When my family arrived in Shanghai in August, 2005 I was firmly planted in the third quarter of both my expat and work life. China was in the midst of its historic rise to economic might and I was wondering what I was doing there. Per standard operating procedure, my wife assessed our situation and made a “to do” list. She got on with the task of getting our home life up and running. At least one of us understood what they were doing. I had a “big picture” idea of my goals but seemed to need a lot more help than my better half. The devil is, as they say, in the details.
My first office was rented from a serviced office company which meant that I was, for the most part, surrounded by people who had come to Shanghai to work on a short term project, start their own business or, like me, worked for a division of a large foreign company that was just beginning operations in Shanghai.
On my third day in Shanghai a smiling middle aged American woman appeared at my door and introduced herself. As it turned out, she worked for a testing company that wanted to introduce their personality testing products in the Chinese market. I became her first customer. Actually, she tested me for free in the hopes that I would use her service to help assess my local hires. I took the rather lengthy test that afternoon. I would get the results later in the week when I was back in the office.
|The test I took was a little more complicated|
Personality test results were not high on my mental list of concerns as the days passed. The life I had in systematic Japan was a memory in the “wild-west” environment of China. Rules were more like “nice ideas” but not necessarily something you needed to follow. For a foreigner, the first test was figuring out which rules needed to be followed and which were “conceptual”. It would more than six months before I would be chastised by my driver Philip for stopping at a red light the day I got my China driving license and decided to get behind the wheel. “Why are you stopping?” said an eye rolling Philip. “The light is red” was my reply. “So what, nobody is here, just slow down but no need to stop – it’s a waste of time”. Our first three months in China would have been much easier if Philip had been with us from the beginning to provide his unique perspective on how the locals behaved.
One benefit from life in Japan that did transfer to China was that I had already learned to ask for help any time government bureaucracy reared its ugly head.
The government was holding my passport (never a comfortable feeling) pending a work visa being issued and my household goods clearing customs. A customs officer requested a meeting at my office to “discuss” my shipment which sounded a bit ominous. I wanted a local and native Chinese speaker with me during the meeting so I requested the GM of the serviced office company help me out.
|There were a lot of little tests getting settled in Shanghai|
“Janifer” was the name on the English side of her business card. I think she intended to be Jennifer but a typo got in the way. She became my hero in short order as she guided the man in an ill-fitting customs uniform into my office. The unsmiling bureaucrat began in rapid fire Mandarin and seemed to have some sort of complaint with my household goods shipment. Janifer locked eyes with the guy and took on the appearance of a Shaolin warrior monk. She listened, nodded, deepened her glare and nodded some more. She seemed to struggle discerning what the complaint was but finally figured it out. She turned to me and said “he wants to know why you have 57 teddy bears and other toy animals in your stuff”. My response: “I have two daughters – they like teddy bears”. Janifer went on to say that he wanted to disallow them because I didn’t “need them”. Feeling relieved that the issue was minor; I took the offensive and said that toys were not on a list of banned articles so I didn’t feel he had the right to complain. It seemed to me maybe the guy wanted the stuffed animals for his kids. Janifer said she “completely agreed” with me and unleashed a torrent of high decibel verbiage at the suddenly squirming official. Long story short – Janifer apparently told the guy to “get out and clear the shipment by tomorrow or else”. That was exactly what happened. I never found out what “or else” was. The experience of watching Janifer take on the official was important for me.It showed me a lot about how China "works” and paid dividends later on. I would never have thought a young lady could challenge someone in an official role and win but I saw it time and time again. First China “crisis” averted.
Later in the day still basking in the glow of Janifer’s victory over customs; I went down the hall to get tea and saw my American friend - Anne. “I have your test results. They are quite interesting. If you have a few minutes we can discuss them”. Her use of the word “interesting” got my attention.
A few minutes later we met in my office. Anne started by revisiting my current situation – wondering aloud how long I had worked for worked for a “big company”. I told her that I had been with the same company for 16 years, had worked in multiple locations and been promoted on average every 2.5 years. She smiled and said she was very surprised that I could survive let alone thrive in a corporate environment. By now I was curious to hear more details about results and her conclusions. She explained that normally someone with test results like mine had trouble functioning in a big company. I told her I wasn’t necessarily convinced that the kind of testing her company did was a great predictor of success. She suggested that I spend a few minutes reading my results and then we could discuss what they “normally” meant in more detail.
After reading the results and conclusions – I thought most of them represented my personality and mindset reasonably well. We reconvened to continue the discussion. “Well normally someone who shows the combination of an extreme need to get things done and a very low tolerance of bureaucracy has trouble functioning in a large organization especially at a senior level”. “Your profile looks more like someone who prefers entrepreneurial activity.” I smiled and said “Well Anne – I think the test results are valid.” She gave me a quizzical look. I continued: “Well, my boss is 7,000 miles away and cares more about my results than the details of how I get them.” “Most people in my company think Asia is all ‘third world’ and couldn’t imagine living here which created an opportunity for me.” She looked surprised at my candor. “Honestly, as a young man I was very risk averse, clueless and too chicken to start my own business. My first job after grad school was with an oil company – I wanted security. It wasn’t until I had been in the corporate world a few years that I began to feel like a ‘drone’. I targeted assignments that gave me as much independence as I could have and still work inside big organization. The ex-pat assignment gave me maximum freedom plus a higher pay package because of the perception that living in Asia was a sacrifice”. We were silent for a minute. Finally I said: “I knew when I left the US for Japan that the odds of me successfully repatriating were slim. The company pushed me hard to come to China and I leveraged the situation to maximize the benefit to my family”.
I spent five wonderful, frustrating, complicated and interesting years in China but in the first week I was there my interaction with Anne validated the belief I already had in the back of my mind that my corporate life was not going to last long after I repatriated.
I was fortunate to hire several people that taught me invaluable lessons about doing business in China and learning to think outside my comfort zone. Learning to operate in China was great preparation for what I am doing today.
This week is the third anniversary of getting fired by my employer of almost a quarter of a century. My experiences getting things done in Japan and China with limited support from my employer plus the relationships I developed overseas gave me the confidence to do in my 50s what I wished I could have done in my 20s – start my own business. My daughters are in their 20s and both seem to have the same desire to work independently. I hope they can do from the beginning of their work lives what it took me until late in the “3rd quarter” to accomplish.