To Gweilo, or not to Gweilo

In the Hutong
Oggling the Thunderheads
1702 hrs.

In a profile of Francois Curiel, the Hong Kong-based Asia head for British auction house Christie’s, The Wall Street Journal’s Amy Ma focuses on the question of whether it is appropriate to have a white westerner (a “gweiloh,” or “foreign ghost” in Cantonese) running an the Asian arm of a western business.

Mr. Curiel responds that he wonders that himself sometimes, and that he works hard to remain humble and learn from his staff. Further, he notes that only 10 of his 130 staff in Hong Kong are non-Chinese, and that the Beijing and Shanghai offices are both 100% Chinese.

I wish Mr. Curiel the greatest success in Asia. Unfortunately, I think that in giving a politically correct answer he may have sacrificed an excellent opportunity to give the right one.

What’s Race Got to Do With It?

If we can ask “can a Gweilo” lead in Asia,” we should also be able to ask “can a Chinese lead in America,” “can a Filipino lead in France,” or “can an Indian lead in Russia?” It is unlikely you will hear such questions asked, however, for two reasons. First, in the west, to ask such a question would imply a lack of ability based on the ethnicity of the executive, and thus taint the questioner with a heady whiff of racism. Second, the highly-visible three-decade-long procession of otherwise promising non-Chinese executives who have come to China and failed has fostered a myth of Chinese exceptionalism, a belief that to succeed in China you must localize completely.

There are enough examples of executives who have come to China from Europe and North America over the years to prove that this is a canard. The record offers ample proof that, with the proper preparation, skills, attitude, and approach, non-Chinese executives can lead successful enterprises in China. I will not embarrass the individuals by mentioning names, but such executives have been integral to the success in China of companies like General Motors, BHP Billiton, Intel, Caterpillar, Boeing, BASF, Siemens, Nestle, SAP, Ogilvy & Mather and JWT, for starters.

It’s the Talent, Monsieur

It is time we stopped asking this question, and instead acknowledged that the ethnicity of the executive is far less relevant than the abilities of the individual and the internal culture of the corporation. Companies should be expected to understand the specific skills and attributes an executive will need to accomplish the company’s goals in a given location or circumstance, and to hire, train, promote, and retain accordingly. Corporate ethnic cleansing under the guise of localization is not a sustainable human resources strategy, especially as the compensation gap between local and international staff narrows.

If I were a Christie’s investor, bidder, client, or employee, it would be my fervent hope that no matter where in the world the auction house was operating that it was hiring people based not on their ethnicity, but on their skills, their professionalism, and their integrity. If such outstanding people were available locally, all the better. Any CEO who leads a global company should be able to say, with conviction, that localization for its own sake is foolhardy, and that the company hires employees based on talent, not on ethnicity, in China as it does everywhere else in the world.

Purely from a PR standpoint, think of how much more powerful a message Mr. Curiel would have sent had he looked the reporter in the eye and said “we hire the best people in our business in Asia without exception, and in following that policy we have wound up with only 10 non-Chinese in our entire Greater China operation. We see China as a gold mine of talent for our industry.”

There is no nation on Earth that possesses a monopoly on the best talent in a given field of commercial endeavor. Even the not-always-so-worldy members of the U.S. Congress recognize that, hence the existence of a little weapon of global competitiveness called the I-95 visa. The enterprise that ignores that truth does so at its own peril.

Cam

David, excellent piece. I looked at this issue myself in a blog post titled “Would China trust a laowai in a position of power?” (Link: http://www.zhongnanhaiblog.com/?p=392). I agree with the thrust of your argument, but find the reverse to be true, which is that Chinese corporations (especially SOEs) are more likely to hire Chinese senior managers than foreign senior managers. Conversely, here in Hong Kong, the head of the Securities and Futures Commission, Martin Wheatley, has resigned and will leave in a few weeks. Beijing has been vocal about the SFC finding a Chinese (or at least a Putonghua speaker) as Wheatley’s successor. Fortunately, Hong Kong has taken the path you advocate, which is to say it is looking solely at the person’s qualifications; it appears it is set to hire an executive from Australia.

David Wolf

Cam, thanks for the link. While the Red Mandarins here in the Northern Capital may be reluctant to admit it publicly, even they must know that the globe’s investors still carry a larger say in the affairs of the SFC than they do.