There is NO next-best thing to being here

Wangjing Gardens, 23/F

Looking over Northwest Beijing

1414 hrs.

As we watch these global arguments around whether heads of state should come to China for the Olympic opening ceremonies, another question rears its head in the shadows: where are all of the CEOs? And not just around the Olympics, but generally?

There has been a noticeable dropoff in the visibility of the multinational CEO in China. Part of this is the result of growing restrictions on the time national leaders spend in the presence of non-Chinese business executives, which itself is partly the result of the falling priority Chinese policymakers assign to foreign investment.

I sense, however, that there is more to it than this. Market access is no longer as problematic as it once was. Corporate focus has shifted to the day-to-day conduct of business, and many executives have likely convinced themselves that it is not as important to come to China as it once was.

One immediate example: as Apple opens their first China store in Beijing this week, Steve Jobs could not be bothered to decamp beautiful metropolitan Cupertino to attend the opening, much to Apple’s loss. (We in the Hutong fervently hope that this is not for health reasons, and if it is, respectfully withdraw the preceding comment.) But Apple is not the only guilty party. The CEO who regularly comes to China (i.e., more than once per year) is the exception, not the rule.

That by itself is shortsighted. But I submit that much more is needed.

Put your butt where your business is…or will be

I am a huge fan of self-education generally, and I think that learning about China via books, web sites, blogs [see my blogroll], magazines, podcasts and other formats is a huge help to give yourself a strong foundation, maintain a clear view of China’s evolving context, and stay current when you cannot be here.

For someone interested in China as a tourist or as an intellectual exercise, that and the occasional trip would be sufficient.

But for an individual who is counting on China as a significant chunk of his or her company’s future, simply popping in now and again isn’t enough. I discussed this at length with Christine Lu at China Business Network in a recent podcast, so I won’t repeat it all here, but two points bear discussing – one that I made in the chat, one that I thought of later.

First, such a long parade of CEOs have aped key phrases like “how important China is to our company” and “how committed we are – and I am personally – to China” that those words have become platitudes. Officials and Chinese consumers alike simply ignore them. If you want to make it clear you are committed to China, you have to stop talking and start doing.

The best way I can think of proving that – better even than a monetary investment – is physical location. If China is so important to your company, Mr. Chairman, then transfer the flag. Take advantage of modern technology and the host of magnificent places of lodging and living and move to China for a bit.

Is China 40% of your business? Can it become 40% of your business? Then pack the bags and come spend 4 months a year here. I guarantee you that the insights, relationships, and brand value you get in the process will make it well worth your while.

MBWA is not about frequent flyer miles

Second is a lesson from Tom Peters – the best way to run a business is to spend as little time as possible at headquarters. Peters called it “managing by walking around.” To Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, it meant four-and-a-half days a week on the floors and stockrooms of his stores and distribution centers. To my dad, it meant spending about six hours a day on the factory floor, and most of the rest with customers.

To an executive running a global business today, it means getting on the plane and renting long-stay suites in countries that may not offer the creature comforts you’re used to. Suck it up. Sure, you have great people running your offices, branches, and subsidiaries around the world. This is not about them. This is about you having an instinctive feel for the market so that your smart people on the ground can spend their time winning and keeping business, not giving you an extended course in China 101.

Elsewhere on the net

I also had a chance to talk to ChinaONTV about the China ICT conference, where I was a substitute moderator. Not quite as insightful an interview, but I really enjoyed my time at the conference and thought it stood out above a lot of the local tech confabs. Try this link if you’re in China, and this one if you’re not.