How To Blend into the Chinese Office Culture
During this episode, we interviewed Sebastien Codron, who was born and raised in France and educated in the UK and China. He stayed in China upon graduation from Tsinghua University to first work in Tech prior to a transition into recruitment at Michael Page and Hudson. He then joined Mobike towards the end of 2017 as a Talent Acquisition Lead for its overseas development and as Head of HR to merge Mobike Overseas into Meituan DianPing post-acquisition.
Hello, everyone. Hi from Singapore and Italy. Welcome Sebastien, the HRBP of Meituan DianPing. A little introduction about Sebastien first. Sebastien was born and raised in France and educated in the UK and China. He stayed in China upon graduation from Tsinghua University to first work in tech prior to a quick transition into recruitment at Michael Page and Hudson. He then joined Mobike towards the end of 2017 as a Talent Acquisition Lead for his overseas development and as head of HR to merge Mobike Overseas into Meituan DianPing post-acquisition. Hi, Sebastien. Thank you very much for making time to join us today.
Hi, Chelsea. Thanks a lot for having me. It’s definitely a thrilling moment for me to join you and your audience and, let’s say, to share a bit more about my experience.
Yeah, great. So maybe to first start us off, could you tell us a little bit more about your role as HRBP which stands for human resources business partner, right? And what is your favorite aspect of your job?
Sure, definitely. And I think that’s actually a bit more of a challenging question than what it sounds like, and I think that’s because the role of HRBP, HR Business Partner, is a position that has certainly greatly evolved and greatly changed over the past few years. And even today, it’s a position that constantly changes from a company to another one depending on the business needs, depending on its goals, on its priorities, and even depending on its geographical location. So it’s a bit more of a challenging question, to keep it simple I think one thing that is constant about an HRBP role across all companies is that this is a position that is not very commercially focused, it’s a position that has gained a lot of real strategic impact and credibility onto a company’s executive, and that’s because it has a direct impact onto a company’s format, and therefore onto a company’s business. So I think this is what I see as a short summary of an HRBP. Now, I think in a nutshell, an HRBP’s mission and my mission at Mobike and then later on at Meituan DianPing was to mostly create the environment, the company environment, that would attract, develop, and retain all the talents we were bringing to the company, and that would be so that the business can perform to its best capacity. So in other words, my role as well as my team’s role was to optimize Mobike or optimize Meituan’s workforce overseas and to make sure that this workforce, these talents, was going to remain engaged, was going to remain productive, was going to be innovative, and eventually profitable and so on.
You also asked me my favorite part of the role, which I was trying to think of it while answering the first part of your question, it’s a bit hard for me because there’s quite a few things that I really like about the role, and I think to keep it simple, my favorite part of the role is based on talent. So there are a lot of things about HRBP such as alignments, support, communications, so a lot of interesting parts to an HRBP’s mission. But the most important part to me is the bit on talent and that’s because it’s at this core–it’s at the core of the company’s strategy. That means that an HRBP gets to sit at a table of executives, of all the company’s layers of management, and gets to design a talent solution for the specific business. So for example, you get to design a succession planning to generate some organic growth. So organic growth is when you grow employees from the inside, you don’t necessarily attract X amount of employees for one position, you just promote it to many. Another example is as HRBP, you get to implement learning and development initiatives, so that’s to support the employees’ growth. You get to work on engagement, and that’s to ensure that all the employees feel connected to the company’s mission. Another very important bit, and I think it’s a more and more important one that has a different name across different geographies, it’s when an HRBP is promoting diversity at all levels of the company, and that is in order for the company to remain innovative, so you need that diversity bit, and you need to accept that diversity, which is through inclusion. So an HRBP’s role is to enforce that. So overall, all of these are tangible impacts that an HRBP can have on the company’s business.
I understand. Thank you so much for sharing that; it’s very informative because HRBP is a role that we see often, but I don’t think a lot of people understand what is it that you do.
Yes. So you’ve had a great career so far, and you started off in a few software companies like SAP and Remark. Could you just share what inspired you to move into recruitment?
Yeah. Sure, sure. Indeed, I had a few insights on SAP and Remark, which are two software companies. Within those two companies, I worked two different positions, I think most of them could fall within the hat of a project management team, so that allowed me to get exposure to a lot of different functions within these companies. And that’s because I worked on projects that were about building call centers or support teams or delivering training on the software solutions. So that exposure actually gave me a great understanding of what the other functions we were doing and where they were having the most fun. At some point when I was at Remark, it’s one of those days where I sat down and I was probably looking back where I was having the most fun in my job, what was kicking me out of bed in the morning and motivating me and I realized that, yet I was having a lot of fun, but I could have more fun.
