Mainland China is still a candidate-led job market in which finance professionals are frequently enticed to change companies. But job searching in the PRC is by no means straightforward, especially if you’re more used to how things work in mature markets.
Having spent nine years recruiting in China, I’d like to share some home truths that candidates need to know.
A great many jobs go unadvertised in China, and this is particularly true for the type of high-end roles that non-local candidates are typically suitable for. This might be for reasons of confidentiality (if someone is being replaced, for example), or perhaps cost (the concept of paying for a recruitment service is still anathema to many employers China). Whatever the reasons, as a candidate, establishing a focused, wide-ranging network of business contacts and using this network to uncover “hidden” vacancies is even more vital in China than it is elsewhere.
Despite all these unadvertised jobs, recruiters remain important in China. According to a cross-sector survey produced by my company in December, more than 55% of new appointments in China were secured using the services of a recruitment businesses. There are literally thousands of such firms in China, and as a finance professional it pays to be targeted when choosing who to speak to. In China, make sure your communications with a recruiter aren’t only online. Make verbal contact from the outset, meet them in person and stick to one person at each firm. We often receive the same email sent 50 different times to 50 different colleagues at our firm. As well as being mildly amusing, this smacks of randomness and desperation: not how you want to appear.
Keep in mind that although (in an unregulated environment like China) there are many people who profess to be headhunters or ‘search consultants’, the truth is that many of these individuals in fact know the square-root of zilch about securing senior finance and corporate finance appointments.
So choose wisely: realise that the recruitment market is different from more developed markets: while there are far more recruitment firms operating per job vacancy in China, the overall quality and specialisation of these recruiters is low. Many have just a short tenure in the industry. However, among this sea of pretenders there are some accomplished recruiters in China, often with backgrounds in banking and finance, so do not give up hope if the first person you speak to is a lemon!
It is also wise to treat the good recruiters with respect. In China consultants don’t need to (and won’t) put up with pompous or arrogant candidates. It is perhaps an inconvenient truth in China that recruiters tend to ‘do business with’ people they like and get on well with; and nowhere is this sentiment truer than in the hiring of mid/senior finance and banking executives.
‘Less is more’ is the order of the day when it comes to CVs in China. I received a seven-page resume from a senior banker recently. It was packed full of extraneous information when, given his seniority, one, maximum two, pages would have sufficed. A characteristic of Chinese recruiting is that people (both line and HR managers) tend to zero in on matching very specific levels of experience. For example, we recently had a client decline a candidate who was well suited for the job simply because she had not taken or passed her last accountancy exam. The client felt it imperative to hire a qualified accountant, despite the fact that the qualification was actually quite unnecessary for the job. This contrasts with the West, where hiring authorities tend to be more interested in ‘who the person is’ – their values, beliefs and motivations.
The other common mistake that candidates tend to make in China is to misunderstand the importance and power that HR professionals wield within financial services organisations. Having spent half my career in Asia and half in Europe and the US, I can clearly see that the role of an HR person in the latter is more advisor, and in the former more "controller". I know of examples of relatively junior HR people knocking great candidates out of the race simply because the candidates didn't take the HR interview seriously enough.
Robert Parkinson is the founder and CEO of RMG Selection in Beijing.