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Chinese Talent Working Internationally – Embracing the Challenges Wholeheartedly

China has always been one of the biggest labour-export countries in the world, dating back many centuries. The country has traditionally been well-known for either hard physical labour or technical roles; however, the dynamics have changed since China opened up 25 years ago, and particularly over the past 10 years. We are now seeing more Chinese talent moving to other parts of the world to take leadership roles in various areas, including Human Resources. As global organisations continue to develop employees through mobilisation, Chinese talent has grown and often stands out with solid performance and development potential, thus earning the opportunities to work internationally.

Of course, earning the opportunity is just the beginning — the real excitement lies in fulfilling and getting the most out of the experience. The Chapman Consulting Group recently interviewed a number of Chinese HR Leaders who are working or who have worked in Singapore, the US, Australia and a few European countries, to hear what they had to say about their experiences.

Challenges All Around You — Big and Small

Working and living in a foreign land is not easy, especially when you are in an environment where your mother tongue is no longer the primary language – or even a language that is adopted at all. You may have developed strong English capabilities through education and prior work experience, but it can still be overwhelming to find yourself in a purely English environment where everything has to be done in what is a foreign language for you. And as intimidating as it can be to present in English to the senior leadership team, this may actually be less challenging than ordering local food, understanding your lease agreement, or communicating health issues with GP’s or specialist doctors.

The language challenge is often magnified when you are dealing with multiple things simultaneously. In addition to fitting into a new work situation, the whole living environment requires adaptation, which can be an even larger project for the whole family. Finding proper accommodation and signing the lease contract; selecting suitable packages from internet, telephone and TV suppliers; getting used to the local hospital and banking systems; choosing the best educational institutions for the kids – all of these involve decision-making capabilities. You may have sufficient support from your employer or the relocation agents on these matters, but it still takes time to become informed and get used to everything, even the weather and public transportation systems. As Jon Ye, AP Talent Acquisition Leader for IBM, currently working in Singapore, said, “I hardly had any challenges from a business or work perspective, as there is no big difference working in Shanghai or anywhere else in such a globalised organization like IBM, but these small little things were the most challenging part for me and my family.”

One overarching challenge for anyone working outside of their home country, is of course the culture difference. Adapting to and embracing different cultures while maintaining your own cultural identity, both within and outside the professional workplace, was mentioned by almost everyone interviewed. It takes a lot of conscious effort to stop making judgements from your own cultural perspective about international colleagues’ behaviour and/or words. Don’t jump to the conclusion of racial discrimination when you are disagreed with, because that simply doesn’t help, and it may not be the case. As Barbara Zhang, HR Director, AP, Zebra Technologies, currently working in Singapore, put it, “Respect and appreciation of different cultures is key. Listen and understand first – ears play a more important role than mouth.” Socialising with co-workers and integrating into the local communities may not be the easiest or most comfortable things to do at the beginning, but they definitely help you and your family to truly settle into the new environment.

Fun Comes with the Challenges

Despite all the challenges, everyone enjoyed tremendous learning and fun, and agreed that living and working abroad had been a very valuable experience in their careers and in their personal lives. “It forced me out of my comfort zone,” said Helen Liu, AP HR Director, Murex, currently working in Singapore and having previously worked in Finland. “My personal maturity improved as I had to face unfamiliar and unexpected situations or people’s reactions, hence I learned to be more patient and more tolerant.” Indeed, the exposure to larger scope regional or global roles, the diversity of cultures and ways of thinking, and best practices are all exceptional learning experiences that cannot take place in one’s motherland. In addition, the opportunity to travel to neighbouring countries and try various cuisines can add another dimension of fun to living abroad. For families, often children have benefited immeasurably through an international experience, from both learning and cultural perspectives.

Before you Take the Plunge

“Moving internationally is a big decision for you and your family, so please assess carefully what you want to achieve and what you can give up,” as Vivian Zou, Regional Rewards Director, AP, Mars, currently working in Singapore, rightfully stated. “Get full consensus with your spouse on the move and prepare for the challenge as a whole family.” Doing your research and planning ahead are very important — you need to be mentally prepared for the challenges and the cost of moving, both financially and otherwise. Usually employers provide a lot of support for an international move, and it would be even more helpful to have a buddy system with someone who has had a similar experience or who is a cultural ambassador from the destination country. Ideally you should settle your family first before you dive in at the deep end of a new job.

For those who are now considering an international move, here is what we would like to advise: no pain, no gain. Every decision in our lives is about give and take. If it’s a decision made after careful evaluation, then go for it with an open mind and a lot of courage.

Katherine Qu is a Director with The Chapman Consulting Group. Originally from China, she has worked and lived with her family in the US and Singapore, where she is currently based.


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