Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Post-trip Reflection

I've been home for a few weeks now and have had time to reflect on the entire China experience. The point of the trip was personal and professional growth. So, how have I changed? How have I grown? How have I become more qualified as a "master of business"? Here are my thoughts on the matter:

The first thing that comes to mind is the impression that guanxi left on me. It is clear to me now that to succeed in business in China, one must not only understand the nuances of this dynamic concept, one really needs to invest Gladwell’s “ten thousand hours” practicing guanxi to really become an effective businessperson in China. In this regard, the trip revealed to me the reality that foreign firms won’t succeed in China if they ignore or attempt to bypass the role that guanxi plays. If my employer were to ask me to weigh in on personnel strategy for our China operation, I would strongly encourage them to take guanxi into account when choosing personnel. I would encourage them not to bring in foreign managers just because those individuals “know the business”, or “have proven themselves elsewhere.” I would tell my employer that a manager’s network and reputation are much more important factors for success in China than elsewhere. Furthermore, developing a network and a strong reputation takes much longer there than elsewhere. Moving forward, I am sure that we will see fewer and fewer Chinese branches of Western firms led by Western managers. My peers might think that it is because of lower costs but I will know better.

I often hear China described as a land of opportunity and the new frontier for entrepreneurs. I see her as something a little different. To me, China is a land of problems and the new frontier for problem solvers. Everywhere I looked I saw problems of epic proportions, problems with incredible complexity and nuance. Class inequality, pollution, human rights, inflation, the one child policy… the list goes on and on. When I think about Western products or services that could be successfully exported to China, the first thing that comes to mind is ingenuity. China doesn’t need people looking to make a quick buck. What she needs is our best and brightest stepping forward to help solve her unprecedented environmental, societal, political, and economic problems. That being said, to help China overcome these challenges, the problem solvers that we export will only be effective if they learn how to solve her problems her way. We must take context into account. This trip has taught me that Western solutions will not solve Eastern problems. Take Internet censorship for example. The most memorable part of the trip for me was the time that we spent with Kaiser Kuo, Baidu.com’s Director of International Communication and a Stanford graduate. My understanding of the Internet censorship problem was turned upside down as Mr. Kuo explained the fundamental differences between how a Chinese view freedom of speech compared to a Westerner. We cannot help our fellow man until we actively listen to what they need help with. The opportunities for western businessmen involve solving China’s business problems, not what we perceive to be China’s business problems.

What is my biggest fear after visiting China? 1.3 billion “educated” people who are determined to reach a standard-of-living that they see their western counterparts enjoying. By educated, I am referring to the role that the Internet now plays in conveying to the “have-nots” of the world everything they “have not.” What am I trying to say? The average American consumes 35 times more electricity than the average Chinese. Our planet cannot support a Chinese consumer that consumes even a fraction of what an American consumer currently does. What will happen when the Chinese consumer reaches a point where he can afford the car, the computer, and the home, but is told that the environment will not support this kind of consumption even though it supports that and more from Americans. We flaunt our wastefulness with our SUV’s and our McMansions. We taunt them with our MTV and our Hollywood films. We use our first-mover advantage and relative to justify the double standard. But will the Chinese consumer accept this? We are like the younger sibling that gets away with murder because we are forever mommy’s baby. Do you remember what happened to Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, in the bible? The first chance they get, his brothers level the playing field. If this inequality, whether actual or perceived, continues, what will China do to level the playing field. When will they say, “if we can’t have everything we want then neither can you…”

We were fortunate to get to visit an elderly Chinese man in his home in a small village outside of Beijing. This man, well into his 70’s, is the former mayor of his village and his warmth, kindness, eloquence reflected his career as a politician. Thus, we were all shocked by the sudden change in his demeanor when I asked him, “what are your hopes for your country?” His answer was, “My hope is that China will grow strong, so strong that all other countries will fear us and none will ever be able to invade our land again…” His message was clear, China never forgets and revenge is always a possibility. So, how does this apply to business? I left our time with Lenovo extremely uneasy about the value of American intellectual property in the eyes of the Chinese. Lenovo’s MyPad looked exactly like Apple’s iPad. I am certain that Apple is finding the Chinese marketplace a less-then-level playing field when it comes to competing against Chinese firms. It appears that China is adopting the famous adage: keep your friends close and your enemies closer. It is my opinion that China has invited Western businesses into the country to learn how to compete with them and will eventually throw them out. Be warned, access to the Chinese market may be a double-edged sword and future profits are by no means certain.

