The Right Way to Visit China (or Any Local Market)

I have been to Hong Kong many times over the years. We have a regional team based there led by a talented guy named Thomas Crampton. We have local teams throughout the region including Mainland China based primarily in Shanghai and Beijing.

I visited our team in Beijing about six years ago and again recently. A lot has changed in those six years. Anyone doing business in China can attest to pre and post-Olympics Beijing. The recent wave of anti-corruption. The slowdown in growth (although apparently now back speeding along – we’ll see). The tremendous consumer culture.

During the first visit, social media was just emerging as a new behavior with tons of activity across bulletin board services (BBS), blogs and the beginnings of social networks. Now, RenRen is passé. People comment on the decline of Sina Weibo and the ascendency of WeChat. Hundreds of millions of people access social networks multiple times daily. With or without a cheaper iPhone 5c, smartphones and mobile are essential devices.

And there are some very sophisticated uses of social media by major brands. The world could learn a thing or two. When I first stopped by, my mission was to grow and inspire a team and leadership to invest in social media. My visit made a statement about our company’s commitment and depth of knowledge. This time, the primary purpose of my visit was to gather lessons from the market to share with the rest of the world.

Three lessons I was taught

Listen first - Six years ago, a great leader in our company, Steve Dahllof, warned me to not come paratrooping into China with all the answers. I was not consciously inclined to do that. But he knew that if I was not careful and mindful, I might come across that way.

He gave me the same caution this time. Hopefully this was less about me rather than other executives making that error. Still, it remained a very valuable reminder. This time, my mission was to explicitly learn from China and from our local market leaders. Every conversation, I started with a genuine curiosity about how they saw things, what their experience was, what their success had been.

The result is that I traveled back with a hard drive full of great case studies and a headful of ideas.

Offer suggestions based in ‘world’ experience - I know a few things. We all do. I don’t know more than anyone else. As I get older, I worry less and less about making an impression of being a ‘smart guy.’ My job is to help our teams accelerate good growth and we all need fresh ideas and to hear how others have licked a problem or invented something new.

This time I focused on content marketing, real-time consumer engagement, how to build real brand advocacy and a few other practical topics for our teams. I shared cases from around the world. I connected our China teams to network resources and knowledge.

I had to make suggestions where I thought they might strengthen their business. I simply frame it as lessons learned in other markets. My job is to collect and share those lessons. Had I pinpointed an idea from a particular market – the US let’s say or the UK – someone is bound to have an objection to that market as an authority. Many markets feel their circumstances are ‘terminally unique’ and cannot be compared to other markets. By being broad and saying ‘other markets have wrestled with this problem and tried this,’ the idea becomes harder to reject outright simply because of its pedigree.

Don’t ever let anyone call you an expert (or worse, ‘social media guru’)

When I first visited Beijing six years back, a local digital expert had a bone to pick and derisively labeled me the so-called social media guru. Now, I would never in a million years call myself nor anyone else that. It is universally a title for scorn. And while I don’t believe I carry myself in a way to earn that label, I am not sure I spoke up at the time.

It’s best to avoid that label. Like anyone, I have expertise and it may or may not be valuable to others. I simply don’t want the label of expert while visiting another market especially one where we have grown some terrific local experts. No one likes the guy from the head office popping into a market to bestow answers. A simple, “we are all experts” or “I’m no expert in this market,” can help keep it conversational and disarm the label no matter the intention.

(the sculpture can be found in Beijing at 798 Arts District - well worth the visit.)

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