Succeeding in China, succeeding beyond


China has long been fertile ground for expats wanting to develop their careers and make an impact within their organisations. But, for many or even most expats, China is a temporary home, and the expectation is that one day they will eventually move on to new opportunities elsewhere. The question is often asked, therefore, how will my China experience count when I am in different parts of the world? How will the lessons learned here help me navigate my future career development?

We sat down with four CEIBS Global EMBA alumni who have all spent significant time in China before shifting regions and roles. Despite their different professional backgrounds, all four hold top executive positions in large, market-leading companies, and have leveraged their China experience (both professional and academic) to make a difference in their work today.

Meet our alumni

Hugo Santos, Global EMBA 2015Hugo Santos, Global EMBA 2015

Hugo is the Chief Business Development Officer for the Fersa Group, a Spanish multinational. Before taking on the role, he served as the General Manager for the company’s North America business unit.

Andreas Brandt, Global EMBA 2017Andreas Brandt, Global EMBA 2017

Andreas is the Head of Marketing at Covestro, a major international chemicals player based in Germany. He is leading efforts at Covestro to promote commercial practises that fuel digitalization, customer centricity and circular economy initiatives. 

Karla Van Wieringen-Wang, Global EMBA 2016Karla Van Wieringen-Wang (left), Global EMBA 2016

Karla is the Director of Consulting at Kantar in Singapore. Prior to this role, she spent almost 7 years at Walt Disney in China, including 2.5 years as the Director of Consumer Insights at Shanghai Disney Resort. 

Felipe Eymael, Global EMBA 2014Felipe Eymael (right), Global EMBA 2014

Felipe is the Chief Operating Officer at STIGA, a world-leading European manufacturer and distributor of lawnmowers and motorised gardening tools.

The China draw – Making the big move

When discussing the ‘draw’ of coming to work, live and eventually study in China, each of our four alumni touched on the immediately obvious attractions – China’s vast growth and commercial dynamism. Across their respective industries, our executives saw the impact China was having on the way markets and mindsets were shifting globally, and they wanted to explore and understand this reality for themselves.

‘Getting outside of the box’ was a frequent refrain from our alumni regarding their motivations to come to China. Getting outside of established business practices and methodologies, outside of the ‘accepted wisdom’ of past experiences, and outside of the rigidity often experienced in their industries and corporate cultures.

The three steps to unlocking China’s business culture – Observe, soak up, and adapt

Of course, nobody has ever said that change was easy. While it is a truism that acclimatising to a new country’s culture takes time, much has been written about the stark differences between China’s business culture and that of the West.

Across our discussions, the four alumni highlighted the fundamental importance of not attempting to bullishly transplant one’s own business approaches and practices wholesale. Instead, they advocated a path of open-minded observation, careful acclimatisation and showing a willingness to fit their ideas intelligently into an evolving whole. Observe the business reality, soak up everything it has to teach before slipping into it and adding your unique contribution and perspective.

Karla: You have to demonstrate your willingness to learn, not simply to teach. This is a well ingrained attitude in China; there is a hunger for reciprocal learning here, you can see it at every corporate level. Once you’ve done that, you will find that the trust you build with your colleagues goes so much further. They will be willing to experiment, to try things in a totally different way.

GEMBA Students

Hugo: Adapt to the reality. It’s the same as adapting to any culture anywhere in the world. What you cannot do is barge in and say, ‘OK, this is how we do it in Europe’. Learn from people, find the right partners who can teach you the business reality, then you will be well placed to bring in your own values and practices in an intelligent way.            

Felipe: The best thing you can do is to listen. I spent a long time getting the lie of the land. You have to develop a degree of cultural sensitivity, and you need knowledge and understanding to do that. I was part of several large M&A activities in China, such as Haier acquiring GE appliances, and nothing prepared me for this like living and working in Qingdao, personally experiencing the culture and letting it inform my understanding of the business approaches of both sides.

Andreas: German business culture is quite in your face. It’s not very subtle. People tell you to your face that they’re not happy and will argue their point. In China, you must be sensitive in terms of how you communicate. I quickly realised that it’s about building credibility and trust. This takes time, but the payoff is greater, especially when you want to make changes of your own.

GEMBA Students

China – The ‘ultimate startup culture’

What all four alumni have in common is their appreciation of the speed with which business is done in China. Speed, combined with a willingness to experiment, take risks, potentially fail and start again stronger for it. These factors are central in China’s accelerating shift to become a global leader in new business practices and approaches.

Hugo: I call China the ‘ultimate startup culture’. Whether you’re in a big multinational or a small venture in China, there is a startup environment which encourages flexibility and the willingness to experiment. You can try something, and even if you fail, you adjust the plan and keep going. Even in a big, fairly traditional industry like automotive, this is still the attitude in China. The emphasis on speed and the willingness to innovate on a trial-and-error basis is one of the greatest strengths of China’s business culture.

GEMBA Students

Andreas: It’s very refreshing working in China because being at a multinational in Europe generally involves a slower pace. In many areas, it’s much more bureaucratic with more procedures. It’s highly rule-oriented and requires the alignment of many stakeholders to get anything done. The speed of China also directly translates to how you do businesses. 

Attitudes towards commercial risks are a key consideration in this equation. By its very nature, moving fast brings a certain level of risk with it. For our interviewees, this is something that is deeply understood in China, and embraced with the right mix of optimism and realism.

