Magazine issues » Autumn 2012

HUMAN CAPITAL: Racing home

Sports-carToday the majority of Asians who go overseas to study return quickly to share in the bounty of opportunities their homelands present, finds Stefanie Eschenbacher.

The release of Harvard Girl more than a decade ago marked the creation of a whole new genre of books.

Written by Weihua Liu and Xinwu Zhang, the parents of the first Chinese undergraduate to enter Harvard University, Yiting Liu, the book claims any child can get into a prestigious foreign university.

The right upbringing is key to success and the book details their daughter’s rigorous and methodological – some would say too strict – upbringing.

By some estimates, Harvard Girl sold more than three million copies during the 16 months it was on the bestseller list. It is unclear how many copies have been read (book piracy is a serious problem in China) but it has clearly inspired a generation of parents and students.

Today, bookshelves in China are filled with copycat titles, including Stanford’s Silver Bullet, How We Got Our Child Into Yale, Tokyo University Boy and Our Dumb Little Boy Goes to Cambridge.

Asian aspiration
Nicholas Furze is a director at Profile Asia, an Asia-focused executive search and selection firm that specialises in mid- to senior-level assignments. Furze, whose two daughters attend a local school in Hong Kong, says attention to education is higher in Asia than elsewhere in the world.  

“Parents invest much more time and money into their children’s education,” he says. “They receive more attention and their workload is larger.”

A degree from one of the prestigious foreign universities is still highly regarded in Asia, but those who go abroad tend to return as soon as they have completed their studies.

“It seems people are coming back more quickly,” Furze says. “Rather than spending six years on Wall Street or with big international firms, they get their degree and come back to where the opportunities are.”

He says a degree from one of the top-tier universities in China, a master’s degree from abroad and work experience are typically “a passport to any serious job”.

He adds, though, that leadership capabilities – to build, shape and deliver a strategy – precede education and knowledge.

Jin Wang, managing director at CSOP Asset Management, the Hong Kong subsidiary of China Southern Fund, says China offers many professionals a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”.

He left Shenzhen in 2001 to study for a master’s in business administration at George Washington University in the United States. “I still remember the day I first got there and introduced myself; I was the only Chinese and few people had heard of Shenzhen or even of the Special Economic Zone,” he recalls.

Chinese Correction
Spring 2007 was a “turning point”, Wang says, after an incident that became known as the Chinese Correction. Rumours that the Chinese government would raise interest rates and combat speculative trading had sent the domestic A-shares market tumbling. The Chinese Correction wiped out billions of dollars of stock market value and triggered market falls elsewhere in the world.

“China’s stock market fell by nearly 10% overnight and the US market fell the next day,” Wang says. “It was the first time many in the US took notice of China. People suddenly wanted to understand the Chinese economy.”

It was a time where opportunities opened up for many Chinese working abroad.

Wang worked at the World Bank Treasury until 2007 and then took over responsibility for risk management, asset allocation and hedge fund manager selection at RCG, a Washington DC-based hedge fund of funds. “My intention was to go abroad and study,” he says. “I had never planned to stay in the US.”

Drawn by the bounty of opportunities his homeland presents, he returned after nearly a decade abroad.

Wang, who now heads CSOP Asset Management’s offshore business development, says his impact is bigger than in previous roles.

With the same amount of qualifications, he says, he got more responsibility and progressed faster working for a Chinese asset manager.

“The Chinese economy will continue to grow and we can make things happen here,” he says. “When I was a child, I never thought I would fly in a plane; I had never even seen a train. Now I travel around the world.”

Instead of returning to China, Wang settled in Hong Kong. He says he wants his children to learn Chinese and understand their heritage, but adds Hong Kong is more cosmopolitan than China with a greater degree of freedom.

Singapore-born Peng Wah Choy is chief executive officer of Harvest Global Investments. He says while his native Singapore is considered to have a higher standard of living – based on factors such as health care and international schooling – many Chinese will still choose Hong Kong.

“It is closer to their roots, their heritage and many believe in the Chinese growth story,” he says.  

Having gained a master’s in business administration at McGill University in Canada, Choy started his career at Citibank in Singapore, then moved to New York and later to Hong Kong.

Choy returned to Asia during the Asian financial crisis that began in summer 1997 with a series of currency devaluations in Southeast Asia and led to fears of a worldwide economic meltdown.

A western concept
Asset management is considered a Western concept so most Asians will choose New York or London to gain experience. The most compelling career pportunities, however, appear to be found in Asia today.

