It seems like doing business in China is the “in” thing nowadays. When I first went to China it was most certainly not the “in” thing; it was perceived as the wierd and dangerous thing to do. My mom was terrified at the idea and tried (unsuccessfully) to dissuade me from going.
But now that the world is focused on China and many U.S. businesses are just now beginning to realize that a business plan that does not address a “China strategy” is not really a business plan at all. Unfortunately, those businesses that have acknowledged the importance of a China strategy often mistake simply hiring native Chinese speakers as a China strategy. This is a recipe for failure.
Just as it takes much more than the ability to speak English to have a thriving corporation in the United States, it takes much more than a few employees who speak Chinese to close China transactions. Let’s think about why:
1) Just language skills are not enough– There are over 1.3 billion Chinese people in China. What makes a native Chinese speaker such an unique addition to your team as to impress clients? Of course, a native speaker will undoubtedly possess a strong cultural background and serve as a guide to those on your team whom know nothing about China. But does this person understand business development? Is this person likeable? If the answer to these questions is “no, you need to rethink your team. After all, if this can’t build a strong relationship with your Chinese client or counterpart, then they are actually doing more damage than good.
2.) Localism matters– Just like Americans, the Chinese often place stigmas on certain provinces and cities. There is somewhat of a “keeping up wth the Joneses” war between Beijingers and those from Shanghai. Therefore adding a Shanghainese person, who speaks so-so Mandarin, to the team on a Beijing transaction might not be such a good idea. On the other hand, being able to staff a team with people whom are from the same province as the transaction makes a unbelieveable difference.
3.) Diversity actually works here – Because China is a homogenous society where over 90% of the population are Han Chinese, the Chinese are interested in working with and getting to know foreigners. They admire and respect non-Chinese that have are not only professional, but have taken the time to learn their language. In my experience, being a black female able to speak Mandarin has allowed me to form relationships more easily with prospective clients than my Chinese husband who talks a great game.
So think twice when building a team and realize that it takes more than good Mandarin to succeed in China.