Learning to Network, China-Style

Learning to Network, China-Style

There are many good reasons for going to a top business school. The connections to major companies, the experience and insight of your fellow students, the academic rigor of your professors. But high on the list for many is the address book—admission to an international network of movers and shakers that will open doors around the world throughout your career.

For many business students, few address books are as difficult to crack as China, where the traditional form of networking is called guanxi. Any MBA hopeful who has grasped that the world’s second-largest economy could offer some very attractive opportunities after business school knows that understanding the intricate layers of guanxi is the first step in opening doors to China. And where better to learn about guanxi than in China itself?

Bruce Stening, a professor at Peking University’s BiMBAprogram, is a China veteran, and has developed his insight into how guanxi works on the “front line.” He points out that the concept is much more subtle than its usual Western interpretation of “who you know, rather than what you know.”

China is fundamentally a relationship-oriented society where interpersonal connections can pull together to create an extremely powerful network. What sets guanxiapart from the type of networks we are used to in the West is the strong sense of obligation inherent within it. Favors are always returned, possibly in the short term, possibly much, much later, but the initial act is never forgotten or left to go unrewarded.

The problem, of course, is how does a Westerner get his head around this?

Stening says that too many Westerners try to “fast-track” guanxi, ignoring the fact that a trust-based relationship such as this one can only be built over time. And then they commit the cardinal sin of failing to reciprocate a favor, thus undermining the whole bedrock of the network.

And as if this were not difficult enough, he explains that there are even more daunting pitfalls ready to catch the unprepared. Sometimes foreigners can get quickly out of their depth, slipping into situations where the reciprocation is unethical, even downright illegal. Or they can be simply suckered, led on by people who seem much more connected and influential than they really are.

So what is the solution?

For Stening, the only way to really get a grip on guanxiis by plugging into China itself. “The skills of successful networking have to be built over a long time, not through a 30-hour course,” he says. “However, on the BiMBA program we believe there are a number of ways in which international students can be formally introduced to the subject, beginning with lectures on Confucianism. By immersing them in the Chinese context, they gradually begin to appreciate how it works in practice, starting with their own relationships with Chinese members of the class.”

It’s something globally minded MBA students just can’t afford to ignore, because without building their skills in networking, the future international business leaders who will one day work with China simply won’t achieve their objectives nearly as well as they otherwise might.

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