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 Aruba, July 18, 2013  - An executive with 20 years of experience in China says that to succeed there, leaders must learn to think differently and devote particular attention to people.

Despite decades of experience in China, many organizations still struggle to identify and select executives who will make a tangible impact there. My research and experience suggest that companies can do better by focusing on two crucial skills—an ability to read the external environment and an understanding of what makes employees tick—and on a tough truth: a generational challenge is making the talent equation more complex.

Everything is political. Being effective in China means realizing that everything is political. Executives must have a keen grasp of political and social trends so they can position their business strategies and communications within that landscape. One example is the reframing of proposals for corporate-social-responsibility initiatives, to promote the “harmonious society” when that was proclaimed as a government priority.

Executives must develop a nonmarket business strategy, as well as the usual market strategy, for China. The nonmarket strategy includes plans for building a network that intersects with the government, business partners, suppliers, customers, and other industry and public stakeholders.

Successful executives develop their intuition, are receptive to learning from Chinese patterns, and thus begin to think and behave differently. The sort of linear analysis generally favored in the West divides a problem into its component parts and seeks rational solutions. Intuitive thinkers seek patterns and relationships between a problem and its context, including contradictions. “The Chinese don’t polarize—it’s the last thing a Chinese would do; we get moving instead,” says the Chinese head of a global life-sciences company.

Everything is personal. Managers in China need to pay more personal attention to staff and colleagues than managers in many other cultures do. The head of China operations for a major global manufacturing concern says he does his e-mails and reports during the evening because during the day he needs to talk with employees or meet external stakeholders. In China, leadership is a contact sport.

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