China-Knowledge Is Key For Companies Like Bain, L’Oréal & Grant Thornton

Big firms want Western executives who understand how to do business in China

Michael Lake recruits MBAs and experienced postgraduates studying in Europe into top-tier jobs at L’Oréal. In November, he spent a week in Shanghai and Hong Kong, to build up his knowledge of the local market and to learn how China is attracting talent from abroad.

For Michael, wherever you work, knowing how to do business today in China is key.

“If you’re an international organization, then China represents a huge potential for growth—a market of 1.4 billion potential consumers,” Michael explains. “And you can only sell products if you understand the market.

“As Chinese influence grows, that’s going to have an impact on other markets as well—you need to be aware of what’s happening.”

In the past decade, China has transitioned from a manufacturing economy—‘the factory of the world’—to one where more and more Western companies, like L’Oréal, are selling products and services into it.

The opportunities in China are there—China accounts for 15% of global GDP. But, for many Western execs, operating in China can be a challenge. There are barriers to doing business in China: the language, the close personal networks, and foreign concepts like Guanxi.

Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB)—China’s first independent, faculty-governed and non-profit business school—has just launched a new China Mini EMBA+—a nine-day, five-city program to help Western executives overcome those barriers.

The program will cover topics including: how to negotiate with the Chinese; how to build a successful Chinese business presence; and how to enter the Chinese market.

It’s clear today’s professionals need a new skillset; to understand how to do business in, not just with, China.

“You need cultural awareness, flexibility and agility,” says Michael. “You need to be ready for very fast change.” Michael’s view is echoed by recruiters and leading business figures across industries.

Stephen Shih is a partner at Bain & Co., who formerly led Bain’s Asia-Pacific recruiting efforts. He’s also a former pre-term lecturer and MBA mentor at CKGSB. He says professionals always need to consider the context of the country they’re operating in.

“Good leadership is good leadership,” he explains, “but it’s got to be adapted to the context of an individual market. Even beyond the sheer size of market in China,” he continues, “what’s important to keep in mind is how much China has modernized in the last 15-to-20 years.

“China is no longer about being a low-cost manufacturing hub—it’s no longer just imitating business models around the world. It’s become a source of innovation in terms of new tech, new business models, and entrepreneurial energy.

“That’s why business professionals from around the world really need to understand the latest trends, the latest strategies companies are using, and the best practices coming out of China.”

Simon Bevan, head of China Britain Services Group at Grant Thornton, agrees:

“Whilst Chinese businesses essentially have the same needs as Western ones, there is always a China-characteristic, whether it be cultural, linguistic or technical. Being able to successfully navigate these characteristics improves the experience of such situations—both for the professional and for the Chinese business,” he says.

Starting in London in March 2018, the participants on CKGSB’s China Mini EMBA+ will complete three modules over the course of three months; four days in Europe—in London and Paris—either side of a five-day expedition in China—in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen—where they’ll visit disruptive companies like Didi Taxi, China’s Uber alternative.

Participants will also gain access to the Chinese business elite. Out of Fortune’s China Top 500 companies, 66 are led by CKGSB alumni, including Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

“We see there’s a huge need in the market,” says Bo Ji, chief representative of CKGSB Europe, and director of the China Mini EMBA+. “Particularly in corporations across Europe and US, when you do business now, you inevitably have to deal with China.

“Yet there’s something missing, and that’s the knowledge, insight, and experience of doing business with China. We decided to create our program to meet that need.”

For Jane Barrett, careers expert and director of The Career Farm—which offers online career development programs for MBAs—the message is clear.

“Understanding the cultural nuances and being able to connect on a personal level with Chinese clients is critical,” she says, “and employers will place a high value on staff who can help them navigate their way into this market.”

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