The journalist’s emailed questions were mostly straightforward. She was writing a report for a European recruitment firm specialising in expatriate assignments that wanted to expand its business in China.
“How difficult had it been to find a suitable apartment?” “Had it been easy finding a good international school?” “How were we coping with(out) the language?” “What did we miss most about life in the UK?” (our local Chinese takeaway in Kent, I was tempted to respond). But the final question threw me. “How did I think the assignment in China would benefit my future career?”
From the headhunter’s first call, through the teleconference interview with the aid of an interpreter and throughout the discussions that followed with family and friends, I had become been very clear on the reasons for moving to China.
First was the opportunity to experience the world’s second largest economy and one of its most dynamic markets first hand and unfiltered at a pivotal point in its development. What makes China tick? What does the shift from communism to state-controlled capitalism feel like? As with everything in life, you can learn from books or media reports but there is nothing quite like experiencing something new with you own eyes, ears and nostrils.
Second was to let our children soak up a different culture, learn a new language, meet different kinds of people and develop an appreciation for a world that, despite the increasing uniformity of globalisation, still offers fragments of diversity. Had the children been five years younger, the experience would have meant little to them; five years older, and it’s unlikely they’d have wanted to come.
Finally, was the opportunity to support a company that I had come to know after almost a decade of periodic collaboration, with an enigmatic founder who was 44 years old when he created a technology start-up that he had grown into a $ multi billion global business. It was, however, struggling to understand the rules of the global game as it expanded internationally and was paying a high price for its inexperience in managing international media and other stakeholders.
Nowhere on my list of pros and cons was anything about how the assignment might benefit my future career. Living life ‘in the now’ has always been more appealing than ‘in the future’ and it wasn’t a consideration. Now, almost two years after my arrival, I think I can answer the question.
Rediscovering simplicity. The seldom-questioned intuition that comes with experience plays little or no part in developing communications strategies and implementing PR programmes in China where international communications is a relatively new concept, both among executives and communications departments. Making and keeping things simple – both strategically and in the words used – takes on a profound importance here. All comms teams know that complexity impairs understanding but we forget sometimes. Living and working in China reminds us to strip everything back to the bare essentials, to eliminate the unnecessary and the industry speak.
Managing the bias of experience. It’s amazing what can be achieved with a communications department staffed by smart people who, despite their lack of experience, are eager to learn and self-develop. It really is possible to deliver remarkable results quickly with a team of individuals that are unencumbered by the cynicism, conservatism and bias that experience very often puts in the way of new ideas and new ways of doing things.
Becoming a global practitioner. China is home to 1.35 billion consumers and the rest of Asia combined is home to a further 1.3 billion people. All told, almost 40% of the world’s population lives here. With rising prosperity and sustainable economic development, how can any of us call ourselves global communicators with little or no knowledge of the region or exposure to it? Global communications leaders cannot be developed behind a desk and an Internet connection. If our role, in part, is to help build understanding, having a first hand understanding ourselves is a major enabler to doing our jobs well.
Finally, I think that sometimes we should accept opportunities that help us to learn more about ourselves, that challenge us as people and not focus simply for the calculated, tangible benefits those opportunities may also represent.
But for anyone with aspirations to develop their global career, an assignment in China will do nothing to undermine your future prospects.