Karla: There is a less of an aversion to risk in China, not in a reckless way, but rather in a considered way. Even the biggest firms are willing to try new things and proactively embrace new approaches, rather than waiting until it’s unavoidable. When I was working for the Walt Disney in China, the Chinese side of the business led the way in embracing digital distribution, while the US side was reluctant to ‘cut the cord’ of relying on cable companies.

Moving fast is an admirable and increasingly necessary trait in the digital age of business. However, so is thinking and planning ahead. In terms of R&D, it seems that China’s ‘startup attitude’ is closely tied to its growing successes in fostering R&D both domestically and in partnership with MNCs and other countries’ governments.

Felipe: One of the main reasons we are moving our R&D focus to China is because it is such a nexus of new ideas. Another one is that China is a fertile ground for trying out those ideas. You can innovate, develop something workable and test it in a fraction of the time it would take in Europe.

Felipe Eymael, Global EMBA 2014

The next step – Applying the lessons of China, globally

All of our four alumni eventually moved on from China and have successfully developed their careers further in different parts of the world. Across all their disparate experiences, what strikes them the most? What did they learn in China? And, how has China expanded their horizons and improved their career prospects?

Another thing they have in common is their ability to adopt a flexible stance in business. Not only are they willing to experiment and innovate, they are open to changing plans ‘on the fly’ in response to emerging market conditions and realities as they appear. Their China experiences have made them realise the importance of acting with speed and decisiveness, while always being ready to exploit new opportunities and embrace new thinking. This, in turn, has been vital in preparing them for the next stage of their lives and careers, post-China.

Felipe: I spent 11 years of my life in China, so I am always aware of the importance of my China experiences, and I’m always trying to use them effectively in my business today. So many things we did in China were quite simple, but very effective. You learn how to act quickly and decisively. It’s a very aggressive market, and there’s always another competitor ready to remove you from the shelf. STIGA adapted to COVID more quickly than its competitors, and I put much of that down to taking this attitude from China of fast and decisive action in the face of changing circumstances.

Andreas: Don’t over-analyse, that’s a big thing I learned from China. In a German multinational, there is a tendency to move from one round of analysis to the next, until you talk yourself out of something. Speed and pragmatism can be a lot more useful than having a ton of clever questions. Similarly, don’t over-strategize. There is inherent value in doing, in trying, and failing. The entire strategy does not have to be set in stone; there must be room to adapt and respond to events along the way. This is what I’m continually trying to bring to my current role.

Hugo: If you’re a professional looking for a platform to grow your career or your business idea, China can reliably provide that. If you want to be where new things are happening, where new ways of working are being trialled and improved, at great speed, this is the place to be. I’ve worked in Europe, Asia and the US – China has the right combination of being a massive market, a platform for rapid change, and a place to grow personally and professionally. I always remember and try to emulate that ‘startup mind-set’ of China in my work, to give things space to grow and to experiment. It’s something that became deeply ingrained in me.

Karla: Resilience, that’s one of the many things working in China has given me. China is so fast-paced, so competitive and so innovative; that makes it the perfect place to push you, often to your limits. It wasn’t until I went to China that I learnt to truly trust myself, to trust my instincts and be OK with making mistakes. Given the range of clients Kantar deals with, and the nuances of their issues we consult on, I rely on this kind of resilience and adaptability every day.

Karla Van Wieringen-Wang with her classmates

On the value of studying in China

While their experiences as senior executives working in China have been instrumental in shaping them into the leaders they are today, our alumni emphasised the importance of studying in China too. The ability to absorb lessons of China’s business culture and daily business operations presents another source of value to any executive, whether their ultimate career ambitions lie within China or outside of it. Regardless, we will leave you with the final thoughts of the four alumni on the value of studying in China even as you conduct businesses.

Felipe: Understanding a market requires you to go there, and that’s truly the case with China. With a school like CEIBS, which emphasised on getting out of the classroom and getting hands-on, your understanding of China becomes much more nuanced. This is so important. Through the Global EMBA programme, I’ve been able to explore the Chinese business mind-set and translate the lessons into my own professional environment here. Already, this has been proven to be a significant and enduring source of competitive advantage.

Karla: Differentiation is key in today’s hyper-competitive business climate, and that goes for people as well as companies. Studying in China, speaking Chinese, insights into the Chinese business culture, these are all invaluable points of differentiation. If you look at any qualification, you have to think, ‘How will this help me stand out in a positive way?’ Studying in China, and specifically CEIBS, can do that, because you gain an extended experience of engaging with the brightest and best minds in China, while actually seeing how business is done here, not in a textbook.

Hugo: When sitting down with guys from top business schools across the world, it is apparent that CEIBS has become the ‘cool’ place to have studied at. While China drives its national transformation to become more added-value, innovative, fast-moving, adaptive, etc., CEIBS keeps pace with this movement. I think it’s the best of both worlds. The Global EMBA programme is seen not only as cool and different, but also as respected and academic. It is another point of differentiation in your favour. I know that in my case it has made people sit up and take notice.

Andreas: Regardless of where you work, your industry will be touching upon China, at this point, it’s almost unavoidable. If you want to understand what is happening here, you have to come here. It’s that simple. Although I’m back in Germany now, my experiences in China, plus the new friends and colleagues I met there, have continual relevance in my daily work.

Tom Murray
Marcel Austin-Martin and Effy HE