By Justin Shuttleworth
“Time eases all things.” -Sophocles
I spent four years as a sales manager in mainland China, doing business in some of the largest cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. Those four years seemed to sail by very quickly. My company’s primary product was a world-class air purifier and business was good, as anyone who reads today’s China air pollution headlines can imagine. Although time seemed to move quickly when I was over there, in retrospect, quite the opposite was true when I was trying to close an important sale! This phenomenon was most apparent when I was making deals with local Chinese companies. Put simply, the Chinese business community had a different way of valuing time than did their Western counterparts.
“We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths; In feelings, not in figures on a dial.” -Phillip James Bailey
Before I elaborate, let’s fast forward to my present life.
Last week I was invited to attend a performance of a local community orchestra. I am not normally fond of amateur ensembles. However, a friend of mine was playing. This friend knew I was partial to classical music. I found it difficult to decline my friend’s earnest invitation so I accepted, despite my hectic schedule. Frankly I was not looking forward to the experience. It had been a busy week and my mind was inundated with tasks left yet unfinished. I felt I didn’t have time to relax and enjoy.
After I took my seat and exchanged pleasantries with a few people, I immediately reached for my smartphone. I unlocked the phone, peered down at the screen, and saw the dreaded “No Signal” icon. Having few alternatives, I settled in to listen to the concert. For several minutes I shifted uncomfortably on the worn plastic bench. Nevertheless, I made an effort to listen attentively even as my eyes wandered through the junior high school auditorium that had been transformed into a makeshift concert hall.
Perhaps opening the night’s program with a march, the first movement of the English Folk Song Suite by Ralph Vaughn Williams, just added to my sense of anxiousness and agitation, but as the intermezzo My Bonny Boy began, I found myself relaxing. Sometime later, the orchestra attempted the Opening to Beethoven’s VII. No one would claim the orchestra’s performance was particularly sharp. A person could however, observe that the orchestra was putting a lot of effort into their performance. The strain on each musicians face was clear as they were struggled to master the incredibly difficult piece. I found myself caught up in their efforts. By the time the evening’s program was winding down the orchestra’s expressions had changed from strained to merry. The program closed with a piece the group knew very well. Because I had been able to relax and lose myself in the moment, I could hardly remember what my mind was preoccupied with prior to the engagement.
“It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste.” -Henry Ford
In the West we treat time as currency. How many times have you heard, “time is money,” or something similar? Entrepreneurs and leaders of the past such as Henry Ford and Benjamin Franklin have instilled a sense of urgency in our sense of time management, echoing the assembly line of the Industrial Revolution. Every moment we are not pro-actively working on a particular project or task is often viewed as wasted. Multitasking and efficiency are the name of the game and the end is success. This is not to say the Chinese don’t multitask or lack efficiency in any way. Anyone who has watched the skylines of Beijing or Shanghai mushroom in the last couple decades as a result of the skyrocketing Chinese economy can attest to the real speed at which the Chinese business community can operate once the decision to proceed is made.
“Let every man be master of his time.” -William Shakespeare
It is not how we use time that differentiates Western and Chinese culture and business practices. It is how we value time that often can lead to misunderstandings. In mainland China’s “socialist market economy” or “mixed economy,” personal savings rates often exceed 30% of household income, while in the United States, after years of negative balance sheets, personal savings rates have recently risen to around 3.5%. This fundamental difference in savings and spending habits is carried over into time management practice as well. In China and other East Asian countries, time is used to cultivate and build relationships like a seed planted for harvest. In the West, on the other hand. we view time as a liquid asset that must flow in order to thrive and grow. Understanding this difference is key to creating a mutually beneficial business arrangement.
The reasons for the methodical and often time-consuming decision process within many state-owned and privately-owned Chinese firms are as diverse as the 56 distinct minority groups and 1.4 billion people who inhabit the People’s Republic of China. For millennia, Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist traditions have all taught the virtues of patience and considerate thought. More recent history also has an influence: after the devastation of years of protracted instability and civil conflict culminating in World War II, mainland China would struggle for the next thirty years just to feed and clothe its people. Therefore, any hasty decision made with family or business finances not only risked capital but could have had much more grim implications. These lessons are never far from the minds of the older generation in mainland China, and it is these same men and women who are typically in charge of making decisions.
“Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” –Jorge Luis Borges
Therefore, my advice to any Westerner seeking to close a deal in mainland China is as follows: Doing business with the Chinese business community is far more akin to a marathon than a dash. The race can often seem as long and slow as the Yangtze River, but this is what separates the professionals from the amateurs: true champions know how to pace themselves in order to achieve their goals.
Justin lived and worked in the Middle Kingdom from 2006 to 2010 as a sales manager for a high-end Western brand, doing business in some of the largest cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.