In summation, it is my opinion that this trip has the potential to provide Cal Poly’s MBA program with a competitive advantage over others. This trip changes participants’ worldviews in so many direct and indirect ways. It solidified my relationships with many of my classmates. It prepared me for business travel. It provided me the opportunity to negotiate in a cross-culture environment. It was an opportunity to apply so many of the lessons learned throughout the program. The trip tested the knowledge and skills that we had acquired throughout the program because repeatedly asked to apply them in a new context. For example, in our marketing class we learned about consumer’s purchasing decision process. China provided us the opportunity to think about how the Chinese consumer’s purchasing decision process differs from the American consumer’s purchasing decision process. This deepens our understanding of both. The same could be said for macro- and microeconomics, business law, org. behavior, and many others. The trip had the same effect on our training as the kiln has on a piece of pottery.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

How did I get here?

Where am I? Why am I here? How did I get here???

Here is what I remember. I am still wondering whether it all really happened or whether it was just a dream.

On March 2nd, a dear friend and mentor, Professor Jim Valdez, contacted Mark Alexander at Bechtel Corporation on my behalf to inquire about employment opportunities. On April 26th, after 55 days of calling, e-mailing, praying and resume revising, Mark informed me that he had "exhausted" his primary contacts at Bechtel. They weren't interested in a guy whose resume goes "overboard about how great he is..." "Oh well," I thought, "I never actually believed that I was worthy of being called a 'Bechtel Man.'" The words of my critics were always with me reminding me that I was 2nd class and destined for mediocrity... It was time to refocus on finding a job, any job, so that I could feed my family. Following my heart would have to wait until my next life...

Two weeks later, on May 11th, I was completely caught off guard when I received a call from a recruiter with Bechtel Oil, Gas & Chemical (OG&C) in Houston. They were interested! Following my conversation with the recruiter, the phone and e-mail remained silent until May 19th when I received an e-mail from an HR rep requesting a phone interview. The following Monday, after hours and hours of preperation and anxiety, I spent 30 minutes on the phone with two procurement managers in Houston. I felt good about the interview but it was just a 1st phone interview and I was realistic about my chances. They asked for, and I provided them with, references on May 26th. However, I would graduate in 16 days and would leave for our 2-week trip to China in 18 days and I couldn't begin to calculate the odds of receiving a job offer from Bechtel.

It was Wednesday, June 8th, and I would be graduating that Saturday and leaving for China the following Monday. My references had not been contacted and Bechtel's HR rep was not responding to my e-mails. Suddenly I received an automated e-mail inviting me to apply for a job on their website. What did this mean? Did this mean that I was now "qualified" to compete with Bechtel's other candidates? It appeared that I was still at the starting line of the process. I was so disappointed and frustrated. "Okay," I remember thinking, "you won't have a job before you leave for China. Deal with it. You are just going to have to come home and work tirelessly to land a job at Bechtel or elsewhere. That is going to suck being at home unemployed again while Lindsey is still working..." I applied to the online job posting immediately with all the resolve I could muster...

The very next day, my last day of final exams, I received a call from a Bechtel HR rep informing that she had been assigned the task of extending me an offer. We spent about 10 minutes discussing some details while I paced in the courtyard at Kennedy Library. When we were finished, I hung up the phone and feelings of relief and thankfulness washed over me. It had been a little more than 2 years since my bitter separation with my previous employer. It felt as though I had felt nothing but fear during that time. Borrowing from the great Coldplay song, Lovers In Japan, the morning had come, the sun had finally come out. I stood there and wept.

Less than 48 hours later, I celebrated graduation with some of my dearest friends and family. Given the challenges of the previous two years, and what the day meant to my wife and children, it was one of the most special days of my life.

Another 48 hours later I had left San Luis Obispo and my family bound for China. I'll elaborate on the trip in my next post. To sum it up, it was a great experience filled with opportunities to bond with my classmates and pick up valuable knowledge and skills related to modern China in our modern world. However, throughout the trip my mind was elsewhere, reflecting on the past and dreaming about the future. I had worked so hard and waited so long to be able to care for my family again. All I could think about was getting my family to Houston. The trip was fun, but the end couldn't come soon enough. I had promises to fulfill.

Two weeks later we returned to the States. In an amusing twist of fate, I was booked on a flight from Vancouver to LAX that departed and arrived 4 hours after the flight that all of my classmates were on. Looking back, I am embarrassed by my crazy behavior as I negotiated with airline personnel to get onto the earlier flight. Despite Professor Coget's best efforts to teach me how to control my emotions, I would have ended up in a Canadian jail if they hadn't put me on that flight.

