Executive Opportunities

China beckons as management vacancies soar

By Ella Lee

Jimmy Ho, senior client partner, Korn/Ferry

The mainland's burgeoning manufacturing sector is driving a fever-pitch search for Hong Kong executives

With the Hong Kong economy continuing to improve, the job market is recovering from the rock-bottom level it reached last year. Companies are generally more confident about the future and this has led to a considerable increase in job vacancies and, most noticeably, a surge in head hunting for senior executives. According to global executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry, there is an increasing dearth of top management talent as the market grows exponentially.

"Industry has rebounded substantially," says Jimmy Ho, senior client partner of Korn/Ferry in Hong Kong, "and especially in the fields of consumer products, life sciences, information technology and industrial manufacturing." He points out that his firm has already achieved phenomenal business results in 2004.

Manufacturing is one of the stronger sectors. It is driven by the long-term evolution of China as a global manufacturing hub of everything from heavy duty products to household appliances and other consumer goods. Mr Ho says that this is despite the fact that the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement has yet to have a significant impact on the sector and the related recruitment market.

"CEPA is more a driving force for the service industry and those manufacturers who aim at the mainland domestic market, particularly in the Pearl River Delta area," he points out.

Most current job opportunities for senior management are China-related. They are basically regional positions requiring the appointee to be stationed in or travel frequently to the mainland. Despite the keen competition from cities such as Singapore and Shanghai, Hong Kong remains a favoured location as a regional headquarters because of its sophisticated legal and telecommunication infrastructure and open economy. There are many openings for senior executives looking for regional positions in general management, finance and marketing.

For mainland positions, Hong Kong executives are facing keen competition as the localisation trend continues. "Chinese nationals are no longer restricted to lower or middle management positions. Instead, they may be appointed as functional heads for sales, human resources and to run business units, where a higher value is placed on knowledge of local culture and connections," says Mr Ho.

Hong Kong executives are the most popular choice among Asian expatriates

Returnees, who were born in China but received an overseas education and training, are popular among multinational companies. "They are the most marketable," says Mr Ho. However, he points out that returning Chinese, often from the privileged elite, may have attitude and self-identity issues which can cause problems when they are working alongside other mainland staff.

"Moreover, they may not be as experienced as their Hong Kong rivals, who can usually maintain better communications with a head office overseas," Mr Ho adds.

Among Asian expatriates, Hong Kong executives are the most popular choice for work in China, although they are also the most costly. A growing number of mainland enterprises believe in Hong Kong's management capabilities and the advantages it has in bridging the gap between East and West.

"Hong Kong managers are expected to have a good understanding of Chinese culture while being able to introduce best practices of an international standard," says Mr Ho. There are also the advantages of quick response times, quality training and experience in multinational corporations plus knowledge of topics ranging from manufacturing techniques to capital markets.

However, in Mr Ho's experience, there have also been examples where Hong Kong executives have been unsuccessful in China. Some appointees have resigned not long into their contracts, mainly as a result of culture shock and problems in adapting.

The biggest challenge faced by such executives is establishing mutual trust between top management from Hong Kong and local staff. There is often a significant difference in their remuneration, priorities in the workplace and ethical standards.

"A CEO from Hong Kong may receive millions a year, while other senior executives may earn only ten thousand a month," Mr Ho explains. "It may give rise to suspicion and hostility among the mainland staff towards a new senior executive from outside."

In addition, Hong Kong expatriates are frequently criticised for putting insufficient emphasis on the training and development of local staff. "Unlike traditional Western expatriates, who have a mission to develop their successors, Hong Kong expatriates tend to secure their own positions and are less committed to the transfer of skills and knowledge," says Mr Ho.

Today, for anyone intent on becoming a successful senior manager, it is essential to take a regional view. "You may need to travel to Shenzhen or more distant cities in China for work not just around Hong Kong. You must also have the capacity to deal with a much larger target market because of the exponential growth of business opportunities," says Mr Ho.

Cultural adaptation is also critical. It involves not only speaking a different language, but respecting, understanding and adapting to a different way of doing things. Strong commitment may be needed to change a familiar lifestyle. Mr Ho points out that it is common for Hong Kong expatriates to work in China during the week and return home at weekends.

"This does not help them understand the different culture and lifestyle of mainlanders," he says. "If, for example, you are the head of strategic marketing, you should know about the daily life of ordinary mainlanders; things such as their favourite radio station."

For those who do make the adjustment, working in China can be an important step on the career ladder. Mr Ho cautions, however, that the privileges and benefits afforded top Hong Kong expatriates on the mainland are significantly less than they were ten years ago.

Opportunity knocks for HK managers

  • Resurgent demand for top management talent
  • Returning Chinese popular with multinational companies
  • Commitment needed for transfer of skills and knowledge
  • Expatriates must delve deeper into mainland culture

Taken from Career Times 13 August 2004
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