After first emigrating to Sydney from the UK in 2005 and having spent close to 10 years in the recruitment world there, I decided to pack my bags and move to Shanghai at the end of 2014. The opportunity to run a large multi-discipline office in one of the largest, most crazy and charismatic cities in the world was just too exciting to pass up.
Shanghai, with its population of close to 28 million is a city of contrasts. At one end, you can experience the beauty and wonder of Chinese life on a daily basis. Wet markets, street food, a lot of near-misses with rickshaws and mopeds when crossing the road and some of the most beautiful art deco architecture in the world. At the other end, a city so modern that a new metro station pops up every six months, sprawling motorways, spectacular sky scrapers, a booming economy and a seemingly never ending supply of amazing international restaurants and bars.
How does this manifest itself in the recruitment industry? Firstly, the culture shock and language barrier presents enormous – but not insurmountable – issues. The Chinese are an incredibly proud race of people and rightly so. What their country has achieved from an economic perspective in the last 20 years is nothing short of miraculous. Avoiding the minefield of commentary on their political structures, one simply has to marvel at the pace of change and the undeniable fact they’ve taken over half a billion people out of abject poverty in that time as well.
One of the striking differences for me was the way the Chinese assess or judge individuals – it’s entirely predicated on patience and a long-term view. There are few snap judgements in China which means it can take a long time to build trust and gain traction in the market. To get dialogue with a business or an individual can take a very, very long time.
Additionally, the sheer scale of demand for professionals in China means one must be extremely disciplined when it comes to targeting. The approach from international corporates is to use an inordinate number of agencies at any one time. This approach is paradoxical in nature to Chinese culture, in particular, ‘guanxi’ (loosely translated as ‘connections’) which ultimately makes it impossible to service a myriad of clients in a professional and meaningful way. Combine this with their rapidly growing economy (admittedly not at the 14 per cent GDP of yesteryear, but still a healthy six per cent) it’s vital to focus on the generation of high quality candidates in fairly narrow discipline bands, rather than spread. Interestingly, this is analogous to the approach successful recruiters have used in Australia.
One could easily be seduced by organisations’ talent strategies of hiring 100s of new staff in any given year, but without the access to candidates it largely becomes a meaningless carrot at the end of a very long stick.
The demand for talent means that recruitment practices are very much transactional in nature. The loyalty from the client and the candidate is possessed of a small timeframe, if one is ‘lucky’ with spot business development or a speculative resume that can generate quick returns.
The type of roles which exist in Shanghai cover the full spectrum of career opportunities. In the case of finance, which is where my specialist knowledge lies, transactional roles at the most junior level exist in huge numbers and the seniority wave brakes all the way to the shore of the most senior and commercial level CFOs.
The journey back
When moving back to Sydney a few months ago, after spending three years in China, I held a huge element of personal and professional trepidation. This mainly centred around being out of the market for a period of time and moving companies:
- Would my old candidates and clients still want to work with me?
- How strong were my relationships?
- How would I fair returning to a recruitment market so incredibly different to the one I was leaving?
Of course, some of these questions can’t be answered in the short-term, but my initial two months back in Australia have immediately reminded me that whilst the market in China is a transactional beast, Down Under is based on fostering long term, meaningful and deep relationships.
There’s a big similarity between Chinese and Australian recruitment firms, in that they’re cautious of the type and number of companies to partner with and have a fundamental need to put the candidate first.
Sourcing the best quality candidates as quickly as possible (often before your key clients have requirements) is a vital component to generating success in Australia. How one treats a candidate in a relatively small market, whether you help them secure a role or not, is inherently related to an individual’s professional reputation and long-term success in the recruitment field. There’s very little ‘smash and grab’ recruitment available in Australia any more.
Yet in contrast to China, Australians do love a chat, love a coffee (some even love a beer or two!) and will happily meet with new connections relatively quickly. Moving this dialogue from an informal catch-up to being able to do business can take some time because in the most part, people will remain loyal to those they know and with whom they’ve had a positive experience with in the past.
The upshot is that, like China (but for different reasons), it can be hard to get traction in the Australian market. But given time, commitment and of course successful delivery of solutions, an individual can absolutely build meaningful and fruitful relationships with a depth of loyalty.
Also, the types of role being recruited are more defined in nature than those which existed in China. The mass migration of Shared Service Functions from Australian shores to South East Asia and further afield from 2009 onwards has meant there’s a limited supply of transactional roles to recruit – this is especially true within finance. This is unlikely to change at any point soon and with the continued adoption of automation and AI, one can expect to see a further degradation of low level positions.
The demand for professionals who have transformation, commercial or business partnering experience is positive. Within a finance capacity, those individuals who can build the bridge between finance and the operational size of the business will always be attractive to businesses and this shows no signs of change.