May 9, 2018. Shenzhen – Joo Yi had never heard of QQ or Tencent in 2008, when she was a year into her CEIBS MBA studies. Back then, she was still using MSN to keep in touch with friends and family in South Korea. Tencent only made its way onto her radar after she began looking for a summer internship that would help her reach the very clear goal she had set herself when enrolling at CEIBS: get a job with a Chinese company. Eight years later she is still with Tencent. The job initially took her back home to Seoul but now she works out of the company’s Shenzhen headquarters as Director of Business Strategy in the Mobile Internet Group.
“For the five years I worked in our Korea location, I first focused on game licensing and relationship management with our partners and then set up the team to look at new business initiatives such as entertainment and mobile payment,” she explains. “Three years ago, the VP at HQ Bo Wang – whom I had worked with from the start – was transferring to lead new business initiatives for the mobile internet group. He asked if I’d also like a new challenge, adding that this role would be based in Shenzhen.” It was hard leaving her boyfriend (now husband) in Seoul as they had just started dating, but Joo accepted the challenge. Now she manages two teams, one that focuses on identifying new opportunities and the other that implements the strategy needed to move these opportunities from ideas to reality. One of the projects they have worked on is the recent launch of a voice controlled smart speaker, Tencent’s answer to Amazon Echo or Google Home. “It’s our first in-house developed hardware device, and it’s called Tencent TingTing,” she explains. TingTing took Tencent’s internal innovation award in a closely contested contest.
Joo has come a long way from being ‘Tencent-illiterate’. But for those who have followed her career over the years, her success was not unexpected. Before her CEIBS MBA, she had four years as a Business Analyst at McKinsey under her belt. While at CEIBS, she was VP of the Committee that organised the student-led Being Globally Responsible Conference. That was the kernel from which her interest in social responsibility grew. Today she spends some of her very limited spare time helping friends who run an impact investment company in Korea because she finds it rewarding to help companies that “have a good social mission scale and succeed”. She explains, “Even though I have always worked in the private sector, I believe we as individuals – not just the public sector or the government – have a responsibility to make the world better.”
Read on for more of Joo’s journey as a foreigner working for a Chinese mega brand that has achieved an almost cult-like status at home and growing recognition overseas.
Some people may look at your career so far and say you’ve had a pretty successful run. How do you measure success?
Joo Yi (JY): One way to look at success is measuring how others define success for you. The way I like to look at it is the goals I set for myself. I don’t think reaching goals is as satisfying as what I learn along the way. If success is only measured by that one result at the end, you lose too much of the unexpected experiences that helped you grow during the process.
At this point in my life, success isn’t so much about whether I hit a certain KPI or successfully negotiate a certain deal. It’s about whether I am giving the most I can to this job, am I learning something new, am I making a positive impact on my team? If, on that particular day, I can answer yes to all three questions, it is a successful day for me. Success is a continuous process and not a one-stop milestone.
Tell us a bit about your career with Tencent.
JY: My basic goal for coming to China and studying at CEIBS was to get a job with a local company as I thought that would be the best way to really understand the China market and immerse myself in it. So when I was looking for a summer internship, my sole criteria was gaining experience with a local company – no matter what the industry.
As far as I know CEIBS MBA 2009 graduate Billy Zhang was the first official MBA hire at Tencent and he had come back to CEIBS to find interns for their corporate strategy department. I thought my prior consulting experience would give me leverage, so I applied. After a round of interviews they offered me a position in the gaming department. I went through several rounds of interviews, including with our current COO Mark Ren and it was only later that I heard that isn’t the normal practice when hiring interns. But because Tencent hadn’t really hired foreigners before, they were extra careful during the process. They did the interviews as if I was a full-time hire instead of just a summer intern.
Why were you placed in gaming and not strategy? You had experience in growth strategy as a McKinsey analyst and that was the role Billy Zhang was trying to fill when he came to CEIBS looking for talent.
