'Sea turtles' who swim out again
When foreign investment took off in China in the 1980s, Dinggui Gao enrolled locally for an MBA. If this impressed his neighbours, however, it was possibly because they were fans of American basketball rather than of US management programmes. "Hardly anyone in China had heard of the MBA, but the NBA was very popular," he recalls. "A Chinese newspaper even ran advertising explaining that they had nothing to do with each other."
After his MBA, Mr Gao joined Bosch's China operations, then spent three years in Stuttgart but returned in 2001 so as not to miss out on China's economic boom. According to some estimates, western-trained Chinese - so-called "sea turtles" or "hai gui" - have been returning to their birth country at a rate of 100,000-200,000 a year. Yet while some returnees have become heads of China operations, few have managed national operations in other countries and still fewer have led entire global corporations.
But that may be starting to change. Mr Gao is about to head westwards again, leaving a China-based role with Sinotruk to start a new life in Sweden as president of Sandvik's construction business. In taking such a role, outside China and in a western multinational business, he may once again be at the forefront of China's "sea turtles", as they change direction.
"For executives who have been China president, or even Asia-Pacific president, for five or six years, a key question is 'what is next?'" says Ben Zhai, a New York-based managing director at executive search group Russell Reynolds Associates. Mr Zhai, who specialises in finding executives for western companies in China, and for Chinese groups in the west, sees executives such as Mr Gao as role models for a generation of western-trained Chinese managers wanting to join the world's top business leadership. Another example is Jin-Yong Cai, chief of the World Bank's International Finance Corporation.
Mr Zhai does not predict a sudden rush in Chinese appointments to global boards, more a gradual increase. During China's growth spurt of the past decade, many returnees leapfrogged promotions and, consequently, are sometimes less experienced than peers in mature markets. And while many have worked in either the US or Europe, very few have had experience of several countries. As Mr Zhai puts it: "[Having got] lucky because of where they are, [now they must show] that they can gain promotion because of who they are."
To go from local to company-wide leadership often depends on making the right career choices, which can be more complicated than it sounds. "What we sometimes see is [returnees] who go to the headquarters [of a western company] to advise on global strategy or alliance-making. In their old job [in China] they maybe managed 100,000 people but when they move they may only manage a few," says Gladdy He, a client partner with Korn/Ferry International, the executive recruiter. Far from advancing their career, she suggests that people who take HQ roles that sound important but lack profit and loss responsibility, can end up on the sidelines.
While some western-trained Chinese return to the west for career reasons, others make a lifestyle choice to escape pollution in some of their country's cities or to give their children, often born in Europe or the US, a western education.
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After nine years in Shanghai, Min Fei, an international tax partner at professional services firm EY, is returning to the US to be on hand when her 16-year-old son, who spent the first half of his life in Chicago, begins a year of US internships, followed by university. Professionally, she says, the move will neither benefit nor disadvantage her, because her clients are international. Her loyalties, however, are divided. "When we first went to the US, it was an experiment. We were poor but happy, and we established a family." But this time she will go to New York without her mother and husband, who will remain and continue his job with a Chinese company. "For people like us home is very difficult to define," she reflects.
Cross-cultural identities can create problems in the workplace as well as personally. After more than a decade away, Charlie Ma returned to China with Ford Motor Company, leaving behind his wife and daughter in the family's adopted home of Michigan, only to discover that fellow Chinese saw him as a "foreigner". And when he switched from Ford to a local company, which was focused on China's domestic market, his culture shock worsened. One problem was that his bosses would call impromptu meetings requiring Mr Ma, who was used to scheduling his work, to drop everything.
Career development, or rather a lack of one, was another frustration. At Ford his promotion prospects were reviewed regularly; at the Chinese company they were never discussed, which made him believe his bosses had hired him for his technical knowledge, rather than to develop him for bigger roles. "For a returnee with my background, I don't think it would be possible to reach the top of the company, or even the second [tier surrounding the leadership], because to fully integrate into that circle can take a lot of time and trust-building."
His solution was to "rejoin the western system" by taking an executive role in China with PSA Peugeot Citroën. Although still China-based, he says, this feels much like working in the west.
However, his experience does not mean that western companies will suit all western-trained Chinese better than Chinese organisations. Indeed, Mr Zhai foresees international opportunities opening for returnees in Chinese companies as they expand overseas.
Lawrence Yu, executive assistant to technology company Lenovo's CEO, says internationally educated and trained Chinese must "accept that every country has its uniqueness" and be ready to rethink western-acquired ideas. As a teenager, Mr Yu moved to the US to study and play sport. Later, at Citigroup in Brazil, he chose to live as a local, sharing an apartment with Brazilian colleagues. Shuttling between Beijing and North Carolina with Lenovo, he tries to apply the same approach today, indulging his love of American sport and accepting that in China his weekends will often be interrupted by colleagues who call to discuss work. "Those who say, 'this is how I did it in the US, so this is how I'll do it in Beijing', will generally end up unhappy," he says.
As he packs his bags for Sweden, Mr Gao is looking forward. "As China becomes more immersed in the world economy, there will be more Chinese managers [in global roles]. For myself, I'm excited by the development and proud to be part of it."
A local dilemma
In appointing Chinese managers to leadership roles in China, western multinationals have begun localising management. But few have localised decision-making, rather the reverse, says Ben Zhai, a managing director at the executive search group Russell Reynolds Associates. As China’s importance grows, decisions once made locally are reverting to HQ − prompting some returnees to look to Chinese companies investing overseas for opportunities.
Dinggui Gao experienced this tension first-hand while working at Honeywell in China and marketing a western-designed product. The Chinese client said it needed to be more pollution-proof for China; Honeywell’s headquarters in the US said it had passed all the tests and the client merely needed a better maintenance regime. The upshot was that the company lost customers until a policy rethink resulted in local managers being given a bigger say in decision-making.
From then on, says Mr Gao, Honeywell “grew well” − while locally unresponsive multinationals struggled. “As a Chinese national in western companies . . . a lesson I’ve learnt is that HQ’s understanding of China often differs from local reality.”
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