Global recruitment specialist, Antal International, in February polled just under 3,000 managers and professionals in China to find out who they considered to be their ideal employer. Overall, the three most popular companies were General Electric (GE), Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Pfizer. Only two Chinese organizations, State Grid and law firm King & Wood, made the list.
Whether this picture will continue for much longer is open to debate. Even though many Chinese managerial candidates aspire to get experience in a Western company, the situation could shift – especially as domestic businesses continue to develop rapidly.
However, some of the survey’s most interesting findings were the actual factors that motivate Chinese professionals to join a big-name Western firm. The first reason was reputation, management style was the second most important factor, and financial reward came in at a relatively low third place.
Reputation is an obvious draw. Organizations like GE and P&G have been investing heavily in brand development for decades. But what is it about the management style of Western companies that appeals so strongly to the best and brightest in China’s business community?
“At the moment, Western companies are definitely more egalitarian, less hierarchical and offer employees more freedom,” said Bruce Stening, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School professor and international dean of the Beijing International MBA at Peking University.
Indeed, leadership styles that encourage employee participation are attractive to the new generation of Chinese professionals. It is a far cry from the top-down approach of many domestic companies, where managers don’t often encourage discussion or compromise with employees.
At the same time, the new generation of Chinese businesses are fighting back by stepping up investment in personal development, and highlighting the opportunities they can offer in both domestic and international markets. As more Chinese companies enter Western countries, there is a greater willingness to send staff abroad at an earlier stage of their development.
This may be indicative of a continuing trend to adopt the more attractive aspects of Western management principles. Domestic firms are not only shifting more attention to employee training and development, but also issues like corporate social responsibility (CSR), sustainability and establishing strategic human resources functions.
While China can learn from the West about business management, the traffic of knowledge is by no means a one way process. Western companies and business schools are all too willing to admit that they need to approach China with an open mind – and a genuine willingness to learn – if they are to get the most from the country’s spectacular economic growth.
As such, there has been a rapid increase in the number of MBA programs either based in China or embracing it as part of a multi-site approach. One example is OneMBA, a global executive MBA program involving five schools. For Raquel Baez, director of CSR at Fruit of the Loom, the program offered an opportunity to face real-world challenges in the Asian market such as managing cultural differences.
“During the OneMBA Asia residency, we explored how Chinese culture influences the purchasing behavior of China’s emerging middle-class consumers,” Baez said. “I used these insights to identify opportunities to improve our approach for entering this important market.”
Western businesses can also learn from Chinese organizations’ ability to jump on opportunities. Perhaps due to tight leadership structures, companies can make decisions quickly and implement them at a speed that many Western companies might feel uncomfortable with or simply couldn’t match in practice.
Still, the most important lesson is seen in China’s willingness to play the long-term game. Businesses aren’t focused on the here and now to the same extent as their Western competitors.
Many domestic firms, for example, have been nurturing alliances in Africa and South America that the Western business community has little interest in. That kind of long-term vision could give Chinese business leaders a serious advantage in the coming years – and one the West may be ignoring at its peril.