• 9 minute read

The Chinese Profile of Success

Au, Kevin Yuk-fai(區玉輝)

How does a successful entrepreneur in the Chinese society look like? A scientific study of entrepreneurs in Hong Kong and Shanghai offers new insights into the traits and qualities that contribute to their career success

By Louisa Wah Hansen

When you think of a successful entrepreneur, what is the image that pops up in your mind? A flamboyant, aggressive go-getter? Big risk-taker and adventurist? A young, college dropout who has a bright idea and turns it into an overnight success? A mysterious self-made billionaire with an incredibly humble background? An independent type who prefers to strike it alone and be his own boss? Or someone who has a lot of work experience prior to setting up shop and is well-connected in social circles?

Stereotypes of successful entrepreneurs abound — especially those portrayed in the media and biographies. These portraits often contain snippets of truth about what makes entrepreneurs successful. But for those aspiring to launch their own businesses, are these subjective accounts of how certain entrepreneurs rose to the top of their career really helpful at all and applicable across the board? How would a successful Chinese entrepreneur’s profile differ from that of an entrepreneur in the West?

Research on Chinese Entrepreneurs

When it comes to overall career success, much research has been done on employees in large organizations — mostly in the West. But there has been a lack of analysis on career success within the entrepreneurial sphere, let alone Chinese entrepreneurs. Research undertaken by Prof. Kevin Au of CUHK Business School has revealed a much more realistic picture of a successful Chinese entrepreneur than what the media have portrayed.

Gleaning from the real-life experiences of more than 200 entrepreneurs in Hong Kong and 200 in Shanghai, this in-depth study, titled “Entrepreneurial Career Success from a Chinese perspective: Conceptualization, Operationalization, and Validation,” fills the gap of the current body of research literature on the subject, confirming certain stereotypical images while uncovering some surprising traits that are specific to the Chinese context alone.

The Impetus to Succeed

Successful entrepreneurs are those who thrive in an environment where they have a high degree of autonomy. To them, being their own bosses means having the highest degree of power or control over their own organizations, which translates into a higher sense of career success, according to the research.

Why is it that certain Chinese people have such an extraordinary need to become their own bosses? It can be traced to an old Chinese saying about the word “work.” Based on its pictographic characteristic, a symbolic meaning is derived: “Being a worker (employee) would never get you anywhere beyond a certain level” (工字不出頭). Many successful Chinese entrepreneurs actually have this concept deeply rooted in their consciousness through parental or societal influence.

Establishing a ‘Good Face’ in Society

Besides being one’s own boss and the desire to amass wealth — universal factors that spur entrepreneurship around the world, an important factor that pushes Chinese entrepreneurs to achieve an extraordinary level of success is the need to attain a higher level of personal reputation, recognition and status in society.

The latter has been shown to be especially important in the Chinese society but have been neglected by previous, mostly Western, studies. The researchers point out that being socially successful does not necessarily lead to increased pay or promotion, but gaining fame, recognition, popularity and status in a socially approved manner plays a paramount role in motivating Chinese entrepreneurs to climb up the career ladder because of the emphasis on collectivism in the Chinese society. In fact, the desire to gain face (面子), is a concept that succinctly captures one of the most influential factors that motivate Chinese entrepreneurs to strive for higher achievements.

The Art of ‘Giving Face’

As an extension of the idea that Chinese entrepreneurs are driven to succeed in a socially approved manner, the study found that a particular personality trait — extraversion, which seems to be highly valued by the business media portraits of successful entrepreneurs, especially in the West — is not at all what the Chinese entrepreneurs themselves consider to be the indispensable quality to become successful.

According to the researchers, Chinese cultural characteristics that emphasize harmony, giving/saving face, subtlety and understanding are of a primary focus. Therefore, an assertive, direct and impetuous individual may find himself or herself at odds by not mastering the “game of face.” By contrast, being diplomatic and deeply acquainted with the myriad of unspoken rules in human interactions within the Chinese tradition would get an entrepreneur farther in competition.

Richard Ho, managing director of Zhen Hua Group of Companies — the largest manufacturer of charcoal briquettes in China — who has more than 30 years’ business experience in the Mainland, agrees that mianzi is a very important issue when it comes to building relationships with clients, suppliers and partners. He believes the concept exists in all cultures, but in China more than anywhere else, it is an extremely delicate balancing act of upholding someone’s self-esteem by choosing the “right” words or doing the “right” things. But what does “right” constitute? Even for a China veteran like him, it may not be so clear-cut all the time. He recalls a case that turned into a great lesson on face.

