Bringing the SOE perspective to Global EMBA

Zhongfei Wang, Global EMBA 2021

China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are well known for their stability, consistency and, at times, resistance to change. Compared to private enterprises, SOEs offer markedly different advantages and drawbacks for their executives, who enjoy much greater job security but also tighter constraints when it comes to internal mobility within their organisations.

As the only SOE executive in the Global EMBA 2021 class, Zhongfei Wang is something of a rarity amongst peers from multinationals and private Chinese enterprises. We caught up with her to ask how it feels to bring her SOE perspective to the GEMBA learning environment, and what she has learned from her private sector counterparts.

01 Straight out of college – Joining Shanghai FSG

Set up by the Shanghai municipal government in 1984, the Shanghai Foreign Service Group (FSG) was designed to serve the rising tide of multinational companies that were keen to expand in China. From its initial role as a talent scout, FSG quickly evolved into a ‘one-stop shop’ for HR services – recruiting, social insurance, welfare, benefits, consulting – and everything foreign companies needed to establish their initial China branches in Shanghai.

Today, FSG is a subsidiary to Donghao Lansheng Group, and is a crucial part of a vast, multifaceted SOE ecosystem covering exhibition communication, modern trading, land property development, financial post-investment and HR services. In October 2021, FSG became the very first HR company listed on Shanghai Stock Exchange. In 2022, the company served over 3 million employees from more than 50,000 enterprises.

In 2006, Zhongfei graduated from the Shanghai University of International Business Economics (SUIBE) and immediately accepted a job offer from FSG. The move, she explains, was driven by a desire to work with a highly reputable SOE while maintaining a broader perspective.

“I felt it was a great way to have the best of both worlds. SOEs offer a lot of benefits in terms of job stability, strong internal culture and a comprehensive platform for social resources, but also it was a foreign-facing role. I knew I could keep my language edge while staying attuned to the realities of the job market outside of the SOE system, even outside of China. Even in 2006, FSG had a more global outlook than many of its fellow SOEs,” Zhongfei says.

Zhongfei Wang, Global EMBA 2021

02 Why CEIBS? Why GEMBA?

“The SOE culture means most people stay in one company for most or even all of their career. That’s been my experience to date, too. This has advantages, but it can also threaten to make us too insular and inward looking. It’s important for us to keep up with what is going on outside of our company, our sector, even our industry. That’s why the GEMBA programme appealed to me, as it offered the chance to learn from multiple perspectives and understand challenges and solutions across all manner of business contexts,” Zhongfei explains.

A firm believer in the idea that learning is a lifelong pursuit, Zhongfei has always maintained the habit of looking outwards for learning opportunities. In 2021, the desire to evolve her role with FSG led her to look for an EMBA programme that could deliver the right insights to successfully navigate the rapid changes taking place in the world and in her sector.

FSG has a large CEIBS alumni presence amongst its senior management. Zhongfei notes this shared experience has had an impact on the way her colleagues consider and communicate their business strategies, likening their CEIBS learning frameworks to a form of ‘shorthand’ that helps them get to the root of problems and formulate suitable solutions more quickly. With this observation and their recommendation, she applied for a place at CEIBS.

“In an SOE, you mainly interact with colleagues who have a very similar professional background to yours. You can be different, but you are not encouraged to be too different. That’s why the GEMBA programme appealed to me. Here, I can learn from a wide range of professional experiences in a way I simply would not be able to access in my daily work,” Zhongfei says.

“Every day, I’m learning something new from my classmates and professors. I love to hear what they are going through in their work – what they need, what challenges they face, and what they aspire to. It’s very inspiring and helps me gain a deeper perspective of my own company. After learning how multinational companies work, I now have a better understanding of why SOE culture is the way it is,” she adds.

In terms of the differences and attributes of SOE culture, Zhongfei points out that SOEs are often able to empower clients from various industries, support different social groups and practice local governance very effectively. She shares these insights with her classmates, and their shared perspectives bolster her ability to improve FSG’s various corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts in turn. For example, one project she is currently working on is an initiative to create more jobs for people with disabilities, interns, and undergraduates, with the aim to create new opportunities for people with limited options in the job market.

