Globalization and growing talent continues to be a hot topic, so we decided to get the first-hand perspective from an ex-pat on assignment in China with a highly successful U.S. based organization. This month we talked with Thomas Hopson, Business Unit Director Greater China and Korea, at Edwards Lifeciences about the unpredictable nature of working global.
Sherry Benjamins: How did you end up as the Business Unit Director in Shanghai, China for Edwards?
Thomas Hopson: Fifteen years ago I did an international assignment in England with a different company and loved it. After I completed my EMBA in the states, I was working at Edwards and wanted another global challenge.
I approached Edwards about an international assignment and they asked if I would be interested in going to China. At the time, Edwards was struggling to bridge the gap between what our corporate office in Irvine wanted and what was actually happening in China, so I was sent to train and develop the sales and marketing teams.
SB: Wow, what a fascinating start! Now that you have been there for a few years, what is your number one objective for 2015?
TH: I really want to create the building blocks for the future. We need a stable and sustainable foundation to continue our growth. For Edwards, sustainability starts with investing in employees. We have a young tenured staff in China, so it is important to establish a culture of Edwards investing in employees for the long term.
SB: What major learnings have you had working with your team in China versus your team in Orange County?
TH: The biggest thing has been to be very clear on the message being stated and ask for confirmation of understanding. In the Chinese culture it is very difficult for people to say “no”. They end up saying “yes” even when they don’t understand because they don’t want to seem disrespectful or incompetent. I am learning the language to help ease some of the complexity, but right now it takes two times as long to deliver a message to my team through translators or translated materials.
The other learning was that the environment over here is young, vibrant, and the economy is growing. We find individuals hooked on finding the “next best” opportunity. I have had to be flexible and let go of any preconceived notions of how this workforce should think, act, or perform.
SB: You mention employees searching for “the next big thing”. How are you learning what that means?
TH: We train on everything from product, to organization development and skill building. Most importantly, I try to empower my team to have a voice and an impact. We created an Executive Sales Panel where employees have an opportunity to voice any concerns to management and we respond. The answer is not always “yes”, but at least they know they have been heard. Through this effort we learn what is important to each individual.
With such a young team, we also run into issues where employees are promoted at a rapid pace, but lack the skillset to match their new title. We have to make sure we evaluate our talent in a way that is logical and also makes the employee successful.
SB: In the U.S. we talk about the exit of Baby Boomers, the new Millennial workforce, and lack of leadership in middle management. What are the talent issues in China keeping you up at night?
TH: There is a huge leadership gap here. The workforce is young and lacks experience, which is why you see mostly ex-pats in leadership roles right now. The one child policy in China is beginning to have an impact on talent. From a business stand point, the aging population is beneficial, but it makes for a very tight talent pool.
At Edwards, we want to be seen as a career destination, not a transition company for strong talent.
SB: It sounds like you have consistently been the pioneer for people-driven initiatives.
TH: I have always loved leadership and watching people grow. I have worked harder in this role than ever before, but I have also never been more excited about my work. I can really see the effects of what we are doing here from a business and talent perspective.
On the personal front, I am learning that persistence, perseverance, and flexibility serve me well. Being in China has meant constantly learning and being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Everything from the food, to the internet, to the way work is approached is different here.
SB: I actually worked at Edwards Lifesciences at the beginning of my career. That is really where I learned how to be strategic, but at the time there weren’t global opportunities. What advice do you have for someone looking to go on a global assignment?
TH: Going global just for the sake of career advancement is the wrong reason to go. You really need a high level of curiosity, adaptability, and some thick skin to succeed in a global role. It can also be complex as it relates to family or significant others. They need to be a part of this commitment to adventure and personal change.
SB: It seems like we could be doing more “at home” to help our leaders have a global mindset.
TH: You really have to live it to understand it. One week trips to global locations doesn’t provide you the same understanding as living it for 2-3 years. I encourage everyone to take on a global challenge. It’s been one of the best experiences for my personal and professional development. These experiences have definitely rounded out my skillset and fine-tuned my business and people transformation skills. I am more understanding of the impact of cultures, motivators, and the unique business aspects in cultures such as China.
I was so taken by my discussion with Thomas that I could actually see myself considering an expat assignment! He creates a vision of this incredibly important work in a fascinating culture where he is learning every day. His positive perspective and commitment to learning inspired me. His family is right there with him, learning language and navigating in this unfamiliar global community.
Let us know what you are doing to develop or grow talent in China or overseas. Thanks Thomas for sharing your story of year three in Shanghai. You are clearly energized by this impactful work and we can’t wait to hear how this evolves. Unfortunately, my husband says China may not be in our plans just yet.