Aug 9, 2015

Interview with Hospira Asia and Japan Regional HR Director John Crawford - Part One: China’s talent landscape and developing local talents

I met John Crawford, Regional HR director Asia and Japan at Hospira, who shared with me his views on the latest competitive landscape between expat and local talent for MNCs in China nowadays and the most difficult cultural challenges faced in managing local employees.

About John: John grew up in Liverpool in the UK, a city that has many links with Shanghai and enriched in its connection with the Chinese people, which includes hosting the oldest China town in the whole of Western Europe, two connected universities as well as a history of Cantonese migration. John got to learn a lot about Chinese culture from this as well as from many Hong Kong movies he saw on TV at a young age. Now he has spent almost ten years in Shanghai since 2005, he definitely feels the city is like his second home.

Jing Yan: You have been HR director in MNCs in China for so many years, and you’ve mentioned that the competition of MNC with the locals is really intense now. If MNCs really want to win this competition, they have to find the talent and seek the best ways to retain them. So what’s your insight about the talent development situation in China, in particularly related with expat and local employees?

John Crawford:

Realistic pay

I've seen some changing trends recently. I remember six or seven years ago, Chinese employees or candidates were insatiably demanding unrealistic pay rises. They would demand unrealistic job promotions, 100% pay increases, (even because they were getting married), or ask for similar % increases coming from another company. And there were plenty of companies willing to let them have it which contributed to exorbitant salaries for lower levels of skills compared to foreign hires. I see that less these days. That's the sign of the market steadying out and multinationals are not 'rolling over' as much as they did before.

Closing gaps

I've also seen the level of capability gap between foreign employees and a Chinese employees is closing. The gap is still there, still quite big at times, but it is closing fast. I've seen this at many of the networking sessions I attend, that the quality of the current crop of HR professionals over the last five to eight years has definitely improved, in terms of the levels of business and emotional intelligence and Human Resource skills. The issue now is that the salary between a foreigner and a local is almost or often the same level, but a capability gap still remains. So foreigners now are finding it increasingly difficult to get a job in Shanghai, because of the shortening gap and the locals speak Chinese of course! The capability gap is no longer large enough for companies to warrant paying more to hire a foreigner and a key part of that issue of hiring a foreigner is the 'extras' needed in a package, such as allowances for housing, schooling, healthcare, transport etc.

I think this will continue to steady out over the next few years and then I suspect it will come back around when all the organizations have gone almost totally Chinese, maybe there will be some opportunities perhaps in areas of business performance or compliance which warrant bringing back some expats to help out.

What are the specific challenges face you when you manage local employees?

The 'Courage' to speak out

There are two capabilities I think local candidates need more than they have right now.

One is 'emotional courage', the ability to communicate what is happening and what they feel, to ask the right questions, to speak out, to challenge, to make reasonable suggestions to problems in a way that they don't feel they or their boss will lose face. That's what many foreign managers get most frustrated with, they call it a 'lack of pro-activeness or a lack of intelligence or understanding' but I don't believe that. They say locals won't tell them if something is going wrong. They see it going wrong (the local employee), but the boss doesn't see it, and the local employee doesn't tell their boss about it for fear to lose face. That's true, it does happen but is more cultural than just a 'lack of pro-activeness'. Locals do sometimes lack the courage to speak out but they need to know they have a safe environment to 'speak out'. De-sensitize Expats on the other side of the fence.

I also educate expat leaders on the same issue: "When local employees ask questions, push back and challenge, don't get offended!" I have seen it many times where expat leaders either based here or in their home country who can easily think the locals have a bad attitude when they question decisions…So they want the local candidates and employees to speak up and ask questions and challenge, but when they do so, they get offended and sensitive about it and end up creating a negative environment which means locals are reluctant to speak up again!. So …you can’t have it both ways. We have to help the Chinese managers and employees grow that courage part, and also help the foreign boss to understand not to overreact when it happens.


The second capability area lacking is the capability of ‘resilience’. What I mean by that is not giving up when the first challenge is facing you. Sometimes when faced with a tough situation, the local employee may approach the manager: “I have to do this, but I can’t because of this or that...what should I do boss?”

On the other side of the coin, leaders (who prefer managing rather than leading) may get very prescriptive and say: “Ah, just do this, this is necessary...a b c etc”. And guess what happens? When they go, they do this thing as prescribed, then another day, another problem, they come back: “I have another problem, what do I do?” and so the circle continues and leaders get frustrated that nothing is getting done without their interventions.

We are not holding employess responsible or accountable. I challenge my team on their resilience capabilities. They are smart people, they have resources, networks and information is out there. It’s ok to come to me after you’ve examined and or tried 10 things. If they have tried 10 things and still can’t find any answer, I will ask questions and probe to help them, to tease the answer out for themselves. So we must stimulate that resilience. Yes, loke coaching, it takes time, it’s a big time investment, BUT it will pay dividends later when employees can be fully independent and relied upon.

Chinese Females in employment

I believe in Chinese traditional culture a female in a household has always been relied upon to fulfil a duty, a role to play in helping managing the home. Boys are revered and often spoilt (The Little Emperor syndrome). Also it may be argued that because of the one child policy, there’s a lack of sibling rivalry, children don’t have to share or fight or argue. I have witnessed over 10 years both the female’s and male’s ‘role and behaviour’ in a household actually transferring into the work place, with boys often having much higher expectations than their female counterparts. In my HR data analysis, I found that in the majority of cases the females show more signs of higher engagement and care around their role and responsibilities, they score better in performance management scales and stay longer in employment. On every single data point, the females win over the males. I also then faced problems with the Chinese male hiring managers when I would show them the data and say to them: “You need to hire more Females.” “No, no, no, they are not strong enough.” they would say… So another imbalance in cultural thinking and educating local male managers to be much more open to have female employees is another role I often need to play.

End of Part One. Part Two is coming up soon in which John talks about the pitfalls of two extremes of “culturally-sensitive” leader, and how to correct the common misbelief about what truly motivate local employees as well as break the hierarchy and create a fair working environment to release their full potential. Stay tuned…