“Once I visited a supplier in a remote place in China. I brought a team of six or seven and planned to give the supplier only a small order. We had lunch together but since we were such a big group and were not going to place a large order, I felt it would be unfair for the supplier to treat us lunch. So I arranged to pay the bill before the end of the meal. When the supplier found out, he got really angry. He banged the table and yelled at me. I was shocked! My employee told me that he had ‘lost face,’ because he probably felt I had assumed he could not afford to treat us. This was a unique experience for me! Overall, Chinese people are more sensitive when it comes to their self-esteem. You must be very careful to show your respect to the other party through your words and actions, and give them face.”

For Ho, though, he says he does not care so much about gaining face himself. Contrary to the research conclusion, he does take pride in being an extrovert, believing that this quality — together with his friendliness and ability to have smooth interpersonal relationships — has greatly helped him achieve career success.

Bracing Risks off the Beaten Path

Besides the “counter-intuitive” finding that an extrovert is less likely to succeed as an entrepreneur in the Chinese society, the study also reveals that work experience, when compared with other factors, does not play a significant role in contributing to entrepreneurial success. This is contrary to the popular belief that the more work experience an entrepreneur has, the more successful he or she will be.

Why is that so? According to researchers, the key contributor of entrepreneurs’ success comes from entrepreneurial traits, such as entrepreneurial spirit, versatility, ambition, judgment and risk propensity. “Those who possess the so-called entrepreneurial spirit may see things as opportunities, while the rest may see the same things as threats, regardless of how much work experience they may have,” they wrote.

Insights from Entrepreneurs

A good example is Stanley Chu, founder and chairman of the Adsale Group, who started his company with a few friends when he was relatively green in the job market and had very little capital. According to him, it was the macro environment — the launch of China’s Open Door Policy in the late 1970’s — that allowed his company to grow to become the first and largest of its kind within a short period of time. He believes that having a sharp eye to identify the best window of opportunity is a crucial quality for a successful entrepreneur.

“It is very important for start-up companies to identify the big trends,” he says. “The windows of opportunities often don’t last very long. Once you are riding on the waves, you can then choose a niche to specialize in.”

Another example is Steve Lau, Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of China Fortune Holdings Limited. As a young fresh graduate working for a division of Hutchinson Whampoa in the late 1980’s, he saw the potential of telecom infrastructure development in China during his business trips there. While no one paid any attention to Nokia, then a small company unknown in Asia, he had the eyes for its great potential and the guts to take the risk and start his own company to distribute Nokia products in China. His business expanded so much that he decided to turn the company public.

“Doing the right thing at the right time really helps to propel you to succeed,” says Steve Lau. “In my case I have made several critical moves in my career that were right. For me, I always believe in being the first comer and going into a field that is less established, than getting in at the end of the queue of something that’s already well-established. It’s about seeing the potential and making risks.”

Education Helps

While work experience is not a prerequisite for entrepreneurial success, a good education can be a very good predictor of success, particularly in the areas of financial attainment, social status and career satisfaction. This is in line with the overarching emphasis of the Chinese society on attaining a solid education—and quite different from what is being portrayed and often mythicized in the Western media, such as high-school dropouts starting their businesses and becoming billionaires. At the same time, this suggests that those mysterious figures of self-made billionaires — whether Chinese or Western—who have only a meager education and humble background may be atypical examples of successful entrepreneurs.

Males Dominate the Scene

Perhaps not too different from the West, gender plays a significant role in China in determining entrepreneurial success. But in China, a male entrepreneur is overwhelmingly more likely to succeed — especially in the area of monetary rewards—than a female entrepreneur. The study’s authors believe that female entrepreneurs may face barriers to career success that do not exist for their male counterparts due to the fact that a masculine value system has developed in the Chinese society over thousands of years.

Besides gender, other demographic details studied by the CUHK researchers reveal that most of the successful entrepreneurs are aged 50 or above and married. This is predictable under the Chinese patriarchal social framework, but counters the stereotypical image of young, single entrepreneurs in their 20’s or 30’s making “overnight” successes.

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