One Year In

An HR leader reflects on best practices and how to make an impact during a 2-year expat posting

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By James Argento

A little over a year ago, I had the good fortune – though I didn’t know it at the time – to be asked to move from the US (Seattle, to be exact) and spend two years or so in Beijing leading human resources for Amazon in the one market where we are not a leader. It was a challenge I didn’t want to pass up. Leading a fairly large HR team of all local employees has taught me a lot about leadership and the role of HR.

Money important, but not everything

I recently sat on a panel at the AmCham China offices in Beijing with HR leaders from different industries, albeit all with US-based companies – pharma, energy, tech and me from e-commerce – to discuss people-related challenges and strategies. It was somewhat comforting to hear that regardless of industry, we all share similar areas of concern.

How do you win the hearts and minds of employees at an multinational corporation in China and ensure your talent strategy is truly a competitive advantage? How do you create a sense of loyalty in a market where high turnover in fast moving industries is the norm? I'm not sure if anyone has it figured out, and it is easy to conclude that the traditional Western notion of employee motivation and development isn’t necessarily a recipe for success.

Employees here, who tend to be younger on average, do have very aggressive expectations, and are understandably managing their careers in a similar way.  Competing for talent with local startups, which has become a more recent challenge the past couple of years, has added to the difficulty of retaining talent.  Understandably, the compensation package is key, but that is not the whole story. The value of being coached and developed, like everywhere, is significant as well.

Focus on people, not global vs. local

The panelists and I shared some retention and engagement practices that seem to work. They start with being deliberate on when to follow global practices versus when to go along with established local practices. For example, one panelist’s organization does not require strong English language skills, for at least some roles (such as sales and tech), which opens up the talent pool considerably, even though it creates new challenges working with corporate. Working overtime is viewed differently here than in the US. The tech leader at my company has had employees coming in on Saturdays to work on a strategic project and this has seemed to increase motivation and energy, unlike what would likely happen in the US. Blindly accepting Western practice as the global standard and the only way of doing things, even if it works elsewhere, is not prudent. Additionally, using the blanket statement that “China is different” and not trying to understand how and why is perhaps the biggest mistake.

A colleague at this year’s Society for Human Resource Management conference closed her remarks with this advice: Don't lose sight of taking care of employees. It doesn’t sound very cutting-edge, but in the end, it comes back to this, which is no different than in any other country. People want to feel cared for. As an HR leader, I have to remind myself that I am only here a few years and to focus on what difference I can make not just in the organization, but with individuals. I know the day will come, sooner than expected, when my wife and I will be packing our bags and shopping for that last piece of Chinese pottery to serve as a memory of a place in time, the lessons learned and the wonderful adventure.