So I again, I sat back, looked at what I wanted to do for a management role, and I put down a few elements, such as my next role will have to be China connected, would have to be in China, it would have to be within the tech industry, it would have to have a consultative approach so that I could change clients, go from one client to another, that change of scenery. I wanted something more commercial, something more people-oriented because I didn’t want to stay all day at the computer, mainly wanted to speak with these people and engage with them. And obviously, ideally building teams, and that’s because some of my projects were about building teams, so that was quite thrilling. Later on, by putting all these pieces of that puzzle together, I spoke with a few mentors of mine, and some of them were like, hey well, I think you should consider recruitment whether it’s in-house recruitment or whether it’s agency recruitment. And it’s later on that I connected with Michael Page, for example, and got a few interviews, met some really, really good people there, and then joined their recruitment team. So that was my transition into recruitment.
Interesting. So you mentioned that you started looking into China. How did that interest even originate, and why were you interested in working in China?
Yes, it’s true. When looking for a job, I had been in China for quite some time. And I think when I started looking for a role to have a transition from studies to work, quite a few reasons for me to live and work in China. And one of them ranking really high up on the list is of course the local Chinese food. I mean, this is good enough, and that was good enough for me to want to stay in China. Who wouldn’t want to live in a place with such food? So anyway, when I started working in China, I already had a bit of experience living in Beijing and in Shanghai, and by that time, I knew that I had to stay there. I had to be in China upon graduation, or I would miss a golden opportunity to experience or witness an amazing change, an amazing technology-driven change in China. This was back in 2010, or something like that.
So that’s one of the main reasons I wanted to stay, I could see things were changing much faster than back home, back in Europe. And if I was not there, I would miss something that was directly impacting my daily life, not just my work. And on top of that, all the tech innovations were one of the reasons I wanted to stay in China. I was quite tech-oriented, I wanted to have a career in technology. And then when you see mobile payments or back sharing shaping your daily life, and when you go back home and you still have to write PaperShip. Going back home feels like going backward in time, so I’m going to stay where I am, China is definitely way ahead, so let’s go there and let’s stay there. So that’s one of the reasons. The second reason is I think the economic opportunity, which is I think a good reason for a lot of people to be in China. And these economic opportunities offer you a really, really fast career development. They offer you different job opportunities, and as soon as you manage to get one of them, and if you work really hard and commit yourself, then you will be rewarded with opportunities to grow. I think this is quite specific to China because you get to grow your career probably twice or three times the speed that you would get to grow your career anywhere else.
And why do you think that’s the case?
Growing a career so fast?
Economic opportunities again. I think if you commit and work hard, because that is the local work culture, working really hard and then you are part of the whole movement, you’re part of it, then yes you get rewarded. That’s one thing. I think there is so much–I think the local mindset drives so much innovation as well that you will always get to work on the next technology phase. And that’s something that I don’t think is really happening in Europe, it could be a bit more traditional in terms of adopting technologies or maybe slower in terms of innovations or maybe a bit more work by talents that will eventually slow down any eventual progress, I would say.
I understand. And to just backtrack a bit, because you went to Tsinghua University, right? Not that many Europeans go to China to study. What made you think that you wanted to go to China for university?
Okay, I think that started even before my need and that feel that I had to go back to China, to go to China started even before university. First time I spent a year in China was back in 2004-2005, so that was like right after high school. That was a gap year, to sit down to look at what I wanted to do next. And China was definitely the right place because I already had some connections, some friends, I had people around me that were telling me and advising me to go to China, to invest time in China, and I was lucky enough to have already mentors that are Chinese that were telling me, well if you want to make the right investment, you need to come here in Beijing or go to second-tier or third-tier cities and study Chinese. So this is where it all started for me, it was a mix of influence, a bit of rational arguments that helped me to see what was a good investment next.
That’s very cool to have studied in China and stayed there to work afterwards. So you’ve lived in China for close to about ten years, were there any culture shocks when you first arrived, and how did you adjust to the life there?
