One of the most common questions I'm asked by Western professionals and clients coming to China is ‘'how long will it take me before I can be a successful leader in China? I came from the U.S. [for example] and had been a leader, I thought working in China would be really easy, but after getting here I find it’s difficult.’
My answer is quite simple.
Most Westerners who come here have had leadership experience - they've taken courses, might have an MBA, or received training internally at their companies. But all of what they learned there is not going to be that transferrable to China.
As a rule of thumb I think it works like this: the first year of Westerner's assignment in China, they probably think they know more than they do, but during that year is when they also learn that they don’t know enough. It’s during the second year that they really start to get down to business. By then they’ve learned more about China and can nicely blend with what they learned the first year about China with practices they bring from their home country.
The problem is that many expatriate assignments are for three years, and so in the third year people are sometimes lost because they’re thinking of what their next assignment might be.
Therefore, I’ve often recommended that an expatriate assignment in China, especially for a leader, be more like five years rather than three years. By following this approach, the expat should get at least three very productive years out of the five.