Developing Global Talent in China

Categories: Global Leadership, Global Mindset

Michael Shen, Aperian Global’s Senior Global Account Manager in Shanghai, recently sat down with Human Resources and Talent Development Specialist Betty Zhou for an interview. The following is a translated version of the original Mandarin interview. 

I recently interviewed Michael Shen, Senior Global Account Manager of Aperian Global, a company that provides consulting, training and web tools for global talent development. We discussed Aperian Global’s philosophy and approach, as well as some client case studies.

Global talent development is a complex field, and Michael’s insights provide a better understanding of what kind of global talent is needed in China, and how Aperian Global has helped both Western and Chinese companies develop top global talent.

Could you briefly introduce Aperian Global, and share what brought you into this field?

Established in 1990, Aperian Global is a global consulting and training company providing service in over 60 countries, with its headquarters in the U.S. A lack of Western knowledge about Asian cultures inspired our two founders to establish Aperian Global and develop a series of videos about Working with China and Working with Japan, followed by a more holistic online learning tool, GlobeSmart.

There was a strong need for these services due to globalization, and the company quickly expanded to training and consulting. Now, GlobeSmart is used by one-third of Global Fortune 100 organizations and our services support numerous companies around the world to succeed across borders.

As for me, I started my training and consulting career with an international business school, then entered into the field of cross-cultural and language training. I’ve been with Aperian Global for six years now, and I’ve stayed with them because I feel rewarded helping so many organizations and clients, who can achieve success in the global environment with our services.

What is the status and development of the global talent development field, both globally and in China?

Global talent development is closely tied to the globalization process. Western companies had an earlier start in globalization. With the evolution of globalization, business operations have become more complicated.

The challenges companies face are no longer limited to localizing business practices; now challenges include effective virtual communication, matrix management structures, different stakeholder priorities, balancing headquarter and affiliate needs, different practices between mature and emerging markets, and so on. In recent years, companies (especially Western global companies) have driven many Diversity and Inclusion initiatives due to societal shifts in these countries. Aperian Global has also provided many consulting, training and assessment solutions to address this subject.  

Chinese companies were impacted by globalization later than Western countries, but they are quickly catching up. On one hand, most Chinese companies are still in the early stages of internationalization, with overseas revenue taking up less than 30% of total revenue. On the other hand, there is rapid growth in establishing plants overseas, cross-border mergers and acquisitions, international investments, etc.

Many Chinese companies have just begun to offer international talent development, which is primarily focused on Chinese employees. Few companies provide talent development assistance to overseas employees and have a holistic strategy regarding globalization and global talent development. In terms of training topics, many international talent development programs are still focused on language training, overseas safety, and survival skills training, foreign laws and regulations, customs, general etiquette, and so on.  

Because most Chinese companies are in an early stage of the globalization process, many employees lack English and language skills, and there is a general lack of services necessary to support global talent (such as professional service companies that understand the needs of Chinese companies). But, things are changing as more Chinese companies become more global. For example, Aperian Global has provided holistic solutions for a large number of Chinese companies including government-owned enterprises, private enterprises, and joint ventures.

What are the different stages of globalization? What is their impact on talent development in China?

Generally, in the first stage of globalization, companies focus on domestic markets; in the second stage they enter the international market; in the third stage they focus on becoming multinational, and in the fourth stage they are considered a mature global company.

Many western companies have 40% or more of their revenue coming from overseas, classifying them as  “multinational companies” (MNC). Some companies’ operating structures are at the global stage, but the overseas market may exceed the domestic market. As I mentioned, most Chinese companies are still at the international stage and gradually moving to the MNC stage, except some special cases (such as Lenovo, which leaped ahead through large-scale cross-border M&A and integration).

Different stages of globalization require different kinds of talent. At the international stage (especially during the earlier international stages), the domestic market still dominates, and companies might just need to develop some key overseas assignees, a few key functions at headquarters, and several local leaders and teams. When entering the multi-national stage, especially the global stage, the communication and coordination among headquarters, affiliates, and regional departments are more frequent and complicated, so cross-cultural and global challenges are more prominent. Developing a global mindset across the entire organization, virtual teaming skills of global team members, and global leadership skills of middle to senior managers is mandatory.

So, what is global talent?

Global talent requires those so-called “soft skills,” including cross-cultural awareness and global people skills, which include communication, collaboration, influencing skills, and so on. Global talent requires “hard skills” as well, such as international financial knowledge and specialized skills, depending on the position and function.