JY: Tencent had already had some initial success licensing online games from Korea so they thought I would be helpful there. A key learning from the CEIBS MBA was to always look at the company’s financials, and I found that games were the biggest revenue driver for Tencent (still is today) so I quickly accepted their offer. The original plan was to have me working from HQ in Shenzhen doing business development for games in Korea, but right before joining I was asked if I could work from Korea as they were quite strapped there. It helped that they promised I would have ample opportunities to come back to HQ on business trips.
How has your role evolved during your eight years at Tencent? Have your goals changed along the way?
JY: In the first five years working in Korea, and particularly when I was in gaming, the objectives were quite clear. It was pretty straight forward: I was only held accountable for high-quality games coming out in that market. My more recent role of trying to find new opportunities was a bit more difficult in the beginning as I was setting my own objectives and had to be creative in getting internal support.
Are there differences between working in the overseas branch of the company and being at HQ?
JY: Working in a branch office is much simpler, in a sense, but you also don’t have as much access to information or people and it is challenging to know the bigger picture. Things do get more complicated and intense at HQ, but I really do feel my overall understanding of the company’s objectives are clearer, my network is broader, and my outlook on business is wider since being based at HQ.
You have a BA in Economics from William & Mary in the US, why did you return to Asia for your MBA? Why China, and why CEIBS?
JY: After the analyst role in McKinsey’s Seoul office, in contemplating my next step I thought about joining a specific industry or heading to business school. By chance, my parents saw an article about CEIBS in one of the major Korean newspapers. They sort of left it on my desk so I could ‘discover’ it, and I didn’t think it would hurt to apply and see if I could get accepted. I wasn’t sure business school was my next path, so CEIBS was the only school I applied to.
During my time at William & Mary I had minored in Chinese, studying at Beijing Normal University during my junior year. That experience was sort of mind blowing as my preconceived notions of China had been shaped by Korean and U.S. influence. I enjoyed it so much that I extended a six-month exchange to a full-year stay. After that I had a craving to return to China in whatever capacity; the CEIBS MBA was my first chance.
Was the CEIBS MBA worth the time and money invested in it?
JY: As mentioned earlier, my specific goal for doing the MBA was to get a job with a local company in China. CEIBS was the reason I got the interview with Tencent, so I am grateful to the school and for the friends, lessons, and memories I got there. For me, satisfaction is closely tied to expectation. The more clearly defined your expectations of an opportunity, the better able you are to manage those expectations and feel satisfied if they are met. At CEIBS MBA information sessions I am often asked if an MBA is worth it. I like to reverse that question and ask the applicant what he or she is expecting out of the MBA. I believe that the more ambiguous the response, the less rewarding the experience will be. Those who get the most out of an MBA are those who have specific expectations and are motivated to reach those goals.
You seem like a very focused individual and your career path seems to have followed a logical track. Was that by design or by accident?
JY: As a Christian I would say it was divine intervention, not by my planning or doing. I have been extremely blessed to work in the consulting industry at its height in Korea and then to grow with an internet company in the world’s most robust economy. I do believe that opportunities come to those that are prepared. For example, having a good command of Mandarin is essential to getting promising opportunities in China – especially if you want to join a local company. With the exception of a very short interview which was conducted in English, all my interviews at Tencent were in Mandarin. I wouldn’t have gotten the job had I not been able to express myself logically, and I would have to credit on-the-job-learning as the secret to my Mandarin improving over the eight-plus years I have been with the company. I would not have been offered the role at HQ had I not spoken Mandarin. More than 95% of my verbal and written communication is done in Mandarin and all my team members are Chinese except those based in the U.S., but they are also of Chinese descent.
Knowing the language has helped me socialise with co-workers and the efforts made to understand them and their culture benefits team chemistry. I don’t feel as if I am treated like a foreigner, rather like an insider; and I think this also allows me to gain access to what’s really going on instead of what someone tells me is going on. That being said, language isn’t the only factor that gets evaluated when decisions are being made about promotions; but I would have to say that my command of Mandarin has opened more doors for me. I know of some foreigners working in China that sort of leave language to the side and I think that’s unwise. Not every job requires Chinese language skills, but it’s best to have that advantage. I look at it this way: no one questions why you need to speak English when you are trying to get a job in the U.S. So if you apply the same principle to China, comprehension of Mandarin should be a basic requirement.