Seeing Lindsey and the kids again at the airport was one of the happiest moments of my life. Lindsey was 100 times more beautiful, David was 100 times more wild, and Kate was 100 times more adorable than I had remembered them. I was back where I belonged.

48 hours later we all boarded a plane for Houston. It was hot and humid when we arrived but I didn't care... it was home. We arrived on a Wednesday night. My mom joined us the next day and, together, we explored the city and looked for our new home. I drove everyone to the airport on Sunday morning and, as I watched them enter the terminal, I was overcome by the reality of only the second extended time away from my family in my life (the first having ended just five days prior).

Tuesday morning I became a member of the Bechtel family. I am thankful for the opportunity and confident that my journey has adequately prepared me for the road ahead. I think of my family constantly. I think of my mentors and what they have taught me often. Unfortunately, I think of my critics often as well. I miss my wife and kids terribly. Every day they feel a little further away and I feel lonelier and sadder. I am beginning to think that we will never be able to turn the page and get on with this new chapter...

So, there you have it. I woke up six weeks ago in San Luis Obispo and had absolutely no idea how dramatically my life was about to change. I was an underachieving, inconsistent, unlucky, and unworthy guy with a lot of student debt, few prospects, and little confidence in my ability to prove my critics wrong. And where am I now? Well... we live and die by the will of a Creator who knows every hair on our heads and He has granted me respite for now. I am grateful but stand at the ready for the next battle that surely looms large.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Let's Try A New Restaurant Tonight...

Everyone who knows me knows that I've always been intrigued by the thought of living and working overseas. Thus, you won't be surprised to hear that Lindsey and I are seriously considering living and working in Asia should the opportunity arise. The way we see it, deciding where to live and work coming out of this MBA program is kind of like choosing which restaurant to go to this weekend. We have been asking ourselves, "who wants to spend their entire lives eating at the same restaurant and eating the same food?" All of us have opportunities today to experience different ways of life that, for the most part, weren't practical a generation ago. My question for all of you who occasionally try new restaurants on the weekend is, why not take that adventurous spirit one step further?

If you are curious about mixing things up a little and want to learn more about job opportunities in China, check out Prof. Chris Carr's blog post, Job Opportunities in China (and India) - The Sky 'May' Be The Limit, BUT... Do Your Friggen' Homework. Prof. Carr is leading our trip to China in June and his post does an excellent job of presenting the realities - good and bad - of pursuing live/work opportunities in places like China.

After reading Prof. Carr's post and the links that he provides, does this sound like something that you are interested in pursuing? Add a comment to this post or shoot me an e-mail and share the details of your dream/vision with me. Let me encourage and/or empower you as you explore this interest further.

Here are some of the quotes that jumped out at me from Prof. Carr's post:
"Over the course of my last fifteen years [in China], I’ve learned that there are only two rules: Rule #1 is that 'Everything is possible in China,' but Rule #2 is that 'Nothing is easy.'"-Jack Perkowski

"When it comes to China, do a self evaluation. List your advantages and your disadvantages. What do you do exceptionally well? What are you weak at? What expertise does China need? What can you provide?"-Jack Perkowski

“I needed someone who was capable of communicating with the Western world.”-Willy Tsao

“In Chinese schools students are encouraged to be quiet and less outspoken; it fosters a culture of listening more than initiating.”-Willy Tsao

"My value-add in China was never going to be my facility with the language. Instead, it was going to be the knowledge and experience which I brought here from a long career in investment banking."-Jack Perkowski

"My firm has calculated that the ratio of purchasing power for salaries in China and the U.S. is 3.5-to-1."-Shaun Rein

"...the percentage of young, non-Chinese entry-level managers who get hired from the U.S. is small compared to those who are hired from here."-David Wolf

Here is a portion of the comment that I left on Prof. Carr's post:
What struck me about this post and its links is the universality of the advice provided. For those of us intimidated by the process, we must ask ourselves whether finding work in China is really that different from finding work in the U.S. today. The weak job market here has made hiring managers as focused on value-add as ever. They no longer need to recruit candidates who aren't local - eliminating the expenses of flying candidates in for interviews or offering moving reimbursement. I'm not saying that the job search here and there is equally difficult, I'm just saying that the delta between the two may be shrinking. Finding work in either place is going to take a lot of time and energy and landing a dream job with dream compensation may not be realistic these days.

Perkowski says that, "everything is possible in China... but nothing is easy". Ask yourself this, is everything possible in the U.S. today? Is anything easy here? It seems to me that the answers to both are "no" to both. So, what do we adventurous souls have to lose by exploring opportunities in China?