6 Skills for Foreigners, to be Successful Working in China

Issuing time:2017-02-24 17:22Author:John Patrick MullinSource:Linkedin

work in china.jpegSince the days of The Silk Road (120 BCE-1450 CE), China’s huge market, interesting culture, and a vast array of natural resources have been a draw to foreign businessmen and woman alike. With the reformation of China’s centrally planned economy by Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) in 1978, scores of foreigners have flocked to China hoping to capitalize on the newly opened market. This trend continues today; China’s economic miracle has been well documented, and scores of foreign businesses are trying to take their own “piece of the Chinese pie”. Access to the market has not necessarily made being successful in business in China any easier for foreigners. There are many barriers and cultural differences, which make it dramatically different from doing business in our home countries. There are 6 key skills I’ve found that can help those new to "doing business in China" to achieve success.


I have found there to be 6 key skills to develop that will be critical for anyone wishing to be successful in the Chinese business world.


1.Language (Mandarin)


This goes without saying, but to work in China, you need to know Mandarin. So far, I’ve been able to get by, by adding value to my firm through tasks that don’t require speaking fluent Mandarin. However, this is not a long-term solution. I am taking private language lessons three times a week, and learning Mandarin sits atop my priority list for “must-dos” in 2017. Learning the language will not only help you in everyday communication with your colleagues, but it will allow you to be client-facing, participate in more important tasks, and be a true asset to your boss and company. As one of my colleagues told me, “you must eat, sleep, and dream Mandarin”, and he couldn’t be more right.


2.Communication (Verbal, Written & Unspoken)


As the author and playwright, George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” This couldn’t be truer in China. Not only are you dealing with potential language problems, but it’s pertinent to keep in mind the nuances of the Chinese culture, and the idea of “saving face”. It is highly possible to ask a colleague if they understood you, to which they will reply “yes of course.”, but they could just be saying yes to save themselves from embarrassment. One way that I’ve found to help mitigate this problem, is to have a constant communication loop. That means to have constant check-ins with your colleagues, bosses, and team members, to make sure you’re all on the same page. Another way is to ask your colleague to indirectly summarize their tasks or responsibilities for the project. Keep in mind, to continually be sensitive to the issue of “face”, and do not call your colleagues out in front of others.


3.Open-Minded/Culturally Sensitive


Whenever one is in a foreign country, it is important to be culturally sensitive and open-minded. For foreigners in China, this is particularly relevant. This is not only important for work but is also personally rewarding to learn about all that the Chinese culture offers. This can be as simple as eating with your Chinese colleagues at lunch, trying certain dishes you may find strange at company dinners, drinking 白酒 (Baijiu – Chinese alcoholic spirit), or going to KTV (Karaoke) and singing songs with your colleagues. Not only will you be able to bond and develop relationships with your Chinese colleagues, but you can have a lot of fun along the way.


4.Taking the Initiative


This is one of the most important skills to develop not only for work but in life in general. Many of the tasks I was given, people I’ve met, and most interesting things I did transpired because I took the initiative to ask a question. I like to say, “It doesn’t cost anything to ask.” I think this is particularly relevant in China, because often Chinese people might be too shy to reach out to you. It may take some courage to ask a senior employee to coffee or to ask your boss or colleagues for more tasks, but it will pay dividends in the end.


5.Emotional Intelligence (EQ / Situationally Aware)


High EQ or a high level of emotional intelligence is one of the most coveted skills hiring managers tend to seek in employees. This skill is hard to learn, but like a wise man once told me, “EQ is like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.” Having a high EQ is very helpful in a Chinese company, particularly because it is possible for there to be cultural differences, which can create issues in the workplace. Office politics can come into play in any work environment, but as an outsider in a Chinese office, it is even more important to understand and be situationally aware. Not only do you have to look at the titles of your colleagues, but it’s important to see who holds the power, and who has the conviction to get things accomplished. One way that I’ve found to help develop my own EQ, is to self-reflect on both my successes and my failures. This way I can assess the things I did properly in a situation, and the things I did not.


6.Networking (关系 - Guanxi)


A very wise businessperson in China once told me, “Once you sign a business contract in China, you are just beginning a relationship, whereas in the West it is the end of one”. I couldn’t agree more; most things in China get done because of interpersonal relations or guanxi (关系) in Chinese.   In order to cultivate these relationships, networking is of the utmost importance. It’s critical to not only network on your level but in all directions. Network above your ranking, with directors and managers, and below as well. Continually build and nurture your network by using social media platforms like LinkedIn or WeChat. I would like to emphasize the word nurture here because it’s important to not just add a contact, and forget about them. Try and develop a circle of constituents who can assist you when need be, introduce you to others, or help you with your business dealings.


Continually practice these skills through everyday actions at work, and you too may be on the path to a long and successful career in China. Best of luck!

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