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BBC Capital

An expert’s insight: thriving as a foreign CEO in China

Tianji CEO Lily Li. (Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images and Tianji)

Tianji CEO Lily Li on the traits of a successful Chinese CEO. (Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images and Tianji)

Lily Li is CEO of Tianji, China’s number one professional networking site, which has clocked up 18 million users since launch. She also founded ecommerce site, Chicr.com.

Li, has worked with dozens of foreign CEOs over the years. Her previous positions include vice president of Joyo.com (now Amazon China) and senior director marketing and sales for Yahoo China, now part of Alibaba.

She spoke to BBC Capital about the traits of a successful leader in China and what foreign CEOs can expect in the marketplace. Edited excerpts follow.

Q: What can foreign CEOs expect when they come to China?

A: The economic environment has changed since 2008. It’s much harder to succeed today. Foreign CEOs need to play down their expectations. There are no easy wins in China. Competition among Chinese and foreign firms is tough. It’s difficult to win markets.

But there is less difference than people think between Chinese culture and the west. Chinese staff work just as hard, they are respectful of their work and have the same desire for success. They also know how to appreciate efficient communication and a talented leader.

What a foreign leader does need to do is learn how to communicate the “Chinese way” and take time to understand their staff.

Q: Can you elaborate?

A: There are many cultural differences in communicating. [Consider] email. Foreign CEOs are always confused and frustrated when they send out an email [to someone in China] and expect a simple yes/no answer. Instead they get a very long reply that does not answer their initial question.

Chinese people don’t like to take responsibility. They are scared to lose their jobs and don’t like to be forced into saying something they don’t want to. Foreign CEOs need to take this into account and need to take the time to understand how to communicate.

Patience is key. Transparency can be an excellent way to get around this. It’s a western value that Chinese are very responsive to. Imposing it in a company can make a foreign CEO’s journey into China a much more pleasant experience.

Q: What are the main challenges a foreign CEO can face upon arrival in China?

A: Sometimes it’s the simplest things that can be the most challenging, like getting from A to B in a taxi. Being able to get around easily is taken for granted and not being able to do so creates a big sense of insecurity. In China you’re never sure if the taxi drops you off at the intended address. This can seem like a small issue but on a daily basis it’s very tiring.

Another is getting to know your team and who you are working with. Often foreign CEOs step right off the plane and into an office full of Chinese co-workers. They have no idea who they are, how they work or how qualified they are. This can be confusing.

CEOs need to take the time to speak to their staff, understand their new environment before they try and manage them.

Q: Can you give a few tips on how a foreign CEO can prepare?

A: The first thing I would say is to prepare your family. They may find it difficult to adapt to the new working environment. This can affect personal life. Mixing family and work is very common practice here. Chinese people work overtime and socialise with their colleagues. It’s very different to the West where there is a clear boundary between work and family.

Foreign CEOs should also realize how tough the competition is and how much hard work has to be put in to succeed -- often much more than in their home countries. Language is not a big issue.

[But] no matter how much you prepare, the real experience of working and living in China will always surprise you.

Q: How difficult — or easy — is it to be a foreign woman CEO in China?

A: Generally, I think being a woman CEO is hard. There is a lot of pressure, the environment is tough and it’s difficult to find a balance with your personal life.

When a Chinese team hears that a CEO is coming from overseas they assume it’s a man. But, culturally they don’t have an issue if it’s a woman. 

Q: Are there situations in which being a foreign executive is actually an advantage?

A: This question really depends on the person and how much they invest to understand the country and the culture. If they make no effort to localise then it’s a net disadvantage. But in certain negotiations or certain industries such as luxury goods, foreign CEOs can be an advantage. They can bring another viewpoint, facilitate the process.

Sometimes the foreign CEO has better knowledge of an industry and can bring access to overseas markets. This can be a real asset.