In today’s matrix global organisations, a great deal of emphasis is put on systems and processes. And quite rightly: we need to streamline global decision-making; we need transparency and accuracy of complex data; and we need the mechanisms that allow HR practitioners to add value across different business units and international markets.

But when designing these systems, many global HR leaders don’t transfer the ‘human touch’ from Global Headquarters down to other locations. This article briefly articulates the problem, and its effect on developing truly international talent in China. But it’s themes are universal, and could be applied to leadership development in other locations outside of global HQ hubs.

The Example of China

This topic became one of the themes of the latest China/APAC HR Leader networking meetings that ChapmanCG co-hosted with Bayer and United Technologies Corporation (UTC) in Shanghai this month. Both groups were comprised of around 30 domestic, regional and global HR and Talent Leaders based in Shanghai, representing companies across the full spectrum of industries. (Author’s note: ChapmanCG also co-hosted a separate meeting for 30 China Talent Acquisition Leaders with Nielsen, the details of which are written up in a separate article).In the context of China, the groups discussed many local factors that contribute to the challenges of developing truly globally-minded talent.

  • Leaders that have grown in China over the last decade have relied very heavily on a growth mindset. So when faced with market challenges, they reveal their lack of exposure to these experiences. And when put into regional or global roles, they don’t have enough awareness of the variety of different styles and standpoints from which an issue can be approached.
  • Until now, selection of talent in China has been based too much on past performance and functional expertise rather than leadership qualities. Perhaps one of the hardest of these qualities to nurture has been learning agility, since it’s very hard to assess this trait when Chinese talent has only been successful within familiar settings.
  • Communication styles in China, and indeed elsewhere in Asia, can be a contributing factor when meeting the expectations of leadership from a global context. Leaders can find it hard to challenge conventional thinking, or express their opinions in a direct way within the formalised setting of a board meeting or an international teleconference call.

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What Can Global HR Do Better?

These challenges are not going away any time soon. But at the same time, China recognises these issues, and the leadership talent being nurtured in China now is already starting to fill these gaps and exhibit some of the true qualities of international leadership. And HR Leaders in China are playing a large part in influencing these changes.

Now it’s time for Global Leaders to play more of a part in this process of evolution. In order to nurture the best talent in China, you need a plan, you need investment, and you need patience. Here are some take-aways from the groups that might offer a little inspiration. The key in all of these examples is: Leaders in China should be equipped with the same advantages as a leader who happens to be based at Global HQ.

  • In one case study, an Asia Pacific HR Leader explained how their company allowed one person from China to have a 12-month transition into a new global role. In that time, the executive shadowed their predecessor, and was also given responsibility to lead two global projects. This 12-month transition positioned the executive for success in their new role: It helped them to ‘practice’ their global mindset, it gave them useful exposure to the stakeholders with whom they needed to build credibility, and it armed them with two tangible successes to springboard them into Day One of their official assignment. In these 12 months, the company had successfully brought the China executive in line with their peers who had far greater opportunities to develop these qualities more ‘by osmosis’ at the global HQ location.
  • In another example, a company assigned high potential talent in China with global mentors, setting concrete guidelines about what skills, behaviours and connections needed to be nurtured by this relationship. As part of this programme, one such Chinese talent was spotted very early in their career, and was promoted into a global role just 18 months after joining the organisation in China. The key to this move was the fact that the global mentor had worked closely with this employee and could personally sponsor their nomination for the role during a meeting at Global Headquarters. Without this personal connection and relationship, there would have been no voice at the table speaking up for this Chinese talent and the decision would have otherwise gone to someone co-located at the Global HQ. Someone who may have been more ‘visible’ but perhaps less suitable for the role.
  • And finally, in the most simple example of them all, one company noticed that its global executives made infrequent visits to China, and when they did they would fly into China on a Monday and leave by Friday. The company banned this practice, forcing executives to at least stay over a weekend, and encouraged them to plan social meetings with team leaders and their families. They also encouraged a culture of ‘Skip-Level Meetings’ where Global leaders wouldn’t just have meetings with their direct reports, but would also have quality interactions with the tier below. By creating these informal settings for interactions, Chinese leaders were able to communicate more of their true feelings and opinions, which were much harder for Global leaders to pick up from the hints and indirect expressions used in formal meetings. So this was proven to be a very simple yet highly effective method of encouraging human-to-human emotional connections between executives. Connections that have since helped to facilitate corporate exposure, constructive communication, and ultimately career progression.

There is nothing ground-breaking in this article, indeed it harks back to the unsophisticated days of HR, where Personnel teams weren’t run so much on organisational science and processes, but more on relationships and connections. But as companies have expanded and teams have become more global and complex, it’s a good idea to sometimes remind ourselves that we still very much rely on human attributes when converting HR practices into meaningful outcomes. Global Headquarters can function in a way that allows this to happen naturally in parallel with what’s set out on paper. But it takes awareness and effort to ensure that this doesn’t get lost in translation overseas.