Time and again, I am asked by people in the real world what it’s like being in business in China. The people doing the asking are, in many instances, interested in doing business here themselves, and they are smart enough to want to get a feel for things by asking someone who is already ‘on the ground’. The trouble, is that they seldom really believe what they hear. It isn’t their fault though, not really: they just don’t come equipped with the mental map needed to get a grip on how things really are.
Take, for example, how one manages office employees.
I know of a chap here who, whenever he hires a secretary or personal assistant, gives them a simple test. He gives the applicant a handful of invoices and says: “Please put these in date order and add them up, then book me a flight to XXX, to arrive on such-and-such a date, returning on such-and-such a date, and reschedule tomorrow’s meeting for the day after I return”. Then he sits back and watches nine out of ten of these people start to cry. I’m not kidding – nine out of ten simply go all to pieces under the pressure and start to cry, boys and girls alike. Keep in mind that these people are so-called university graduates who have already passed through the HR filter and are considered ‘qualified’ for the position. They just cannot cope. Interestingly, boys fare far worse than girls, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever been to China. Chinese people have the intellectual and emotional strength of an eggshell.
Ask a Chinese to do one thing, and there is a reasonable chance that they will do it. Probably incompletely and poorly, but they will do it. Ask them to do more than one thing, and they will do just one of those things, and very badly indeed. Today, for instance, I asked my PA to get some prices and details on something. The conversation proceeded thusly:
Me: “Please get me full prices and details on XXX from such-and-such a supplier.”
PA: [makes phone call to supplier] “They have two types.”
Me: “What are the two types?”
PA: [makes phone call to supplier] “The two types are [a] and [b].”
Me: “What do they cost?”
PA: [makes phone call to supplier] “They cost [$] and [$].”
Me: “Which price is for which model?”
PA: [makes phone call to supplier] “They cost [$a] and [$b].”
Me: “So, those are the prices? Anything else I should know?”
PA: “Yes, that’s everything.”
Me: “Do those prices include the printing?”
PA: [makes phone call to supplier] “I think so.”
Me: “Do they have any in stock?”
PA: [makes phone call to supplier] “How many do you need?”
Me: “Why? How many do they have in stock?”
PA: [makes phone call to supplier] “They say because how many you need affects the price.”
Me: “Get me a price on one, two, and five, and find out if they have any in stock!”
PA: [makes phone call to supplier] “[relates prices] … and they have some stock.”
Me: “So, can we get that tomorrow?”
PA: [starts to cry very quietly]
Eight phone calls. Eight phone calls, and I still don’t really know if the information is accurate. I will probably have to do it myself in the morning, instead of something else that needs to be done. But – and here is the really important thing – this person is really good. One of the best, in fact. And this is her on a good day.
So, how shall I describe doing business in China? Well, to start with, if you are a CEO with loads of experience running organisations and managing staff, you’re probably better off forgetting the whole thing. Hire a kindergarten teacher and stick a sign on their door that says ‘Managing Director’ instead, because they are better qualified.
I really do mean it.