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Winning the War for Talent in China's "New Normal"

10/6/2016 Linda Ye Zhang
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Winning the War for Talent in China's New Normal

After years of runaway economic expansion, China has settled into a “new normal” driven by lower economic growth, higher costs, stricter regulations, and the disruptive pressures of e-commerce. As a result, companies operating there are finding it ever more challenging to attract the leaders they need. Thriving in this environment will require executives to recalibrate not only their business strategy but also their approach to talent recruitment and management.

In theory, additional talent should be available as growth slows in sunset industries such as heavy industry and low-value manufacturing for export. Yet leaders of multinational corporations (MNCs) in China still consistently cite talent among their top concerns due to a shortage of skilled workers and high attrition rates. 

China’s demographic trends explain some of this challenge. Workforce numbers are declining as the one-child generation starts to enter the management pool. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, from 2014 to 2015 the number of workers aged 16 to 59 fell by nearly 5 million people, its biggest decline ever.1 In addition, the continued exodus of educated professionals seeking opportunities outside of China in search of better air quality and lifestyles drains the talent pool further. In 2014, for example, more than 76,000 Chinese were awarded permanent residency status in the United States, up by more than 4,200 from the previous year.2 While this number is small when viewed against the nearly 800 million–strong Chinese workforce, it is a telling indicator nonetheless. Collectively, these trends provide some insight into the growing gap between demand and supply of experienced executives.

The local labor pool is improving, but competition is intensifying

The quality of local executives has risen rapidly in recent years, with candidates touting improved educational qualifications, language ability, and management skills. In our experience, MNCs in some sectors are accelerating their efforts to localize the leadership of China operations. We find that more than 50% of the lead positions with jurisdictional authority over China are now filled by Chinese citizens, many of whom also serve as executive officers within their global business.

Polly Yip, head of human resources for KPMG China, notes that local leadership is essential for understanding the Chinese business environment and regulatory requirements. Accordingly, many global organizations have adjusted their executive teams over the past decade. “From a professional services perspective, KPMG is doing the right thing to localize most positions,” Yip says. 

The entry of many Chinese companies, both state-owned and private, into the global arena has intensified the competition for top leaders with the right skill set. For many years, Western MNCs were the employer of choice for talented Chinese executives. Now many Chinese companies—in particular, privately owned ones—are the more sought-after employment option. As recently as 2012, Apple, a Western company, topped the list of most attractive employers for students in several disciplines. By 2015, however, Chinese brands had taken the top position in all areas except health and medicine.3 In recent months, Alibaba, Baidu, Huawei, and Xiaomi have all made headlines by poaching leaders from global competitors. With this heightened demand, the need for qualified executives will continue to rise as competition for talent shifts into high gear in the coming years.

This transformation is under way partly because forward-looking Chinese companies have recognized the value of talent management (for more about how Chinese companies approach HR, see “Prioritizing HR to succeed in China”). Many leaders seem to have gotten the message and are beginning to reward employees based on their performance, provide long-term career opportunities, and offer a greater degree of autonomy and decision-making authority. As evidenced by the experience of privately owned enterprises, companies that embrace the importance of these factors will find it easier to attract and retain talent. 

In addition to these value-adding offerings, local companies that reach global scale can offer access to senior management roles overseas that might not be available to Chinese executives working for an MNC.

New skills needed

The most sought-after skills in China’s new normal economy are evolving rapidly. A successful China business leader needs to have the right mix of local and global experience, gravitas, and the ability to work well with a wide range of colleagues. However, companies are also seeking seasoned managers who can adapt as business models in multiple sectors are disrupted by fast-moving technologies, from e-commerce and the Internet of Things to artificial intelligence. In our experience, these skills often don’t go hand in hand.

