September 25, 2011 7:45 pm

It’s the networking that counts

Four years ago I was considering my future. I had decided, out of all the possible degrees I could pursue, that I wanted to do an MBA.

On a trip to Beijing, I discovered that Tsinghua University offered the Tsinghua-MIT International MBA, a programme taught in English.

That was in 2007. I have now been working in Beijing for two years for Wogen Resources, a UK metals and minerals trading house. Since graduating I have travelled from Shandong to Xinjiang, Guangdong to Inner Mongolia and I have sat at many negotiation tables.

In China, business negotiation is about much more than just numbers. Reading your opponents, anticipating their moves and achieving a positive result for you both takes skill and stamina. With my MBA, I have the knowledge and confidence to go into meetings and achieve the right outcomes.

When deciding where to apply I put special emphasis on wanting to build connections with future Chinese business leaders and potential partners. Tsinghua has close ties with China’s business and political elite.

How could I go to a US business school for two years, for example, and then, fresh off the boat, hope to enter the China market successfully? A two-year, full-time MBA would give me the time to study and learn how people in China live, eat, work, think and interact. My plan was to get my MBA in China and then work for a multinational company, eventually establishing my own business.

At first, it was a strange experience studying in China without speaking Mandarin. I forced myself to take daily lessons for the first year. As time went by and I could communicate more, I started to unlock the world around me, in and out of the classroom. I cannot emphasise enough how not understanding the language will impede all you do in China.

Working late into the night with classmates on cases, I was exposed to the eastern attitudes to life and work, and the differences between the west and the east became increasingly apparent. In the west we are taught that time is short and meetings must be to the point, no wine with lunch, replace business travel with video­conferencing and conversation is business-focused.

In China, the prevailing approach is the opposite. Friendship is a prerequisite to business and not participating in such activities may harm one’s chances of closing a deal. A respectable golf handicap goes further than a smart tie.

The lessons learnt in Tsinghua have held me in good stead in my professional life and, I believe, I have become better at doing business in established western markets because I now place more emphasis on building relationships, using the phone instead of email and the preamble chat before the business discussion.

Foreigners with a Tsinghua-MIT IMBA are a rare breed and one which is not admittedly in the HR handbook of bulge-bracket banks, big four accounting or leading management consultancies. These companies have adopted a localised recruitment process – relying on local hires with a few expatriate managers.

I did not want to return to the UK where I had an offer from a boutique investment bank because there was no logic in such a move. Many of my classmates felt the same and were determined to remain in China to pursue their careers. The school’s career centre was helpful but the key ingredient was the drive to find opportunities through networking.

That is how I secured my job: in a bar I met a few Wogen employees on a business trip to China. When it became apparent I knew Mongolia well and could speak Russian, one of them suggested I go to Mongolia and write a report on mining. A year later, as I was approaching graduation, I did the same in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Both reports were judged to prove my worth and I was offered the job in China.

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