Global talent also needs to understand the international political and economic environment, as well as global trends in their industries. They need to develop global strategic thinking, especially if they are leaders or commissioned with the task of developing global markets. They also need to be emotionally resilient and remain positive if they work in a complicated overseas environment.

Do different companies and roles have different requirements for global talent?

We found that Chinese employees working for foreign companies in China, and those working for Chinese companies overseas need different skills or different levels of the same skill.

For example, Chinese employees working for foreign companies need to develop skills such as communicating with overseas headquarters, building credibility and visibility globally, and influencing global decision-making. Chinese employees working for Chinese companies usually come from headquarters in China, and have the important challenge of understanding and managing non-Chinese employees in overseas offices or acquired overseas companies, and working effectively with different local stakeholders.

So, the different requirements for global talent depend on the relationship between headquarters and affiliates, different globalization stages, different corporate cultures, and different capabilities and experience levels of employees. It can even be influenced by the perception of China in the eyes of foreign employees, and the brand and culture of the country.

The requirements for different roles are not the same. A CEO from a Chinese global company needs to have a global vision, but might not necessarily be fluent in English, whereas a mid-level R&D staff assigned abroad might have language, cross-cultural communication, and collaboration skills as their development priorities.

How do you successfully develop global talent?

Global talents should be developed through multiple channels. The 10-20-70 rule is also applicable. International working and living experience, global project experience, cross-cultural mentoring and coaching, various types of training and learning tools are also very important. Companies need to develop a holistic solution to achieve synergy instead of just a training event. Solutions should be designed based on different target groups and their needs. For special circumstances such as cross-border M&A, the timing of intervention, the appropriate solutions at different phases, and the targeted solutions for different audiences are critical.

What solutions does Aperian Global provide in China?

Aperian Global provides both differentiated and common solutions for Chinese and foreign companies. For example, we have provided programs and consultative projects to Western MNCs. These programs include Developing Global Leaders, Global Team Collaboration, Diversity and Inclusion, and many more. For Chinese companies, we have designed Developing Chinese Global Talent programs, Global M&A Cultural Integration programs, and others.

Other solutions, for example, GlobeSmart and country-specific cross-cultural programs, are commonly needed by both Chinese and foreign companies. Aperian Global also provides online assessments including the GlobeSmart Teaming Assessment (GTA) and the Inclusive Behaviors Inventory (IBI).

What are some success stories and challenges?

One successful example is the Global Leadership Development program designed for Chinese and Asian future leaders in Western MNCs. As a fully customized program that includes blended learning, assessments, mentoring, and action learning assignments, it has supported Chinese and APAC middle to senior-level managers working in global companies across the automotive, pharmaceutical, electronic, and consumer product industries, helping them become global leaders in their respective organizations.

Another example is the holistic solution designed for Chinese global companies, including central government-owned enterprises, joint ventures, and private enterprises. It is comprised of the Developing Chinese Global Talent program in China and the country-specific cross-cultural program held in both China and their overseas sites. It includes exploring potential team solutions, follow-up coaching, and more.

Success can be attributed to many aspects. One very important aspect is how much attention the client pays to the program or if they are comfortable sharing information, discussing issues, and working out solutions together. Other factors of success rely on the involvement and commitment from management and the support from other internal departments. Some challenges include leaders who do not recognize the importance of global talent development, improper participant selection or preparation, poor intervention timing, a lack of understanding of how the program relates to the participant’s daily work, and weak ongoing support or development post-program. In addition, as mentioned earlier, because of the unique challenges of Chinese companies going global, Chinese employees, especially global assignees, are required to become “all-around” global talents within a short period of time, which poses a big challenge to clients and service providers like us.

“In the training field in China, there are a lot of companies that offer cross-cultural training and leadership/team development, but Aperian Global is able to effectively integrate concepts of culture, globalization, the individual, teams, leadership development, and even organizational development into their work. I hope their professional and customer-oriented services will enable more and more companies to be successful in the global environment.”

— Michael Shen

Michael Shen
Senior Global Account Manager, Shanghai

Michael has been with Aperian Global for 6 years and has not only achieved growth but a sense of accomplishment. He commented that a Chinese Procurement Director who participated in one of Aperian Global’s global leadership programs said, “I’ve been working for multinational companies for over 20 years. This program is a summary and upgrade of my 20-year experience. It is such a great investment.” This sort of recognition is what continually motivates him.