Finding executives who can navigate these trends is increasingly vital. HSBC projects that China’s online-to-offline market—for example, mobile apps that connect customers to local restaurants or process payments—is worth $150 billion and currently has just 4% penetration.4 Digital giants such as Alibaba and have been adding online-to-offline services to their portfolios by investing in online platforms and physical retailers. New online services are also thriving, with mobile payment penetration vaulting from zero to 25% of the population from 2011 to 2015.5

With innovation and digital transformation on practically every company’s agenda, managers must also be sensitive to the shifting perceptions and loyalties of China’s new breed of digital consumer (see sidebar, “Reaching consumers in China’s new normal”).

Brands that were popular a few years ago are rapidly becoming unfashionable. Managers must think quickly and creatively in order to transform traditional brands to meet the needs of today’s consumers. In a recent roundup of the most laudable traits of China’s business leaders, the Harvard Business Review highlighted a willingness to “jump into white spaces, undeterred by lack of experience.”6 B2B leaders, then, should look beyond their boundaries and adopt a B2C perspective to anticipate and keep abreast of evolving trends and changing customer behavior.

The dynamic market means more and more executives are studying trends in other sectors. Consequently, the movement of talent in China across sectors is increasingly common. As Chinese companies grow in size and sophistication, they are also becoming more successful at bolstering their recruiting efforts with mid-career professionals; these people have been trained by MNCs and are now competing for the same pool of talent across disciplines. Recent cases of executives moving from traditional fast-market consumer goods companies to online platform businesses demonstrate how local enterprises can win over seasoned MNC managers.

Manage up, manage down

Finally, the new normal dictates that the leaders of an MNC’s China businesses must be skilled at managing up as well as down. When China contributed only a small, albeit faster-growing, proportion of global sales, the general managers of an MNC’s China operations could run things more or less as they saw fit without drawing too much attention from headquarters. Now, with China contributing a much larger proportion to the bottom line of many MNCs—our survey of senior executives in the Asia Pacific region found nearly 40% reported that “China revenues represent 10% to 30% of their company’s total global earnings”—headquarters is likely to take a much more active role. China managers must now justify their actions and hew closer to global practices and standards while simultaneously keeping the local team motivated.

With this shift, China managers must be sensitive to employee job satisfaction and ensure the local team stays competitive. In the current volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment, global strategies may not be easily transferable to local situations. Leaders, then, need to have the skills to influence, persuade, and lobby stakeholders as well as the knowledge of cultural nuances to ensure staff feel respected and fulfilled.

Talent strategies for China’s new normal

Many MNCs are realizing that they need to upgrade their approach to people management in China. Three strategies can position MNCs to succeed in China’s new normal.

Broaden your search

External talent can bring new ideas and aptitudes to reenergize people, strategies, and systems. KPMG understands the value in looking outside traditional channels for this sort of experience. “In the past 10 years, we primarily sought people with backgrounds in financial services for our advisory service,” says Yip. “Now that we’re extending service lines and sectors, we will look to hire more and more candidates with experience in areas such as biotechnology, science, and engineering.”

Especially with the increasing importance of e-commerce, bringing in essential knowledge or skills from outside the industry is one way to build the required talent portfolio. In addition, allowing people to work outside their traditional roles can not only bring more diverse perspectives to a team but also enhance a position’s appeal.

Focus on corporate culture

In a new survey by Heidrick & Struggles of more than 150 senior executives in China,7 Chinese respondents picked “attractive culture” and “high quality of senior leadership” as the most important factors in making a company a good place to work—above “a competitive employment offer.” Indeed, monetary compensation consistently ranked below opportunities to enhance skills and advance careers.

But what exactly constitutes an attractive culture? According to the survey, Chinese executives emphasized the importance of an employer that recognizes high achievers and encourages new ideas and diverse thinking. In defining high-quality leadership, respondents placed a premium on corporate leaders who are charismatic, inspiring, and credible spokespeople for their companies.

Building an attractive culture has practical implications for the management of a company’s China operations. Global headquarters must work to understand the dynamic requirements of China’s new normal and, consequently, the kinds of pressures facing their managers on the ground. Rather than making decisions from afar, headquarters must give high-potential talent the latitude to move quickly.