Definitely, definitely a lot of culture shock. When I first arrived there, I don’t think I was actually ready for this culture shock. I don’t think I knew what a culture shock would feel like. So when I arrived, and I mentioned this earlier, I was lucky to really know some mentors locally, Chinese mentors, and I remember that the best advice that one of my mentors gave me was one of the first Chinese sentences that I learned…which is like, when you get in Rome, do as the Romans do. And it’s actually a golden rule for me, when I first arrived for me to sit down to look at how the locals were behaving, how the locals were thinking, and how the locals were speaking. So the best way for me to absorb that culture shock at first was go to a restaurant, speak Chinese, and eat the local food. That’s where simple things will start. So if I was to give advice to anyone coming to China and to anyone who wants to absorb and adopt, to not feel strong culture shock is as simple as learn the language as quickly as possible. And the second phase is to try to understand the why and how of people’s behavior before making a judgment. I think the best practical tips to get the language, the culture fit, and then eventually understand how the communities behave locally.
Yeah, definitely. If you want to be integrated with the community, you have to be open to it in the first place.
You do, you do. And I think we can even give a third advice or a fourth one, it’s join a Chinese cooking class, that’s a lot of fun.
Oh, did you go for one?
Yes, I did. I almost burned down the kitchen, but I did. I don’t think it was really tasty, but the experience itself was absolutely amazing. If your Chinese is good enough, join a Chinese cooking class, do it in Chinese, or even if your time allows it, depending on your personal situation, try fora full immersion, try to travel to remote places in China, and I think this last part, traveling to remote places in China on a short-medium term is definitely ranking high up on any China lover’s bucket list.
Yeah, definitely. It will be a very different picture, gives you a different perspective too. Actually, I’m quite curious, were there any specific culture shocks that you experienced? Something that you really didn’t expect coming from Europe.
Sorry, I didn’t hear you well.
Oh, I said, were there any specific stories on your culture shocks that you experienced? Like things that you didn’t expect coming from a European country.
Excellent. There were quite a few examples and whether they were from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time or probably finishing your plate when you shouldn’t, small, small details that will actually show your knowledge of the local culture and that will teach you some of the details. And it was only by traveling and spending time with some of my mentors’ family, whether it was in Shenzhen. I spent like a month in…for example. I think the Chinese from Shenzhen had very good reputations for some good drinking and some of the rules that goes with it and some of the social rules that come with it. And as a European, it’s sometimes difficult to grasp them or to even hold your own liquor, I would say compared to a Shenzhen man. So those are some of the examples that I had to go through and some of these are the best memories I have.
Yeah. It sounds really fun as well, despite the initial shock. So do you have any advice for foreigners who are similarly interested in working in China? For example, how do you think they could position themselves to be attractive candidates in the Chinese job market? So for this question we’ll be tapping into your HR expertise.
Yeah. And personal expertise as well, because I once was in China and looking for a job so I had to compete against some incredibly skillful local talent, so I think it’s a tough question, but also a tough situation. So here the tips are it might not be that easy but–and that’s because it’s true that I think it is very challenging today for a foreigner to be in China to compete against these incredibly skillful local talents. I think today as a foreigner, you are only left with a few handful of positions, and if you don’t have a leading expertise or particular industry exposure, it’s going to be difficult to get that. So again, I think the first tips and the best tips that we’d be able to give to a foreigner is learning the Chinese language and learning the way of life and just make sure that you’re showing your full commitment. The second tip I would say is to make sure that living in China is actually for you because I don’t think–it’s a country that is easy to–in general, it’s not a country where foreigners can settle down on the long term and live their own life just like they would live back home, I think you can do it only for a few months, maybe a year. But past that, if you don’t localize yourself, if you’re not thrilled and interested by the food, by the language, by the culture, by how things work locally, these foreigners will grow frustrated in no time, and they will eventually meet a major self-development opportunity. That’s definitely one thing to keep in mind. The second step that I can think of for foreigners is to potentially identify some internet foreign influencers that are visible in China and to select them according to your position, your function, your industry, or what is your expertise. To just name a few regarding these internet foreign influencers, I think Jeffrey Tolson, who is actually writing some pretty good articles on China Take, and it’s definitely great to follow. Or another influencer that I can think of if you’re more interested in the digital landscape and e-commerce would be Ashley Galina. So these influencers built really good expertise in their fields, and I think they will eventually give you–by following them, they will give you a good insight of what China is like from the inside. So at the end of the day, by following them you might be able to–you might have the right data and information to fuel your next conversation during your next interview. That’s just one practical example I would give you. I mentioned earlier mentors and I mentioned that I was quite lucky to have some mentors when I got into China, so I think this definitely an important tidbit. It’s important to build a network of Chinese mentors as well as foreign mentors, so that they can actually explain to you their vision and understanding of China. They might actually help you to see things differently, which you have to, you have to in China. When it comes to looking for a job, looking for a role, I wouldn’t advise anyone, well any foreigners, to only target foreign companies in China and that’s because foreign companies today, their main purpose is to localize. So they’ve been competing to hire the best local talents in Beijing and Shanghai in China. These companies will not target foreigners because a foreigner will never know China as well as a local one, which is common sense at some point. So I would advise someone to target local Chinese companies that I think there are a lot of them that are leading in their field and industry, and these companies actually want to go abroad to expand overseas, so we can look at DiDi, Ventures, Alibaba, Tencent, VIP, DGI. These companies have overseas and international businesses and usually they will hire some foreign intel in back of the headquarters to then take part of that expansion. By personal experience, taking a technology innovation, a Chinese tech innovation overseas is extremely an experience. It’s a massive commitment, but it’s an extremely rewarding commitment. So that’s one of the advice that I would have for foreigners to look into leading Chinese companies. If I can make another note.
