Playing to Strength – The Survival Mentality

Talent development is a hot topic in the corporate world these days. Assess the competencies. Define the gaps. Develop a plan to close them. And out the other end comes an all-star team that can vanquish the competition and achieve even the loftiest goals.

But if it were that simple, of course, every team would be a championship team and no company would ever have to report bad earnings or eliminate jobs. And since there are still plenty of companies in this latter camp, we can conclude that this is a worthy but ultimately elusive goal for many companies.

For most companies it is more practical and productive in the short term to play to the strengths of the team they have rather than trying to acquire or develop the strengths they don’t currently possess.

Every team, of course, is different. Teams are made up of people and people come in all shapes and sizes and with all kinds of different strengths and weaknesses (and those actually change over time). And that’s just as true in China as it is everywhere else on the planet. (And that is, in the end, the strength of diversity. Why do we always want to homogenize everything?)

But there is one strength that you will find in every Chinese organization. Understand it and find a way to play to it in pursuit of your company’s goals and you will greatly enhance your chances of success in China.

To play to that strength, however, you must first understand its source. It is what I call the survival mentality and it comes from the fact that while socialism with Chinese characteristics has lifted more than 300 million people out of poverty in just one generation, most Chinese still remember the world of scarcity and hardship. And even if they’ve never lived such a life they know that it’s not so far away as the bird flies.

As a result, the single-minded drive for financial security – and the chronic fear of losing it – continues to define a great deal of China’s economic and personal behavior. It is why the Chinese savings rate is among the highest in the world. It is why price continues to drive most buying decisions. And it is why the Chinese are so obsessed with grabbing as much of the pie as they can – while they can.

There are, of course, pros and cons to every human condition and the survival mentality is no exception.

As famed psychologist Abraham Maslow, author of the Human Hierarchy of Needs, taught us, until a person is confident that they have secured sufficient food and shelter, they are unlikely to think too much about broader and longer-term needs such as belonging and self-fulfillment.

As a result, if you stock your workplace rest rooms with plentiful amounts of toilet paper you are likely to find it quickly depleted. And if you think you are clever enough or personally dynamic enough to stop such petty theft you will be proved wrong.

When you have lived real hardship you learn to get what you can when you can.
When you have lived real hardship you learn to get what you can when you can.

To be clear, this is not a cultural issue. My own American grandmother, who had lived through the Great Depression, routinely emptied the container of sugar packets found on the tables of restaurants into her purse, noting, when challenged by her visibly embarrassed grandchildren, that it was built into the cost of the meal.

On the positive side, however, a survival mindset is not selective or situational. Your Chinese employees will generally treat your money just as carefully as they treat their own. Which, again, comes with pros and cons. They may not choose the best long-term solution to problems in order to save money up front, but they will, if you task them accordingly, complete tasks in the cheapest and quickest possible way.

What defines the survival mentality more than anything else is the urgent, action-oriented behavior it inevitably promotes. The Chinese literally move mountains and they do it overnight. You don’t need a calendar here. You just need a watch. They are obsessed with execution and the action necessary to achieve it.

Time is calibrated differently in China.  Your old calendar will be obsolete here.
Time is calibrated differently in China. Your old calendar will be obsolete here.

Speed and cheap are incredibly powerful business weapons. And you can rest assured that your Chinese competitors will bludgeon you in the market with both. If your Western company brings an innovative new product to market in a company-best leadtime of six months, your competitors will have copies in the market in two weeks – at half the price.

In reality, you will probably never beat your Chinese competitors at their own game. But you can get the best of both worlds and your organization gives you the tools to do it.

But here’s the catch. And it’s a hurdle most Western companies operating here just can’t get over. You have to let them do things their way. To a point, of course. I’m not advocating removing all constraints or violating either the law or your company’s own values.

You can’t, however, expect to learn from the Chinese if you simply shoe horn in all of the Western business processes and practices that arrived on the plane with you. If you want to compete in the Chinese market you at least have to play by their rules. And that means you have to learn to do things with an urgency and at a cost you never before imagined.

So assign your team very well-defined tasks; establish clear boundaries on what behaviors and actions you can accept; and get out of the way. They will get it done. They may get it done with the metaphorical equivalent of bailing twine and chewing gum but they will get it done in record time and at the lowest imaginable cost.

If you merely shoe horn your existing business processes and practices into your Chinese organization you will surely fail.  If, however, you are willing to teach and to learn, you will be amazed at what you can accomplish.
If you merely shoe horn your existing business processes and practices into your Chinese organization you will surely fail. If, however, you are willing to teach and to learn, you will be amazed at what you can accomplish.

As noted, you won’t out-Chinese the Chinese. But if you come here to teach and not to learn, you will fail. I guarantee it. I don’t care who you are or how successful your company has been on its home turf. This is China. And things really are different here.

It took me a while to learn this lesson, to be candid, but now that I have I am able to achieve far better results with a fraction of the frustration. Now that I have learned when it’s appropriate to insist on how things are to be done and when it’s appropriate to get out of their way, we have been able to capture the best of both worlds and our results reflect it.

When I tasked a team with the objective of obtaining ISO certification, for example, I didn’t obsess with timelines and processes. I didn’t even insist on periodic status reviews. I told them what I wanted and in less than six months they delivered – on all three ISO certifications – with high praise from the independent auditor who performed the final certification.

Another example involved the reconstruction of a major piece of equipment. This is a huge undertaking in any part of the world; the timeline is measured in weeks and the cost is measured in millions (USD). We put the job out for bid and narrowed the finalists down to one or two Western companies with subsidiaries here and a local Chinese company.

It would have been easy to choose one of the foreign companies. We had worked with each of them in other countries around the world and I was confident both would deliver a quality product. But I ultimately went with the recommendation of my Chinese team who just couldn’t bring themselves to spend the extra money that the foreign contractors would have cost – their money or not.

The Chinese contractor got the job. And when he showed up with an army of men armed with hand tools the American engineer overseeing the project asked to see the project timeline with appropriate milestones and due dates. They didn’t have one, of course, but the Chinese boss assured him that he had done hundreds of similar jobs and didn’t want to waste time on needless paperwork and time-consuming status meetings.

At this the corporate engineer – who is an outstanding engineer with a world of experience – dug in his heels and demanded a timeline showing a minimum of seven milestones. And the Chinese boss ultimately relented, took the start date and the end date, divided the time into 7 equal buckets, and handed the engineer his ‘official’ timeline.

In the end the project was completed ahead of schedule and at a fraction of the cost quoted by the foreign contractors. And lest you think we sacrificed quality, this equipment now performs on a par with its peers at any plant in the world. Admittedly the corporate engineering team overseeing the work had to be more diligent than they might normally have been required to be, but the benefits far outweighed the extra effort required.

Pros and cons; yins and yangs. The lesson is simple. If you come here to teach you will probably fail. But if you come here to teach AND learn you will be amazed at what you can accomplish.

Chock it up to the fight for survival and the urgency and laser-sharp focus on getting things done that it sows in the people who have stared it in the face.

While luxury brands are thriving in China, the fear of hardship and scarcity continues to drive a lot of Chinese behavior.
While luxury brands are thriving in China, the fear of hardship and scarcity continues to drive a lot of Chinese behavior.

Contact:  You may contact the author at glassmakerinchina@gmail.com

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.