Show a clear route to the top

Our survey data also indicate that to attract senior Chinese leaders, MNCs need to emphasize to potential hires that they will be able to reach the highest levels of the organization. Other research—including interviews conducted by Heidrick & Struggles for this article—suggests that many MNCs struggle to provide local candidates with a clear path up the ladder. Some executives cite a glass ceiling that causes local staff to build up experience at an MNC before leaving to join local organizations for more opportunity. MNCs, therefore, need to build stronger career paths for local staff to encourage them to stay at the company.

A more targeted approach to nurturing senior leaders should include regular performance appraisals, clear pathways to promotion, and specific development targets such as skills building or overseas assignments. “Especially for high-performing talent, you need to show them you listen, care, and understand their career aspirations,” notes Yip. “They need to know precisely what it takes to be a partner or director.”

To address concerns of talent and enhance loyalty, global leaders should put mechanisms in place to avoid unconscious bias in hiring decisions. For instance, companies could require local candidates in China to be included on the list for top jobs. Giving these employees their due takes commitment as well as a focus on local performance. By understanding cultural differences, leaders can better grasp the challenges of local managers and learn how to communicate more effectively, which can empower staff to perform their best and outpace local competitors. Addressing cultural nuances, taking a personal interest in staff development, and adapting expectations and goals is likely to be the ticket to success.


China’s economy is changing rapidly thanks to the growing purchasing power of the expanding middle class and the digital disruption of multiple sectors. It is little wonder that competition for top Chinese talent—especially in fast-growing China-based companies—is becoming ever more intense. MNCs that can build strong leadership teams and an attractive culture—while demonstrating the opportunities for advancement to high-caliber local talent—will be more likely to attract the leaders they need to compete in the next phase of China’s economic transformation.

Reaching consumers in China’s new normal

Over the past decade, China’s growth has been based primarily on a robust platform of low-cost export manufacturing and massive investments in infrastructure. As costs have risen and China’s economy has diversified, the country’s leaders have set out to rebalance the economy by shifting toward growth that is fueled more by domestic consumption.

China’s consumers have long been a subject of intense interest due to the sheer size of the population. McKinsey projects that China’s middle class will expand dramatically, to 630 million people by 2022, with the urban middle class consuming goods and services valued at $2.8 trillion.8 Young consumers will account for much of this activity as major purchasers of home and lifestyle products, leisure and travel, and personal services.

The role of e-commerce is also an essential element of reaching the new middle class. Smartphones are ubiquitous and the reach of platforms such as Alibaba and Taobao is unrivaled. On November 11, 2015 (Singles’ Day in China), for example, Alibaba sold $5 billion worth of goods in 90 minutes and a record $14.3 billion throughout the day.

If you enjoyed this article, we recommend reading:

   Prioritizing HR to Succeed in China What Are Your Employees Really Saying About You? Who Do China CEOs Report To?

About the author

Linda Zhang ( is partner-in-charge of Heidrick & Struggles’ Shanghai office and leads the firm’s Human Resources Officers Practice in China.


1 Laurie Burkitt, China’s working-age population sees biggest-ever decline,” Wall Street Journal, January 22, 2016.

2 Murong Xuecun, “China’s middle-class anxieties,” New York Times, May 10, 2016.

3 “China’s most attractive employers—Trends and rankings.”

4 Trefis, “Why is Alibaba strengthening its O2O (online to offline) presence?,” Forbes, December 31, 2015.

5 Daniel Zipser, Yougang Chen, and Fang Gong, “Here comes the modern Chinese consumer,” McKinsey & Company, March 2016.

6 Thomas Hout and David Michael, “A Chinese approach to management,” Harvard Business Review, September 2014.

7 Heidrick & Struggles, “Employer branding in China,” 2016 (forthcoming).

8 Gordon Orr, “Preparing for China’s middle-class challenge (Part 1),” McKinsey & Company, March 31, 2014; Dominic Barton, Yougang Chen, and Amy Jin, “Mapping China’s middle class,” McKinsey Quarterly, June 2013.

Linda Ye Zhang Partner-In-Charge - Shanghai +86 21 61361988