By Preston Kuo
Founder and CEO of China Foundations, and private sector chair of the US State Department OSA
The other night, while having dinner with my wife and a pharmaceutical executive, the conversation turned to ayi (or housekeeper) retention.
“I’ve had my ayi for 18 years, can you believe it?” said the executive, whom I got to know during the formation of the AmCham China Northeast Chapter. As a human resources (HR) professional, I listened with great interest as she – I’ll call her “Anne” – introduced us to her relationship to “Zhang Ayi.” As it happens, the story of Anne and Zhang reveals key strategies for two of the most important recurring HR challenges in China: lack of long-term loyalty and the always increasing demand for highly skilled labor. Hiring a housekeeper and a work employee may seem like two very different scenarios, but the principles she shared work universally.
Listen for key clues
If you know Anne, a long-time employee and global VP for a pharmaceutical multinational, you could expect she had some
expertise in this subject. Crazy as it seems, Anne interviewed over 100 different housekeepers until she found the right one. What made Zhang stand out wasn’t a shared hometown, degree, or family referral. Instead, Anne felt that she had spoken openly and honestly. When asked if she could cook and clean, Zhang replied that she wasn’t very good, but was willing to learn.
A majority of job candidates say what the employers want tohear when being interviewed. The local education system’s conditioning to “pass the test” due to fierce competition to enter college and the habit of “appease and please” from years of hierarchical service in society and in the home normally take precedence. Anne lived this reality every day but had the experience and skills to better listen and feel for the truth. It is almost as if she knew that she was hiring once for this position with no intent to have to hire again and had a very clear idea of what she needed in an employee to be successful. What resulted was 18-plus years of loyalty, which I am pretty sure wasn’t from dumb luck.
In Brad Smart’s book Topgrading, he reminds readers of the impact of high performing talent: “The top 3 percent of sales
people produce up to 250 percent more than average; top 20 percent produce up to 120 percent more.” Yet, companies reportthat only 25 percent of people they hire turn out to be high performers. To identify these superstars in a sea of candidates, try listening better. Anne knew the right questions to ask, when and how to ask them, and what environment would be best to get Zhang to feel safe to open up.
Takeaway: Listening can improve and recognize the importance of acknowledging others’ emotions, even in a work environment. People are naturally emotional. Some cultures have trained people to compartmentalize emotion when dealing in business, but this idea is not yet developed in China. Mark Goulston, author of Just Listen, talks about a six-step process of how to make the other person feel acknowledged to get them to feel comfortable, and as a result they more openly share the truth. “At that instant, instead of trying to get the better of each other, you ‘get’ each other and that breakthrough can lead to cooperation, collaboration and effective communication,” he writes. (Testament to the power of this lesson, Just Listen has just been renewed for another release in Chinese.)
Help employees help themselves
As we got to talking more and more about Zhang Ayi, who will soon marry for the first time at the age of 40, Anne shared another insight: She knew education would help Zhang change her own life. When Zhang first started with Anne, she couldn’t read very well and only a few years of schooling. So Anne had a request.
“This woman would eventually take care of my most prized possession, my child, and she would have to read stories to her and
help oversee her school habits,” Anne said. She needed Zhang to read.
Zhang was willing to start, though it was a challenge. Anne trusted her, and the investment paid off.
“If you met this woman today, you would have no idea that she was an ayi,” Anne said. “The way she talks about the world,
her openness to ideas, her knowledge and grace in the way she speaks and the things she speaks about are all extremely impressive. She reads more than I do now.”
Set up your teams for success in the long term by creating the environment to build from mistakes and failures. Hiring the best
is a great idea, but when there is a shortage of the best and the best seem to jump from company to company, we have to take what we have and help make them the best.
Many multinational corporations have internal universities and robust training programs. Training budgets in China have increased over the past few years. Coaching certifications are currently one of the hottest courses all over China for large
companies. We are trending in the right direction, but there is still a massive gap if we want our people to be able to perform better, put them in the environment that will help them gain wisdom through experience rather than just knowledge.
Takeaway: Reinforce the learning culture in your company. Everyone gets bogged down with deadlines and delivery dates, and often times learning gets pushed aside. If we dedicate time for learning and plan around it, your people will improve, but only with a strong level of commitment.
Make the organization work for employees
In the middle of our conversation, Anne apologized to my wife and me for having to take a call. She had to call Zhang to tell her that she wouldn’t be home for dinner. We thought that would be the normal polite thing to do, but as she spoke to Zhang, you could hear the sincerity as she apologized to the woman for not calling earlier, like a family member. I remarked to Anne that she must really appreciate her ayi, to which she responded, “Of course, she’s been with us for such a long time and helped raise my daughter.” Leaders sincerely care about their people and make the organization work for them, not the other way around.
Takeaway: Companies come to China because of massive labor force and consumer market potential, but those words just mean lots and lots of people. When expats leave their assignments in China, what they say they miss the most is the people. When companies look at their two biggest HR hurdles – retention and a lack of highly skilled labor – oftentimes I see
strategies based on trends and surveys, but very little from information from conversations and their people. Anne saw the
high potential in Zhang Ayi and recognized Zhang just wanted a better life for herself and her family, so Anne provided her
the motivation and the support to educate herself and create it for herself. It’s no surprise, then, that Zhang has stuck with
Anne and has no intent to leave her job.