Choosing the right recruitment agency in China

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Peter Arkell shares his views on choosing the right recruitment agency for your business in China.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited by the Shanghai Enterprise Collective (SEC) to lead a discussion on how to select the right recruitment provider in China.

The SEC is a terrific group of energetic Australian business people in Shanghai. They emerged from a small business working group in AustCham Shanghai to form a collaborative community of Australian business people who have an entrepreneurial spirit. They remain a lively part of AustCham Shanghai, yet have an energy and drive that helps them to stand on their own. In fact, they are a fine example of how a Chamber of Commerce can effectively facilitate different segments of the broader community to come together.
The SEC meets regularly in the AustCham offices in central Shanghai. Their business interests range across all manner of enterprises, from IT to advisory to manufacturing, property, logistics, fashion and many others. They are a really diverse group and yet find that they can provide mutual support through their collaboration.
Broadly speaking, this sense of community cooperation has been a feature of doing business in China that I have really enjoyed. Certainly I have not seen such a spirit in other markets in which I have lived and worked.
So, the SEC’s regular meetings give the members a chance to kick around ideas as well as deal with frustrations that they might be experiencing. It is useful to have this sort of forum to let off a bit of steam. Managers in bigger corporations often have the support within their organisation to deal with these issues, so the SEC can fill that gap for those who have leaner operations on the ground in Shanghai.
As a headhunter with a presence in China over the past decade, I was delighted when the SEC asked me to participate in one of their gatherings at which hiring talent was to be the topic. A number of the group had their personal “horror” stories or simply frustrations, so this gathering was a chance to review how these had been tackled and to seek improved ways of identifying talent so that their businesses can grow.
It is interesting that the SEC prefer an open dialogue around a table than a lecture presentation with all of the slides followed by a Q&A session. Although not surprising that this is their preferred style, given their collaborative model.
It was remarkable for a couple of things. Firstly the willingness of these entrepreneurial, cost conscious business people to engage recruitment companies to assist in their search for talent. Secondly for their frankness and open discussion of the matter.
As a headhunter, I had expected a group such as this to be more inclined to DIY recruiting. But many in the room had engaged recruitment firms in China and often on a retained basis. Because it had often been an unsatisfactory outcome or negative experience, they had decided to have such a discussion.
My personal view is, not surprisingly, that the best recruitment outcomes are from a search firm that is the client’s partner in the assignment. The model of contingent or “success-only” fee structures can deliver an outcome, but it is not the result of thorough research, project managed processes that are focused on discovering the best candidate. My more than 30 years in the recruitment business, as a provider and consumer, has demonstrated to me that a retained assignment ensures that both sides are committed to the project in a partnership that is focused on the best outcome.
I think that there are three drivers when a company is seeking to hire new talent, Attraction, Risk Management and Reward. If decisions about the selection of the right search firm are based on these three factors, then you have made a major step towards finding the right person.
When we are selling a product or a service we clearly understand the notion of Attraction. What are the features that will attract the buyer? However, we sometimes neglect to think through the features of an opportunity to work for our businesses. A line that I use when thinking about what attracts talented Chinese people to a client’s company is “does it satisfy the 3 F’s?” The three F’s are Famous Foreign Firm. Many Chinese people are generally very careful in the way that they plan their careers. So choosing a new employer is not always just about the money. It is also about building their experience and making forward career steps. Working in a foreign company can be a vicarious international experience.

Risk Management
Risk management is also something that is critical to our general management. It cannot be neglected in the hiring process. From the writing of selection criteria and position descriptions to selecting a recruitment company with which to partner. These are all important factors to take into account, before the first candidate has even been met. A handy mantra to have in mind as you weigh up risk, be it in deciding on your recruitment company partner or selecting a candidate, is “past performance is the best indicator of future behaviour”.
And Reward is a multi-edged proposition too. Money is rarely the sole driver that will be influencing a candidate’s decision to join your company. Being rewarded by getting the right candidate is a matter of putting down clearly what the key criteria for your position will be and being able to clearly express, not only these criteria, but also the culture, values, opportunities and challenges into which you will be immersing this person. Getting these right is a key to being rewarded with a new employee who will make the contribution to your business that will bring you success.
These were just memory jogs for me as we kicked around the broader discussion at that AustCham Shanghai SEC gathering. And it is only one topic of a multiple number of issues that the SEC have been considering and collaborating on with each other. The SEC in AustCham Shanghai is a terrific example of how an Australian business community can work with and support each other. As a Board Director of AustCham Shanghai, I would encourage any business, big or small, that has an entrepreneurial bent, to engage with the SEC. 
*Peter Arkell is the Managing Director, Asia for Swann Global, a leading executive search, recruitment and organisational development consulting practice with a global focus on the Natural Resources and Industrial Sectors. Peter has more than 30 years experience in the recruitment industry with a particular focus on China. He is a Director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and the Global Mining Association of China (GMAC) in Beijing. Peter is the Chairman of the Oriental Mining Club, a group that facilitates engagement between the Chinese and the international mining communities.
For more information on getting involved with the SEC contact AustCham Shanghai:


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