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This article was published 18-11-2019

Staying ahead when the rules are constantly changing.

Over the past decades, China has been home to some of the most sweeping changes that have ever affected a society. The largest economic comeback in history has spurred changes that affect everyone. As China’s lower class enters the middle class at astonishing rates, tidal waves of growth, reform and regulations are impacting businesses. How can you stay ahead in a market where so little is certain?

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“It can be hard to grasp what is happening in China,” says Marijn van Cranenburgh, manager of in-company L&D solutions at Schouten China. “Life-changing innovations are being rolled out at a pace that hasn’t been seen elsewhere in the world. In China, people already started paying with QR codes in the streets five years ago. Chinese people now use a face-scanning system to pay for their groceries or check in to public transport. The technology is cheap, which makes adoption almost instant. Just now, I paid for my coffee just by showing my face.”

If government bodies, financial institutions and retailers want to implement all these innovations smoothly, employees must continuously accept new tasks, systems and habits. China’s market is quickly maturing. For businesses like Pfizer, one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, this means that technology and policy regulations change almost overnight. According to Xu Gang, Human Resource Operations Lead at Pfizer, “That has a major impact on our employees. In addition, in China there are many small start-ups trying to disrupt the industry, so we need to stay agile.” However, start-ups have no guarantee of success themselves. The same rule applies to them: stay agile or disappear.

Drivers of change

In China, many companies are moving away from the traditional top-down leadership model. Yet, this transition is often met with fierce opposition to change. Long-established work methods and cultural preferences make it difficult for people to get beyond default ways of thinking and acting. It takes a carefully planned approach to give change a chance to succeed. According to Xu Gang, “For change to happen in any organization, we need ambassadors, or what we call at Pfizer ‘drivers of change.’ These individuals shift the focus towards shared goals to make sure everyone is part of the change.”

It is crucial for these ‘drivers of change’ to have a solid toolbox of communication and influencing skills. Strong listening skills are important; that means interpreting what is being said, empathizing and connecting the dots. It takes confident feedback skills to resist taking things personally and to stay focused on goals. Lastly, managers must facilitate coordination between their teams and cultivate a shared sense of purpose.

Stronger together

“In the work we do with our clients, we see two major pillars for understanding change: the internal and external realities,” explains Van Cranenburgh. “Understanding the external reality helps us set clear goals and identify forces that companies might come up against on the road to success. The internal reality is how an organization leverages its strengths, resources and talent. What makes your teams tick? The way you share and engage with employees helps create leverage at all levels.”

Xu Gang adds, “Communication should be both top-down and bottom-up. Power from the top makes things happen, but the strategy makers rely on employees for market insights and guidance.”

Behaviors of change

In China, organizations can no longer afford to stand still, even for a short period. Even so, despite ever-changing directions and strategies, people will always be at the heart of the business. Staying ahead in this rapidly evolving business environment requires specific behaviors. As Xu Gang says, “We emphasize key values and encourage behaviors such as being adaptable and adding value.”

According to Van Cranenburgh, “Helping people to be more flexible and think in terms of solutions rather than problems keeps people happy and organizations healthy. When I first moved to China, I sometimes felt like I couldn’t keep up. Now, I embrace the fact that change is the norm. Accepting that made me see what is important to me, what my core values are. In the middle of all the chaos, I know that I believe in the collective intelligence of people, creativity and experimentation. That keeps me balanced. Now, I can’t wait for the next new thing around the corner.”

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