The Importance of Growth Opportunities
An interview with Stefanie Xia-Bramekamp of Lenze Drive Systems (Shanghai)
For many foreign companies in China, hiring and retaining staff is a challenging task. China Focus speaks to HR expert Stefanie Xia-Bramekamp of Lenze Drive Systems in Shanghai. Stefanie has been overseeing the HR activities at Lenze in China for over 9 years and gives us her insight into what it is like to manage the HR operations of 15 offices nationwide.
What cultural differences have you observed between Germany and China? How do you overcome them?The biggest cultural difference is how people communicate, which is also the answer to the question of how to overcome it. At Lenze, we believe it is crucial that people who work together on the same international team meet each other in person, so they can put a face to the voice they speak to frequently. We have found that this improves every day communication dramatically and makes a team stronger. Our staff understand each other better, resulting in an overall productivity increase.
In terms of HR management, the biggest difference is flexibility. China is a fast-changing country and it is much easier to try and implement new strategies and approaches. In Europe, rules and regulations are long established and certain outside factors, such as laws and habits, are ingrained in this mature market. This makes China both challenging and exciting when you work in the HR field.
What are the differences in recruiting new talent in both countries?
Actually, I have to say that some of the challenges are quite similar between the two. For example, we are facing a shortage of technical talent in both. The difference is that in China, this has always been the case, while in Europe, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, finding staff in Europe was easy and more focus was placed on retention. But now, there is also a talent shortage in Europe and it is not easy to find the right people. Especially for jobs with very specific know-how requirements, it is difficult to fill these positions.
Speaking of finding the right people, we are often asked about the current hiring trends. Are you increasingly localising your staff or still bringing in expatriates?
We have definitely started localising more although we will continue hiring expatriates, especially in the technical sector. Even after intensive training, experience is something that cannot be taught. A large amount of the key technical knowledge comes from our Headquarter in Germany, so it is essential that we keep bringing expatriates over to China to train local staff. We also like to bring our Chinese staff to Germany to train them so that they can bring back the necessary know-how and pass it on to their colleagues. Overall we have seen a great increase in the talent that China has to offer and of course we want to harness this as much as possible.
With several sales offices and a big production facility in Shanghai, is it challenging to recruit staff?
Yes, this is indeed a challenge especially in the more remote areas. We have relatively high requirements for both technical and sales people because everyone needs to have a technical background, so we are talking about a very narrow pool of possible candidates. Sometimes we ask our current staff to take on new assignments for a certain period of time because they bring knowledge and experience. When we need someone new, we use a number of tools to find the right people, such as our website, job sites, and industry websites. For active searches and high level positions, we prefer to use a recruiting specialist with international reach, such as Fiducia.
After recruiting, staff retention seems to be the next challenge. What is your secret formula to retain your staff?
We believe that an employee should have the opportunity to grow with the company. This starts from when they are first hired with newcomer training in Shanghai and continues throughout their employment at Lenze. We offer training and development, as well as team building so that our staff feel comfortable at the work place. We see it as positive reinforcement: when our staff grow and develop, the company will perform better, and in turn offer more opportunity for further growth. We want to help people see their future with us, as early as during the interview process.
However, in China this can be challenging because there is a kind of obsession with becoming a manager. Of course, some people are suitable and others are not and for this reason we have implemented what we call a dual-ladder approach. For us, a specialist has the same importance as a manager. We try to provide different options in terms of career paths for management, as well as specialists. All too often we have encountered technical engineers wanting to develop into sales management for no other reason other than wanting to be a manager. This technical engineer is very valuable to us, but without sales experience and expertise, this value is lost. For this reason, we have developed a similar hierarchy for the sales team, as well as the technical team, to provide a clear career path to all.
What are typical pitfalls of hiring in China?
When we first started in China, we used to hire an entire team from the same province for our shop floor. Soon we found out that they were all friends, relatives and acquaintances and that brought with it a number of challenges, as people took their private lives to work. Throughout the years, we have overcome this by hiring a mix of people on the shop floor level from different provinces, as well as genders. We try to staff more women to keep the balance in check. With this mix, our employees focus on work and work flow and don’t bring their personal lives to work.
We have also found that background checks are becoming increasingly important. Actually, when I first started at Lenze, we only did background checks for high level positions. But now it is essential to hear the views of different people, especially in a narrow industry such as ours. Having said that, we also need to be careful about who we talk to. Confidentiality and discretion is key in a small circle industry.
What trends and challenges can we expect in the coming years?
The so-called “war on talent” will become fiercer over the next years. I would advise companies to change their strategies and offer attractive packages to their prospective employees. We have seen a shift: of course people are looking for an appropriate salary but increasingly we have seen more emphasis placed on career development. When hiring, it is essential to present these options. For example, we have found that a long term assignment to a foreign country is attractive to prospective employees.
The work-life balance is becoming more important, as well. A few years ago, it was quite normal to work in Shanghai with your family being 3 hours away. Now, this is not the case anymore. Most people request to have their family transferred. As China continues to develop, more opportunities are arising in Central and Western China, which will undoubtedly bring about change. We have already seen skilled people leaving Eastern China to return to their home provinces. Due to this, it is important to monitor your staff closely to know exactly what their demands are, especially if they are far away from their family. The people are very flexible in China and companies have to learn to adjust as well.
On the other hand, for senior positions in China salaries have come closer and closer to their German counterparts over the years. But all in all, hiring is no longer just naming a salary. As an employer, we must focus on adjusting to the times and offering a complete package with room for growth to create a long-lasting and positive working relationship with our employees.
Stefanie Xia-Bramekamp is the Vice President – HR at Lenze Drive Systems in Shanghai. She has lived in China for over 11 years.Lenze Drive Systems (Shanghai) Co., Ltd. is the local representation of the Lenze group in China, producing and selling drive solutions and technology.