now have 10 offices across Greater China, employing over 450 staff. During this time, I’ve recruited, managed and groomed dozens of local Chinese talent, and it has been a real privilege to have seen them grow their careers and succeed.
Here are three lessons I have learned about building successful teams in China:
Lesson #1: Build a strong foundation
“You can’t ask people to think outside the box unless you give them the box in the first place.”
One of the very first books I read when I arrived in China was ‘Made It In China’ a series of stories from entrepreneurs who had set up businesses here.
The book had highlighted the story of Malaysia-born entrepreneur JC Lim, who first entered the Chinese market selling cookware sets. Then, he had simply handed his sales team a stack of name cards, told them “off you go”, and hoped for the best.
Instead of the roaring success he anticipated, JC was faced with a high failure rate, largely because the local salesmen had very limited exposure to his type of product and sales methods.
So he started putting his salesmen through an intensive training process, which set to establish their foundation and also, creativity. As he explained, people need to be creative thinkers to succeed in sales, but they first had to know what to be creative about. “You have to first give them the box and then move forward from there,” he said.
His story taught me this: When training and developing your team, make sure they have a really strong understanding of the basics first, before you challenge them to be creative and engage in broader thinking. This will allow them to gain confidence in performing the basics and set the tone for creativity later on.
For us at Michael Page, building strong foundations means giving our staff proper training in the various recruitment solutions we offer, a clear career progression path and arming them with professional and practical training and development to build a successful career as a recruiter. Back in 2009, we implemented a very clear six-week “boot camp” that involved classroom training with practical “client” and “recruiter” role plays and activity in between. This has evolved as we have grown but the core remains today.
Lesson #2: Be patient… and humble
A famous Chinese idiom goes, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand”.
You need to be very clear and direct about your expectations as a leader, but patience is also critical in a variety of situations. It can take time for someone to understand different concepts, or to explain what you are trying to drive as a business. Sometimes, it can even take time because of a language or culture clash.
Being patient can be hard if you are trying to execute with speed or when you spot a business opportunity with first-mover advantage. So alongside this patience, humility is essential. Frustrations will occur in both business and people situations. If these are handled calmly and with good grace, then a positive outcome is more likely. Try to put yourself in the other’s shoes and remember that you were in that position once as a rookie. More likely than not, you will be appreciated and respected for doing so.
As I write this, I am reminded of the story of one of the more successful leaders in our China business. When she first joined the company in 2010, she struggled with her role and priorities as she did not have any prior recruiting knowledge. While she took slightly longer to catch up with her peers, what helped shorten the process was her manager’s investment in her. He was intentional in taking time out to coach and support her even though he was busy with his own work.
Fast forward six years later, my colleague is now leading her own team of 30 consultants, having overcome her initial challenges. And I am encouraged to see her paying it back by extending to her team the same patience and humility she was shown.
Lesson #3: Have the courage of your convictions
I believe that success in a team is 10 per cent strategy and 90 per cent execution
Plenty of ideas and strategic opportunities flow around a growing business. But I don’t think anyone is ever totally sure an idea or strategy will work. I have always found that so much of the potential success lies in the execution rather than the strategy itself. After the requisite due diligence and stress-testing, if you find the idea a worthwhile opportunity, then back it 100 per cent. No half-measures.
We went through a major setback while establishing our newest China offices several years back — three consultants resigned within the first two weeks of setting up in Suzhou. Then, we could have given up, citing reasons like the lack of market readiness. But we chose to forge ahead, remembering our vision of committing to China for the long run.
It took a bit longer than hoped before we saw our effort paying off. Looking back, we didn’t get everything right the first time, but what helped was having a team that refused to lose focus and who were willing to persevere in a tough environment.
Clearly some of the points are relevant to all teams everywhere but I think they particularly resonate in China, where traits like patience and humility are often highly valued.
Should you take further interest in this topic, please connect with me on LinkedIn or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
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