Now you are based in Shenzhen while your husband Will, a CEIBS EMBA alumnus, is still in Seoul. What is it like being in a long-distance marriage?
JY: We’ve been married for almost two years now and we try to see each other as often as we can. Us both being CEIBS alumni is quite an advantage; even though our times at CEIBS don’t overlap as he was there from 2015 to 2017, we share common memories of our experience and this strengthens the bond between us. I would say work/life balance is an area where we haven’t done such a great job, both of us are quite the workaholics. But understanding that fact about each other makes the relationship work and creates positive synergy.
You work in a very fast paced environment. What do you do to recharge your batteries?
JY: I have found taking a break every once in a while from technology is necessary for me to revitalise myself, so I will go trekking in Hong Kong or head out to nature for some fresh air with my mobile phone turned off.
In 2010 you were a founding member of the CEIBS Korean Alumni Chapter. Now that you are back in China, how do you engage with the alumni network?
JY: Being in Korea, I was able to stay much more involved by, for example, offering a venue to host information sessions or participating as a speaker. But now in China it’s more about providing moral support and staying in touch with the alumni network in Korea. Technological advances with the smart phone have helped a lot, so I am in both the WeChat and KakaoTalk (Korea’s version of WeChat) groups. They help me to stay on top of events going on and I do my best to meet with alumni when they come to Shenzhen or when I am in Korea.
I’m happy to do this because the CEIBS experience had great professors and the curriculum provided a holistic academic experience with both China depth and global breadth, staying true to the school’s mission. But I have to say I learnt the most from interactions with my super classmates. So I have to give a big shout out to my MBA buddies from the class of 2010.
Joo’s Cross-cultural Workplace Tips
What advice do you have for other foreigners, based on the lessons you have learned from being part of a mostly Chinese team?
I would say keep an open, flexible mind. Everybody is unique and has their own working style – even people who share the same culture. So the difference is obviously going to broaden as you cross borders. If you sense issues, make sure to engage in communication early on and don’t wait until a problem explodes as it can be extremely frustrating and takes a lot more time to clean up after the fact. ‘Keeping face’ is important in most Asian cultures, so if you need to provide less-than-positive feedback to your Chinese co-worker or subordinate, make sure to do it one-on-one and not in front of others. Trust is mutual: don’t expect your team to trust you if you don’t trust them.
What advice do you have for Chinese who may have only a few foreigners in their teams?
Quite similar to the answer above, I would encourage Chinese co-workers to also respect the differences that a foreigner might display and make sure to keep an open channel of communication to detect and fix issues early on, rather than after the fact. Kindness goes far, so perhaps taking the extra time to explain some aspects of the culture to the foreign colleague would be helpful and may help avoid misunderstanding. Most people from western cultures prefer direct feedback instead of hearing things in a roundabout way, so express what you mean directly instead of trying to find an analogy as the point might get lost.
What advice do you have for a Chinese boss on how to manage a foreigner, and for a foreigner who has a Chinese boss?
I don’t think this relationship is special just because one person is Chinese and the other is not. In a work relationship, expectations and work scope should be aligned and agreed upon from the start, and the benefits or rewards promised should be delivered. If one side has met the goal, and the other side does not keep his/her word, the trust is broken and that relationship is very difficult to mend. Frequent and clear communication is also key, as it helps to manage and understand expectations and also to understand each other’s working style. Differences in style isn’t a bad thing – more often than not, they create a good balance and lead to better results; but being aware of them makes the process much smoother. I don’t believe there is a certain chemistry created because the two are from different cultures. The relationship is a work in progress, the boss and employee have to collectively figure out a way to stay together. Hopefully they will find common ground that works for both of them.