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02 Jan. 2012 | Comments (0)

The annual Chinese graduate milk round continues to be a drama of epic proportions. I remember traveling to a new university campus 25 miles outside Shanghai to give a company recruitment presentation. With dire warnings of the unpredictability of the traffic ringing in my ears, I arrived one hour early. I was staggered to see that the lecture hall was already filled to overflowing with over 300 students. My suggestion that we start our presentation early was politely rejected -- this would be unfair to the hundred or so who were yet to arrive and would have the presentation relayed to them outside.

New technology was being deployed to provide company information to the huge numbers of applicants over geography bigger and more diverse than Europe. We used live webcasts and interactive Q&A sessions with 10 company executives answering queries simultaneously. A bizarre mix between a recruitment call centre and an internet chat room where students with riotous sounding nicknames ask questions they would never dream of asking face to face.

So, does all this spell an end to the war for talent in China? Of course not. The competition for the best graduates will be as hot as ever amongst international and local companies. Companies regularly receive hundreds of applications for fast-track management trainee positions but often fail to fill them all.

The problem is that the educational system is still heavily influenced by a “learn by rote” teaching style and Confucian tradition. This is not conducive to the creativity and adaptability required by modern businesses in a highly competitive environment. This is changing, but Chinese undergraduates typically do not enjoy the benefits of a tutorial learning system or access to latest thinking in business disciplines such as Supply Chain Management.

Chinese universities need to be much more focused on producing well-trained, state-of-the-art, business-oriented people. The best of the MBA programmes are world class. However, a common criticism is that they do not develop sufficient capability in self-awareness, building trust, team-working and listening skills.

The talent gap in China is also unique because of the legacy of the Cultural Revolution. This means that there is a missing generation of experienced Chinese managers. Increasingly, and quite rightly, expatriate middle and senior managers are being replaced by young, bright and achievement oriented Chinese Mainlanders who are often short on business experience and the skills to develop their staff.

These managers, products of the single child policy, are hungry for responsibility, position and the trappings of success. Companies that fail to deliver this and do not provide valued learning programmes, experience turnover rates of over 20% per annum.

So, companies operating in China have to be prepared to invest heavily in professional skills and leadership capability for the new Chinese Mainland management cadre. In particular, China’s talent gap needs a highly focused approach to building coaching skills.

Savvy companies are now developing customized coaching programmes to address this. Using web based questionnaires, psychometric tests and feedback from subordinates, participants on the programmes can receive highly relevant and specific feedback on their leadership styles and the climate they were creating for their staff.

In one such case, the result was that Chinese managers discovered that their predominant leadership style tended towards “command and control” and that overusing this style was having a negative effect on their people. This realization encouraged them to develop other styles of leadership and how to deploy them to match the wide range of situations they encountered in everyday business.

It was not always easy for managers to manage in this way, but most were encouraged when they found that their staff responded enthusiastically. For managers, it meant listening more, talking less and generally being supportive and questioning rather than directive. Staff had to get used to using their bosses as sounding boards, taking responsibility for their decisions and learning from their failures as well as their successes.

In this case, the coaching initiative was one part of an overall strategy aimed at establishing sound foundations for the business and accelerating profitable growth. Developing a coaching culture had a significant positive impact on improving business results and in building greater capability for the future.

If anything, the goal posts are moving and the talent gap in China is widening. A command and control mindset has served China well in building the “hardware” for an impressive economic infrastructure for basic manufacturing. However, China’s politicians have been clearly signaling that simply becoming the “world’s factory” is not a sustainable long term strategy.

The name of the game now is to boost homegrown R&D and high technology sectors. The “software” capability in terms of leadership competency could well be the limiting factor in achieving this aspiration. Anyone doubting this should reflect on the experience of staying in one of the newly built local hotels or hospitals in China -- rich in state-of-the-art hardware but poor in terms of teamwork and customer orientation.

Many more businesses will need to upgrade the quality of their investment in local managers and pay attention to the way people are managed if they are to stay ahead of the game in China.


View our complete listing of Leadership Development, Talent Management, and Strategic Workforce Planning blogs.

  • About the Author:David Learmond

    David Learmond

    David Learmond is a senior advisor and senior fellow in human capital at The Conference Board. In these roles, he supports the human capital practice, which includes Human Capital Exchange™, res…

    Full Bio | More from David Learmond


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