Sure, go ahead.
If I can make another note here that I’m thinking of, when targeting a Chinese company, I think it’s very important to keep in mind that it will be equally rewarding and demanding. Working for a Chinese firm, you have to expect your report line and your peers to have extremely high expectations toward you regarding your deliveries, you have to expect to be reachable 24/7 because there are very blurry lines between work and life, work-life balance. The concept of work-life balance is very different than in Europe, well especially Europe I would say.
Europe is smaller and on the other end of the spectrum.
You’re right, that’s a very good point and I don’t think–which one is right or wrong, I think it’s which is the one you actually want for yourself and the one where you are the most efficient. I think besides that really competitive and fast-growing environment of working for a local Chinese company, you can then in return expect to gain a very, very valuable, personal, and professional experience. You will gain in return a network of peers that you will be able to really count on. I think you will gain skills at a much, much faster pace that you can imagine. Now that’s because everything is moving at a much, much faster speed than outside of China than any other companies I would say.
Well thank you for laying out all the pros and cons, there are definitely a lot of trade-offs to consider. Not everything looks as rosy, I guess it boils down to what you are really looking for in your career and whether China is a suitable job market for you. So you’ve mentioned a little bit about mentors and networking, so China has a very unique culture and way of doing business and forming connections. Could you give some tips on networking in China for those who are seeking jobs there?
Yeah, sure. As you said, networking is crucial in finding and landing your next job, but it’s also crucial in settling down, in getting to know China better. There are a few ways of networking and I think this goes way further than just learning the language and the culture, which we mentioned so many times before. I don’t think someone should wait to be fluent in Chinese to start networking because learning Chinese is a full-time commitment. So I think, the first thing I would say, as a foreigner when you network in China, I think it’s absolutely crucial to follow this, is to remain humble. To listen, to observe, I think to learn before thinking of making a judgment call of what’s different in China. Always keep in mind that in China, everything works very differently than in any other countries. Its culture is deeply rooted into every aspect of the daily life. I think China has its own political, economical, social model that will challenge most of the Western’s point of views and most of the Western’s models and… So, again, you don’t have to agree with all of it, but you do have to openly learn about them before daring to judge whether it’s good or it’s wrong locally. So that’s one first tip that I would advise when you’re about to network and when you’re about to get to know people locally. And with this in mind, when you form connections locally, it’s crucial to be sincere and open-minded about what and how China as a country and how China will handle the current challenges as a country, whether it’s a national or international challenge. So I think at some point I would also advise any foreigners when they connect locally to, whether they’re actually an entrepreneur or whether they’re actually working in corporate or whether they are startupers, to connect with some of these incredible incubators or startup incubators or startup accelerators. I can name a few on the top of my head like XNode or China Accelerators. They are backed up by some pretty cool…such as Startup Greed that are creating and launching some really good events where you will get to meet amazing people. So I think as one of the last tips is beside networking within your circle of industry expertise, try to join that really fascinating China startup landscape. You will meet mind-blowing people for sure.
That sounds so exciting. I’m sure this is very useful advice for people who are interested in seeking a job in China. Thank you so much, Sebastien, for joining us today. We are so happy to have you, and I’m sure our listeners will enjoy this episode too.
Thank you, Chelsea. It was a real pleasure to speak with you, and hopefully this was interesting for your audience. Thanks a lot, Chelsea.