“Chinese are coming home,” Choy says. “Some of them were just analysts in fund houses in the US and here they get propelled into senior management positions.”

He says many Asians aspire to work as international asset managers, but adds that the “Chinese asset management industry has been blessed with growth in a short time and probably offers a bit more stability”.

Recruiting staff is about selling the vision that Asia is going to be the growth engine of the world.

“We look for people who want to be part of a well-managed Chinese company with the ambition to be global,” Choy says. “I feel responsible to pass on the knowledge I gained; this role is no longer just about my career progression.”

Keith Li is the chief executive of Bosera International, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bosera Asset Management.

Prior to taking up this role, he worked at EJ McKay & Co, a Shanghai-based investment banking group focusing on China-related cross-border transactions.

Like most of his peers, he went to the United States for his studies. He received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Dartmouth College and returned to China in 2003.

“During college years, I studied Japanese as a foreign language because nobody imagined that China would be a major competitor,” Li says, adding that he had envisaged taking a job in Tokyo. “Nobody expected such explosive growth in China.”

Having spent several years working for multi-national asset managers, Li chose a Chinese one. “Pension coverage in much of Asia is low and savings rates are high,” he says.

“After nine years with a multi-national company, I wanted to work for a Chinese company to tap on the growing potential and to contribute what I have gained in the past.”

One of the most important factors, he says, has been that he “can make a serious impact here”. Li was a founding member of the China Securities Regulatory Commission’s overseas expert committee on the experiment of open-ended funds.

He says overseas education is important to him, but not a prerequisite. “When hiring staff, I look for soft skills. I am not a big fan of language skills; the way they communicate with superior and junior management, and clients, is more important,” he says.

Chinese management style is often considered too autocratic with little room for creativity and no room to challenge the status quo.

Red-hot economy
Lynn Paine, a professor of business administration and senior associate dean for faculty development at Harvard Business School, has written about just how tough China is on top executives. Half of the leaders she interviewed for her research were from North America and Europe and the other half from Asia.

Her essay, entitled The China Rules, starts with a proverb from the Yuan Dynasty: “An army of a thousand is easy to find, but, ah, how difficult to find a general.”

She argues leaders approach their China assignment with a narrow focus on driving sales, something that is particularly the case for expatriates. Their approach does not translate well to China, often because they underestimate the role of the government.

“The red-hot economy, pulsating with opportunity, attracts foreigners – both ethnic Chinese and non-Chinese – but human resources professionals continue to rank China as one of the most challenging destinations for expatriates,” she writes. “Hard numbers are lacking, but anecdotal evidence suggests that underperformance and early departures add up to a failure rate there that is twice that for expats in other countries.”

According to her research, the most effective leaders have picked up “the crucial ability to play roles that Westerners often view as contradictory”.

Their management style is strategic yet hands-on; discipline yet entrepreneurial; process-oriented yet sensitive to people; authorative yet nurturing; firm yet flexible; and action-driven yet circumspect.

Competitive advantage
Being able to combine experiences gained in China and abroad is where many Chinese see their competitive advantage over expatriates.

“In Chinese history, we have never had two parties,” Wang says, explaining that “one party makes the decision and people will follow.”

It is this management style that many expatriates struggle with. One asset management professional, who asked not to be named, says that adjusting has been difficult.

Born to Chinese parents and raised in the United States, he had relocated to Hong Kong because he considered the opportunities to be greater.

While he says his colleagues have been helpful as he was trying to adapt, not least because he does not speak the language, he criticised a lack of transparency and the autocratic management style.

Asset management leaders acknowledge this criticism, but they also argue that there is a new generation of Chinese leaders emerging.

Cultural understanding
Paine says successful leaders have modified accepted wisdom to tackle the biggest challenges they face in China. Most of what they learn in China, she says, is neither written in books nor taught in classrooms.

“Success in China demands cultural understanding and adaptability, market knowledge, the ability to sense and respond to rapid change and support from headquarters,” she added.

Leading in China, Paine says, calls for a repertoire of skills that goes beyond and, in some cases, conflicts with standard business teaching and practice.

“We adopted the Western way so we are more open-minded and willing to listen,” Li says. “The way Chinese are doing business is changing (...) under the leadership of young executives.”

And those who returned to their homeland after several years studying and working abroad, see their main competitive advantage in being able to take the best from both cultures.

©2012 funds global

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