It doesn’t matter how good your product is if it’s not positioned to be culturally relevant. It also doesn’t matter how good your product is if your work culture is completely incompatible with the local culture, undermining your ability to operate.
American companies fail in China for the same reasons: underestimating the impact of culture, the inability to find people who can bridge the gap and, maybe even more damning, the unwillingness to empower the people who can bridge the gap.
Your first and/or top hire in China needs several things. They need functional ability in your space, usually leadership ability, trustworthiness, and must be a bridge between your culture and China. I find companies usually hire someone who can talk knowledgeably about the functional area. Like Jonathan notes, they do not have a way to avoid the failures in the other issues.
Western Companies in China Need a Bridge
Let’s talk about the bridge problem. How do we face the culture problem? Ignore it? Hope it goes away?
The author notes that companies often do not empower the right people. I would like to add that they often empower the wrong people unknowingly. If you hire people, and do not have a good way to know them well enough to empower them, then you are creating trouble. Based on some cross cultural feeling, or because you must, you empower someone. It is messy. I hate when people think China is a bad place to work when bad things like this happen.
Are Candidates ‘People Pleasing’ or Bridging the Culture Gap?
This is a big problem I see. Many times it falls under trustworthiness, but it also needs its own category. If you interview someone who is good at ‘people pleasing,’ but their real heart is not with you, you have risk. These people often get the job offer for the wrong reasons.
A bridge needs to see the value in your culture and your company. Furthermore, he needs to understand and value what is in his own culture. That is not common to find in China. There is a lot of blind nationalism running around. Lots of guys want to talk about the China way as it were. When you are gone, the China way rules. They need to be able to bridge this gap. It takes a special wisdom to do this and maintain your integrity. Thus, companies often fail here. People pleasers do interview well.
Let me here place part of the article Jonathan linked to.
A Financial Times investigation last month revealed there had been a mass staff exodus from the company’s ecommerce team in London, who complained of an aggressive working culture enforced by the company’s Chinese leadership. Recommended TikTok Inc TikTok Shop’s troubled UK expansion: staff exodus and culture clash After the revelations, Joshua Ma, a senior ByteDance executive who ran TikTok Shop in Europe, was replaced, as the company investigated comments made to London-based staff that he “didn’t believe” in maternity leave.
Many times I see the Western HQ booting it in China just like this Chinese man did in London. You can hire a bridge in China, but if you make the gap too big, you have given him mission impossible. See also Knowing Your Core Values.
Really a Headache
If you hire the wrong bridge, he will be a wall instead and separate you and your China work from each other. China will be a black box to you unfortunately.
How Can We Do Better?
Companies are quite picky about getting people with the functional ability they need. Many times companies lightly touch other issues and talk about right fit. You are far short of what you need. Many guys interview like they are a great window to the culture. When they work for you, they are never as good as the day of the interview.
SHI Group’s skill is in finding out what happens in those other days you could not see when they were at their previous company. Our 13 year old company has worked hard to know what needs to be be found and how to access it. We find the exact information that guarantees a good hire again and again.