21 March 2019
Janet De Silva, dean of business school Ivey Asia
Janet De Silva, dean of business school Ivey Asia

A world of career choice for Chinese executives

The hunt is on. Western multinationals and Chinese firms are on a quest to recruit top-tier mainland executives to either cement their mainland presence or advance their global push, opening up a world of career choice for select talent. Where once Western companies had the edge in the race for the best people, now domestic firms are matching them opportunity for opportunity.

“Certainly multinationals that have big investments in China are actively seeking qualified Chinese executives to go into their China operations. Chinese enterprises operating in China are also seeking well-qualified Chinese executives with international experience… to help them take the Chinese enterprises global,” Janet De Silva, dean of business school Ivey Asia, told EJ Insight.

De Silva said the need for qualified staff is highlighted by retail training academies set up in China by luxury brands like Cartier and Montblanc. The training centers are putting through twice as many as students as they need for their mainland stores, with the aim of seconding the extra staff to other operations around the world.

“Chinese executives are now being promoted to the country or regional levels, we just haven’t seen them yet at the headquarters. I think that’s still about five to 10 years away,” she said.

“But there are board assignments that are increasingly multinational, like at GM [General Motors Company], for example. As they look for new directors, they would be looking for Chinese or Asian talents to come onto their board because they do so much business now in China,” she said, adding that the retail, hospitality and financial sectors had the greatest need for Chinese executives.

At the same time, Chinese firms and state-owned enterprises are also waging an all-out campaign to make sure their senior staff have the skills to expand operations globally.

De Silva cited the Agricultural Bank of China (01288.HK, 601288.CN) as a case of one business looking beyond the horizon. It sent 26 of its senior managers to Canada for a one-year executive MBA program run by Ivey three years ago. Of the 26, 13 were later transferred overseas.

“They specifically say they don’t want any case studies on China in the program. All the cases should be international… [to give] a strong understanding of how companies operate outside of China,” she said.

“It didn’t happen in the past… When I first moved to China running a joint venture there, the discussions [of manpower training] would typically be helping me as a Western woman understand everything I didn’t know about China.”

Ivey Asia is the Hong Kong campus set up by Ivey Business School at the Western University of Canada in 1998. The school is located at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Chinese or multinational?

De Silva said that in the past, most Chinese executives opted for positions at multinationals over their mainland counterparts because the pay was higher and they offered better career paths.

But, Chinese businesses are now matching and even bettering some of their international competitors in remuneration and career opportunities.

“Quite often these days Chinese executives would say I would rather be hired and be part of the executive team of the global headquarters [in China] and build out from there. It’s a better career path for me than going into the country head in China for a multinational that is having its headquarters somewhere else,” De Silva said.

She said alumni considering mainland internships at Citibank or Bank of China tend to prefer the Chinese institution because its global headquarters is based in China whereas Citibank’s Chinese operation is a subsidiary.

In response, Western firms are starting to offer more attractive promotion opportunities. For example, graduates can reach the heights of vice president at IBM in five to seven years in China, rather than the 15 years it would take in the United States.

“They are really [offering] fast tracks and have invested a lot in executive education, putting [staff] into interesting assignments, because if they don’t, there are just so many opportunities [elsewhere] that people won’t stay,” she said.

– Contact the reporter at [email protected]


    EJ Insight reporter

    EJI Weekly Newsletter

    Please click here to unsubscribe