People regularly ask me what it is like to manage a company in China. I came to China directly after obtaining my master’s degree in the Netherlands and I am proud to say that I currently run a successful business in Shenzhen. This question is often asked by friends, but also by peers wanting to come to China with their own business. For experienced China hands, these stories can sound so familiar that they could almost be repetitive. This is because many of the most remarkable experiences gained when running a company in China are due to the culture differences. My experiences might help you get a bit more familiar with the business culture in the Middle Kingdom, look at it as an introduction to being a manager in China.
Stay flexible to solve challenges
What I love about China is the rich dynamics in this country. You feel the drive to grow and see the results all around you. China today is already miles ahead of China yesterday. This means change is part of my daily life as a manager in China. The license obtained last month to do business, might already need to be changed due to changing rules and regulations. The process you figured out might all of a sudden change. Sure, change brings frustrating issues, which could lead to problems or challenges, but the company and team must keep on running. So it is important to believe that an issue can always be fixed in China. A funny cultural difference is that a problem can have a solution, but using the word challenge implies a risk of no solution in Chinese. Therefore, the ability and initiative is of great importance for managers who are always trying to solve problems, preparing to face the challenge at hand and learning to anticipate upcoming change. It doesn’t help by dearly holding on to what works now, or what works back home. By flexibly looking for solutions, you will make continuous improvements.
Don’t be a chauvinist. Be aware of culture differences.
Being a manager in China means you most likely have people working for you who have a different cultural background from you. I discovered that how much culture has influenced me and that almost everyone is a chauvinist. The ways of doing work or business in your home country are not always suitable in an intercultural team. Case in point, in the Netherlands it is expected to raise your voice or concern during meetings, regardless of your position. It shows you are attending and thinking about the subject instead of nodding off. This is different in China. Of course, employees lower in hierarchy and introverts do not talk as much as the directors and extraverts, but Chinese employees have great respect for hierarchy.
In this case, not all concerns are shared, even if you publicly ask your team as the manager. An anecdote which shows such a mix-up and a solution which worked in this instance, was when a Dutch intern was too vocal during a meeting. Without any experience, he was sharing his thoughts on how we should tackle the project. In contrast, our finance manager was quiet, while her opinion was essential for the solution. Afterwards we explained to the intern, in private conversations, that it is not necessary to always give opinions. Moreover, we talked with the finance manager in private about her thoughts and explained that she is free to express her opinions in a meeting and it is even better if she does so. In the end the intern thought about his solutions before expressing them in meetings and the financial manager is no longer afraid to point out the mistakes. The team came closer together and was working in everyone’s comfort zone, but this requires continuous effort as sooner or later we all fall back on our culture.
What I learned from this is that, even though cultures are sometimes opposites of one another, everyone is still willing to look for a way that makes working together more pleasant. Culturally, there is no right or wrong. I have learned a lot about myself when surrounded by a figurative horde of people that act exactly in an opposite way. But we are all humans and our basic norms are the same. We all want to work well together. If you keep that in mind there is always a way to work in an intercultural team.
Frustrations at work (micro)managed
The differences in culture are prevalent in the smallest things during daily life. Office culture is different and new local staff might not be used to meetings that start on time or deadlines which count as actual deadlines. Quite often when a Chinese person starts a job which includes foreigners, deadlines are seen as guidelines to when something needs to be finished. When the requested deadline is deemed too early from the get-go, they will agree anyway. When the foreign party is then frustrated about deadlines not being met, the Chinese side thinks it was silly that these deadlines were set so early to start with. These tiny frustrations constantly appear in daily work. I solved this particular example by explaining that deadlines are mutually agreed upon, but they are binding.
Micromanagement of the staff was necessary in the beginning to make sure things get done on time in the manner I wanted it done. Often asking when, how, in which way things will be done before starting a task will help create boundaries where you as a manager can step in before things go wrong. As time goes on, staff will manage their tasks more independently and will become very valuable. It will be frustrating that this micro management should always be done, or at least regular checks, but it is a way to avoid problems in the future. New foreign managers often complain that their staff is incompetent, but I can honestly say that I am very proud on what my team does, as they go above and beyond what is expected.
Some things you simply cannot change
Of course, there are still things which are simply different and will always be that way. Too many meals without rice in the South of China or noodles in the North and the staff will look for excuses to eat separately. Which I understand, because a few too many meals without dairy, bread or potatoes makes my Dutch heart yearn. Naps during lunch are very much appreciated by Chinese staff and although I cannot imagine waking up rested after lying bent over on a hard desk, the staff does. Preventing making people lose face or receiving regular non direct answers will still happen over your time working in China.
Also, office clothing is something where our cultures potentially miss-match. While Dutch men are known to wear white shirts, no tie, jeans and brown leather long-nosed shoes in a casual professional atmosphere, there are peculiarities in China as well. For instance, office clothing can be seen as the same as what a person wears at home. Every day can be casual Friday, because suits (literally Western outfit in Chinese) are seen as company uniforms and uniforms are worn by police officers or McDonalds workers. Not office employees. These things are the way they are in China and by explaining it to one another, staff gets closer together and managing becomes easier. In the meantime, I started to dress down and my staff wears more appropriate clothing in the office. Except for Fridays.
Sometimes size does matter
The size of cities in China is also completely different than what I was used to. Spakenburg, my 老家 or hometown is so small that in Chinese cities it would maybe be regarded as a sub district. Shenzhen has more people than the entire population of some European countries. This means that for meetings I almost always stay in my district and rarely even travel outside of the city. Even though I travel to Hong Kong every 2 weeks (2 hours away) and Guangzhou (3 hours away) regularly, many people see this as a long journey. Service industry business is often done with companies in the same area for this reason. An interesting thing is that staff is surprisingly easy to get from other cities to move all the way to your city for employment.
Moving around is done very often for employment, even if families are involved. This is another thing I admire about Chinese staff: family always comes first. Even though they might work very far away from home, they will always take care of family. Working in another city, while kids are back in the home town is seen quite often especially with blue collar workers. Sending money back home and only being able to see your family once a year during Chinese New Year to support them, is something I admire a lot. And this does change the way I work, because client visits are done less frequent due to long distances in the same city. For staff it changes the way I manage, because I feel more responsible for staff if they moved all across the country for a job at my office.
There is much to appreciate in China and managing a company here. Asking questions and genuinely wanting to learn from each other, will make this process very experiencing. For everyone moving here it seems like a daunting move: don’t worry. You will come to love China, I have not been to a place as dynamic as China.