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Chinese head-hunting intensifies for rare managers that can steer overseas firms

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Global Times, August 17, 2016

The recent growth in overseas direct investment by Chinese firms has increased the need to recruit international managers of high repute. But these valuable employees are few and their nurturing has proved elusive as investment has waxed and waned. Presently we expect the recruitment drive to intensify even though Chinese outbound investment fell in the second quarter of the year from record-breaking first quarter levels.

The managers Chinese companies are looking for are rare people and must meet a number of demanding qualifications. They must understand a portfolio of management techniques, they must speak several languages, and they will have demonstrated sensitive and empathetic business skills.

To an extent business school techniques can be learned by any bright person able to fulfill the admissions criteria. But the curriculum is wide and spans not only number-focused “quants” but the softer skills of industrial and managerial psychology. The quantitative skills can be quite difficult to learn as formative teaching at junior, high school and university levels is often poor, and individuals instead drift into what they perceive to be easier electives in which to score high grades. But an understanding of production optimising, the management of risk adjusted yields in portfolio development and, ultimately, deeply understanding the probabilistic outputs of big data analysis is fundamental. Being savvy about the models that govern our lives empowers us to ask tough questions, uncover the truth and demand change.

Speaking several languages is also a requirement. Obviously being fluent in Chinese is a given as it is a Chinese firm that will be hiring and they will likely question applicants in Chinese. Understanding English is important as it is the common language of the business world. Additionally, there is the need to be fluent in the target nation’s language. This will enable the manager to present explanations to the reluctant people in an acquired firm, and to reassure them of their growth and prosperity with the new Chinese firm. Research demonstrates that foreign-owned firms often bring in new techniques and machinery to boost the acquired firm’s total factor productivity (which captures the efficiency and effectiveness with which capital and labour are used), but that former staff are initially fearful of change and need sensitive persuasion. People skills is elusive and perhaps the most difficult aspect of the job for successful managers to learn.

Also demonstrated by firms worldwide ramping up production from entrepreneurial “garage work” is the need to partner with venture capital and engage with firms that have enough production capacity to sell in the national market. It is often said in China that a ramping-up firm can move instantly into annual production of millions of units per year. This is not easy to achieve throughout the supply chain from parts to customers, yet many Chinese firms have demonstrated this growth.

In China the entrepreneurial private sector leads the public sector – having created more than 60 percent of overall investment since January, providing one-third of all jobs and creating 90 percent of new urban jobs. But even hardened entrepreneurs have hesitated as their internal market has slowed and they face a choice – to downsize or to globalize. These guys have invested in efficiency in the past but now see a drop in sales. Local investment no longer seems the logical choice, but a move to globalization is daunting.

Chinese firms are investing across all sectors in Australia, Africa, Europe, North and South America and within its closest Asian nations. A further issue is the perception of the bought-out firm and its staff. Are they dealing with the Chinese government or a private firm? Worldwide relations with governments as pseudo entrepreneurial firms are fraught with complexity. Examples show some governments renege on their contracts and little redress is possible. Thus, it is easier to engage in bilateral, firm-to-firm negotiations where the rules are relatively well known. This is the nature of globalization that ultimately is designed to reduce resource waste.

The author is founder and chairman of Horasis, a Swiss-based global visions community organization.