Zhongfei Wang, Global EMBA 2021

03 An eye for the future – Steering an SOE through uncertain waters

After another major promotion in September 2022, Zhongfei now oversees FSG’s East China region. It is a vital role, as it accounts for one third of the group’s business volume. While balancing the day-to-day needs in perhaps the most complex and demanding region of the Chinese market, Zhongfei also has an eye towards the future. Facing the undeniable impact of COVID-19, FSG recently initiated a China Talent Project to support the government’s ongoing efforts to encourage a greater influx of foreign talent into the Chinese market.

The main objective of the China Talent Project is for FSG to work with its many clients to develop the right conditions to attract, retain and grow international talent in the East China region, starting with Shanghai. Zhongfei’s focus is to improve FSG’s ability to respond quickly and decisively to changing market conditions, and to be more predictive rather than reactive in balancing the needs of individual talents and their prospective employers. More broadly, the project aims to continually strengthen links between China and the rest of the world, encouraging the best and brightest to be excited about creating a long-term future for themselves here.

“Companies are masters of their business, but sometimes they need an interpreter to tell them what the market is saying. That’s where we come in. We’re not just a service platform, but also an assistant policymaker, so we can help clients to reward loyalty appropriately, address challenges and pain points, and generally create more favourable conditions for foreign talent wanting to stay and work in China. This is how we deftly adapt to changing conditions. No matter what happens, the wheels of business don’t stop, they just change gears,” Zhongfei explains.

Zhongfei Wang, Global EMBA 2021

04 Looking outwards, moving onwards

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. That’s what John Lennon said, and I can’t agree more. When the pandemic outbreak occurred in 2020, I took a long look at myself, my industry and the changing global dynamic. If you choose to stand still when everything is unpredictable, you have no idea where the current will sweep you off to. I wanted to look ahead and have a greater awareness of what is really happening and gain greater control of my short and long-term future. That’s why I’m here at CEIBS and I encourage everyone to find their best way to look outwards, not just inwards; it will really help you to identify where your future path may lie,” Zhongfei says.

Now in her second year at CEIBS, Zhongfei continues to thrive amongst a highly diverse, multi-industry peer group. She has forged strong friendships with her classmates, while also discovering a new basis of shared understanding with FSG senior management who are CEIBS alumni. In her daily work, Zhongfei benefits from the wisdom of their experience while also gaining new insights from her GEMBA studies. This continues to inform the development of FSG’s China Talent Project and the company’s response to changing market conditions.

While gaining business knowledge and strengthening specific skills remains important to Zhongfei, she believes that the greatest benefit of her studies so far is the self-discovery element that comes with this intensive learning journey. From the high-energy opening leadership modules to quieter moments of introspection during and after classes, the GEMBA programme has tested many of her assumptions about her work, her approach to problem-solving, and more.

“The SOE culture is famous for not having a clear, pre-determined career progression path. It’s much more of an ongoing dialogue. If you want to make changes in your career, such as moving to different departments or branches of the parent group, you must make it happen yourself. I had to knock on a lot of decision makers’ doors and make it clear that I wanted to be challenged and that I wanted to experience different aspects of the business. It requires a lot of patience and a clear understanding of why you want to change; it can’t be done on a whim,” Zhongfei says.

“The inner workings of an SOE are often not as clear as those of private enterprises, but my philosophy is, ‘Don’t ask why the door is open, just walk in and see what the view is like!’ GEMBA has been essential in clarifying my attitude towards work, while furthering my understanding of who I am and what I want from my career, and from life in general,” she adds.

Now settling into her still relatively new position as Head of East China Market, Zhongfei’s career with FSG is set for an exciting new phase. Like her classmates, she is eager to keep learning, keep challenging the status quo of current business dynamics, and keep adapting to any challenges that come her way.

Tom Murray
Effy He and Michael Thede