Thriving in Beijing

April 10, 2013

(I altered some facts in the narrative to keep it more private)

We arrived at Beijing, Monday the 4th at 6am. Two hours later we checked into the Swissotel Beijing Hong Kong Macau Centre, 2 Chao Yang Men Bei Da Jie. The taxi ride took us 40 minutes to the SML Holding building, in 1073 Jintong West Road, Chaoyang District, the new 4job4u offices. We didn’t feel the change, but the company had jumped from 1500 mts2 of office space to 3500 mts2. We were just landing and on the verge of getting our first lesson on business in China.

We occupied the conference room in the 13th floor, facing the CCTV Station of China. After 90 minutes of logistic and coordination with Xen Xin, CEO PA, we met Stephen Dedalus, who immediately gave us a tour around the new offices, introducing us to the different work groups and explaining the new branding posters displayed on the wall. The 4job4u Tiger was coming back. The brand has been declining along the last four years, but still has recognition, a positive equity. Many experienced and talented people have left the company.

March 2013 results are heavily influenced by seasonality. However, 4job4u results against their gigantic competitors were spectacular. While was flat and grew at a 4.5% in March, grew at a staggering 40%!!... posters were shouting aloud on the new offices walls that contained the cubicles of Hunters and Farmers. People need to be motivated, Stephen remarked, we need to show them that they are doing a good work, that the new 4job4u it is underway. Traffic will come, results will come.

I visited 16 offices the last 2 weeks, he explained. It is the first time I made myself available to the people. In three occasions people approached me to talk about difficulties produced by a sort of fraud or corruption in some of our products . A product that should have a gross margin of about 40 or 50%. It seems that previous administration wasn’t directly involved with the people in the regional offices. It was a remote relationship. A system of kicks-back slowly permeated the practices of sales, project management, providers, and customer’s people. It was a catastrophe for the previous American investors and we have to fix it.

I'll have a meeting with Jin Li Bo, Product Manager and Zhao Ma, Sales Director. I need to change this current inherited situation. I brought them to my office in Beijing to discuss this issue openly. Do you want to observe the conversation?

No more than 40 seconds later we were seated shoulder to shoulder around a small circular table in his office listening to a conversation intermediated by a translator. Jingli is a low margin market, started the Sales Director of the Tianjin region, we do not have entertainment budget… It took 10 min to Stephen to ask his managers not to tell him manipulative stories. Don’t lie to me, he said, the erosion in product profitability it is not caused by market conditions, it was caused by a system of kick-backs… and you are aware of that. Are you? He asked. Both approved nodding their heads and barely whispering. Were you involved? Are you playing a role in this mechanism? He continued. No, they whispered again. I’ll trust you this time. Go and fix this situation, call me with a clear report of what you have done, and a proposal. I don't want lies, no hidden costs, and no automatic approvals for dinner. I understand that there are some practices in the market, but I don’t want to hide what happens, but make it visible and shape it. If you need something, you call me. Ok? This time I’ll trust you.

We were introduced to “guanxi” a couple of hours after landing, one of the key aspects of the Chinese business way.

The meeting was over in twenty minutes. Then we were back to the conference room and we spent the early afternoon organizing the next few weeks of the projects. We listened for the third time that his main concern was to develop his team, that people outside and around him. He spoke as if there was no connection between their change and his change, their behavior and his behavior. However, he suggested he might need to learn something here.

Well, I answered trying to capitalize on the opening, let me share some of my initial assessments about you. You are the guy that resolves all the issues and makes all the decisions in the company; you do not give room for people to learn from their own mistakes, you don’t give room for your team to come up with proposals, you manage by request and all this may not be sustainable for the leap you drew in the business case, and for the new business phase you are already engaged in. These are my reactions about you, not even preliminary assessments. So, I won’t spend much time defending them in a conversation. It is just for you to know about my reactive point of view.

We are here to help you to prepare your team and your company’s core capacities.

There seems to be a great distance between you and your direct line of reports, my colleague said to Stephen. This fact will affect the dynamic and performance of your Integration Plan. Absolutely, answered Stephen, inserting his words in my colleague’s initial lines. Keep in mind Chinese people turnover in commercial roles. We are fundamentally sales. I’ll present the plan to the team tomorrow; you are invited to the meeting. I think it will be worth your time. He left to his next meeting.

Over the next few days, we traveled thousands and thousands of kilometers along East China. A succession of meeting rooms, hotels, food rooms, train stations, airports and taxis. I never had the sensation of having left the Beijing airport. Never felt a genuine piece of the mythical and legendary China… and nevertheless that was China.


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