Expatriate failure rates in China rate somewhere between 30% and 70% according to the International Journal of Knowledge, Culture, and Change in Organizations. The cost for an organization of these failures can range from 250.000 to 1.000.000$ per expatriate. Looking at these immense costs, it should become clear that the selection and training of expatriates sent to China, and Asia as a whole, should be taken very seriously. With this background in mind, I am now listing what I think are the most important qualities for expatriates in Asia.
1. Entrepreneurial Mind-Set
With an entrepreneurial mind-set, I mean the ability to design organizational processes and structures based on a mix between western-style best practises, and the local environment and culture. Often, when expatriates are send to Asia, they have to either start the local branch from scratch, or completely redesign the existing organizational structure, to suit the expectations and requirements of headquarters.
2. Ability to cope with stress
Expatriates face much more challenges than simply an overload of work. They are in an unfamiliar environment, far away from their support systems, potentially have a partner who is having trouble adapting, they themselves have to adapt to different cultural practices, and learn a completely new management style. The degree of stress levels they are being exposed to can therefore be significantly higher than the stress levels of those working in their home countries.
3. Negotiation and political skills
In Asia, productivity is often less valued than having the trust and the respect of senior management. Relationships, and loyalty to the companies, are more valued than reaching KPIs. Therefore, being able to navigate through such an environment, by having strong skills in terms of building rapport and trust, being able to negotiate, and having a good intuitive understanding of the political structure of the organization (who the key influencers in the organization are), is of crucial importance.
4. Conflict Management Skills
This one is a tricky one. I have found it in several different articles, for example in this report by LTS Training & Consulting. They refer to it as ‘the ability to deal with conflicting situations in a non-aggressive way’. And while I absolutely agree with this point, in Asia the emphasis should be placed more on conflict-prevention, rather than conflict management. In this way, structures and processes should be designed in a way that gives everybody the chance to voice their opinions, without creating an environment in which conflicts are likely to arise.
5. Ability to make decisions in an uncertain environment
A common characteristic of doing business in Asia, is that managers have to operate in an information-poor environment. First of all, they are in an environment with which they are not so familiar, and second of all, Asian business owners tend to receive their information more through the relationships they have, rather than through official sources, as businesses tends to operate more on the principle of secrecy rather than transparency. Some western management principles, which require a great deal of information, are simply not applicable in such an environment. Expatriates need not be paralysed by this situation, but need to find ways in which they can make effective decisions.
It may not sound very important, but I can not emphasise this last point enough. When your company acquires a a business in Asia, or starts a joint venture, your partner is likely to have a structure that is based on patriarchy, and close ties to the leader. To go ahead and hope for a quick culture change, and a quick implementation of western-style management practices, is completely unrealistic. It will inevitably lead to resistance from the side of the employees, and potentially from management as well, who have operated in a traditional system until then. What is needed first is therefore trust, and the development of positive relationships, before any type of change can be attempted. At the same time, patience can also refer to something completely different. For example, in Indonesia, where the concept of jam karet (rubber time) is employed, people can easily come three hours later than the appointed time, simply because their value structure of time is completely different than that of the west. So, to be able to patient, and to observe cultural differences, is one of the important qualities for expatriates in Asia.