How to Win The Battle for Chinese Talent

by Michael Whelan

Chinese workplace talent


I have always jokingly told my friends that if China has the same incidence of characters as the rest of humanity, then its stands to reason that there are more geniuses, thieves, brilliant people and crooks than anywhere else on earth, based on the sheer size of the country’s population.  It’s true.  Finding a golden thread of great talent within this fabulous tapestry requires art and science, and a fair amount of guile to get it right.  Here’s one story in that vast magic quilt of stories that is China…

A US/German automotive company was in a fight to the death with an autocratic minority Taiwanese shareholder. The global president of the company needed to hire a Chairman of the JV with a tough psychological makeup to turn the situation around.  We found someone who had salvaged two joint ventures and who came out of an industrial manufacturing background.  The candidate didn’t present well initially but was a China-born, German-educated, naturalized German citizen with plenty of grit.

He came to our 6:00 am hiring interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Shanghai dressed in a very sharp white shirt with bone buttons and a tweed jacket with elbow patches — more suited to breakfast at a Bavarian hunting lodge than an interview for a JV Chairman’s position.  He was very “local Chinese” in style, struggled with his English (I suppose he would have felt and done better in German but I couldn’t accommodate him), but left no doubt that he was flinty enough for the job.

Why Personal History Matters with Chinese Talent

My interview technique generally requires around 3 hours of time and starts with, “Where were you born?”  I want and need to capture a sense of the whole person, not just what someone has done in his/her career.  So, what did your Dad do for work?  And your Mom, did she stay at home or work?  Brothers, sisters?  How many and where are you in the mix?  In China, where someone comes from, what size village, town, city matters, as does family size and what the father did for work.  Social class and category still count for a lot here.

If you were born in a “rural” area, by definition, you get an inferior education through high school.  If you are brilliant, you test into a name university and get your big break in life.  More commonly, you get into an also-ran university or don’t qualify at all.  Out of a population of 1.35 billion people, China last year graduated something less than 7 million, so it’s definitely a primary pre-screening experience.

During and after the cultural revolution (1966-1976), one’s social category, that is, whether you were from a favored background or one that earned you official demerits, determined one’s entire fate; access to university, job assignments (until the mid-90s, university grads were assigned jobs and could not seek a job independently).  All of this factors into who the person you are interviewing really is: values, character, psychology, behavior, experience.  That’s true even if they were born after this cataclysmic event; it’s effects linger on still.

This particular candidate had been to a good university, performed well, entered graduate school in Germany and lived there for several years.  He had returned to China and worked for several foreign companies with manufacturing joint ventures.  I knew he was tough because when I explained to him the adversarial climate at my client’s joint venture in graphic, gory detail, he didn’t blink.  Instead, he began to give me examples of how one must approach these kinds of situations, how one must think about them, the hunkering mentality required, the sure and steady application of will and tenacity that wins the day, and all of this via detailed, colorful examples.

He had spent 9 years at 3 problematic joint ventures of the sort that were so common earlier in China’s opening up history, when Western companies naively thought that their Chinese partners were similarly motivated by profits.  He was able to turn around two of the JVs, converting them into WFOEs (say “woofees” Wholly Foreign Owned Entities) through grit, perseverance and sheer willpower.  These were demanding projects he took on with little outside support or even understanding.  He was one tough bird, even if he was not the most polished guy in the world.

The Leadership Multiplier Effect

I thought the client had better choices, more Westernized, more cosmetic, but my client was a Czech-born, US citizen who had fled Czechoslovakia right after the “Prague Spring” uprising was put down forcefully by the Soviets in 1968.  Georg (not his real name) left within a week, before the borders closed, realizing that he had seen the end of any future he might have in his own country.  He had emigrated to the US with $49 in his pocket, assisted by a charitable organization.

Georg ended up in Milwaukee, where there was a Czech community. He earned his degree at night school, paying his way as a draftsman for an engineering company and saving his pennies.  Five years after fleeing, he went back to get his sweetheart and bring her to the US.

So, here was a guy who himself knew resilience and strong character when he saw it.

After 20+ years at Rockwell, he was now a global president of a US/German automotive tier 1 supplier, a maker of what used to be car locks and keys for cars but now includes electronic “access systems;” auto-locking, remote un/locking, trunk, hood and gas cap releases, door handles, etc.  He had inherited a joint venture in China that was run by an incredibly autocratic and crooked Taiwanese man who held them hostage while embezzling millions of dollars.

Georg knew it and had to bring someone in over the Taiwanese GM’s head in order to save the joint venture, and the mother company.

Enter our candidate…

After a year, the US/German company prevailed over the hostile partner, won control of the joint venture, and went on the following year to grow revenues by nearly 40%, reduce administrative staff by 50%, and double profits. Four years later, profits had grown to 600% of what they were, and revenues, 260%.  Golden thread indeed…

Michael Whelan“Nothing else provides the leverage in business that outstanding leadership does, and nowhere is the multiplier effect of leadership as great as it is in the wildly morphing business arena that exists in China today.”  Michael Whelan is the Managing Partner of Beijing-based The Palio Group, which helps companies grow their leadership through smart talent acquisition.


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