How do you snare a top job in Asia?

Scoring a job in Asian markets requires cultural awareness, flexibility and more.

Many professionals see booming Asian markets as the ideal place to land an exciting, high-paying job that also enables them to enjoy the cultural experiences of one of the world’s fastest-growing regions.

There are potential pitfalls, however, when seeking or filling a position in a foreign land.

While most professionals understand the rituals and expectations when targeting a job in their home country, the rules can shift when they cross borders.

They must appreciate the different nuances of business and life in diverse Asian countries.

What about languages and resumes? How important are networks? Seemingly small things can make the difference between success and failure in the Asian workforce.

INTHEBLACK asks three regional experts for their tips to impress recruiters and avoid mistakes when applying for a job in another territory.

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Edward Smith


Edward Smith

China-based business leader, Australia China Alumni Association

Workforce experience and excellence inevitably win out over academic skills in the Chinese employment market, according to Edward Smith.

“The big thing that counts in this part of the world, particularly in China, is experience,” he says. “It’s great to have five MBAs, but if you don’t have any work experience you’re not really of that much use to anyone.”

For senior foreign executives, there is a chance to benefit as fast-growing Chinese companies bring in high-level talent to help them manage that development.

“So it’s about solid experience working in another part of the world and being able to bring that into the China market and hit the ground running,” Smith says.

Younger, less-experienced workers may have to enter in a lower-paid role and “get amongst it and learn quickly on the job”.

While Chinese language skills are a clear asset for foreigners, Smith says they are not essential.

A Mandarin-speaking executive will clearly be eligible for certain roles that a non-Chinese speaker cannot fill, but there remains demand for talented Western managers who are simply good at, for instance, running a factory.

“In that case the language skills are not the key,” Smith says. “They find a [personal assistant] who speaks English well and they work extremely closely with them and make that work for them.”

An international perspective and cultural sensitivity will help expatriates get and keep jobs. Cultural nuances can be difficult to grasp.

For example, it is common in Western countries for senior and junior executives to engage in robust debate around a board table, and to agree to disagree. Typically in Asia such a discussion would occur privately, Smith notes.

Foreigners should be able to engage respectfully with their Asian counterparts. Chinese executives and workers can usually tell if an expat is more comfortable engaging with his foreign counterparts.

That can be detrimental in both a job interview (if a candidate addresses foreign panel members and ignores their Chinese colleagues) or in a boardroom meeting.

“Treating people very equally is important,” says Smith, who adds that this is especially critical in mainland China, given the need to network effectively with powerful government contacts to smooth the path to success.

Smith highlights the employment cultural divide between Asia and the West with a tale that is part joke, part reality.

If a boss asked Western colleagues to help him paint his house on the weekend, Smith says about half would turn up and the others would decline and expect no repercussions.

In China, about 95 per cent would volunteer to paint and ask, “Should we buy the paint, too?”.

With the mainland Chinese economy growing at a slower pace, Smith says some sectors are struggling and job prospects can be patchy.

“It’s about looking at which sectors of the economy are doing well and tailoring your experience and skills to that sector.”

He advises anyone seeking a great job in China to liaise with entities such as chambers of commerce, alumni groups and large, well-connected organisations, such as CPA Australia, to build networks.

Edward Smith is the founder and director of the Australia China Alumni Association, which has more than 9000 alumni across mainland China. He is a board director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce, Beijing, has worked in China for more than 20 years, and also runs the private Beijing Consulting Group.

Pallavi Anand


Pallavi Anand

Director, Robert Half Hong Kong

Brushing up on your soft skills may be the key to getting a great job in Asia, says Pallavi Anand.

A recent report from Robert Half in Hong Kong highlights the importance of productivity gains for Asian companies.

The bigger companies, in particular, are emphasising soft traits such as leadership, people management, effective communication and problem solving, rather than the typical focus in small- to mid-sized firms on technical skills.

“[Soft skills] are equally, if not more, important in larger organisations, especially when it comes to managing cross-border projects, leading high-performing teams and succession planning,” Anand says.

For the best careers in Asia, she says it makes sense to target the hot sectors – which is why many expatriates are seeking jobs in thriving areas such as financial services (including risk, compliance, finance and technology specialists) and commerce and industry (covering accounting, finance, credit, tax and treasury professionals).

Recruiters have plenty of candidates, however, and look favourably upon people with relevant working experience in Asia.

“It is, therefore, advantageous to have contacts in the region and exposure to the working style and way of life [in Asia],” Anand says.

An affinity with cultural differences in Asia is a major asset for foreign executives and managers. “They should also be honest and prepare case studies that demonstrate their ability to lead a multiracial team or show how they have managed projects that crossed cultural and national boundaries.”

Do not forget that Asia is a dynamic and diverse business market. Recruiters will have different demands from country to country depending on market trends.

For example, Anand says Robert Half research shows that Hong Kong chief financial officers pay more attention to candidates who possess an understanding and ability to deal with risk compared with their Singapore counterparts.

In contrast, strong interpersonal skills rank as a more important attribute in Singapore than Hong Kong.

According to Anand, the days of special employment packages for expatriates are drawing to a close, with most new hires being offered local terms.

“Being an expat does not automatically mean you command a big salary,” she says. “You will need skills that are in demand.”

Anand reports rising demand for regulatory and compliance specialists as companies navigate unprecedented regulatory shifts while seeking to grow their core business.

That frees up other financial services professionals to concentrate on their areas of expertise and pursue higher profitability.

“Compliance and regulatory specialists are among the most highly sought after skill sets today,” she says.

The trend for more companies to use temporary and contract professionals to gain flexibility and manage costs represents an opportunity for savvy candidates.

“Many candidates may not have considered temporary or contract work in the past, but now there are many compelling reasons to consider this as an option both for lifestyle and career reasons.”

Pallavi Anand is director of the Hong Kong office of Robert Half, a leading international specialised recruitment firm renowned for placing accounting, finance, banking and technology professionals. During her 10-year tenure at Robert Half, she has held a number of leadership positions in both Australia and Hong Kong. She currently manages all lines of businesses. 

Chris Mead


Chris Mead

Recruitment Executive, Hays Singapore

Chris Mead’s career story demonstrates that the best way to get your desired job in Asia is to be proactive.

A former commissioned officer in the Australian Army, Mead capitalised on his leadership, communication and technology skills after leaving the defence sector and started recruiting technology candidates for telecommunications roles.

That soon morphed into a full-time role in recruitment before he took the initiative to set up the Singapore office of international firm Hays.

Having spent a lot of time in South-East Asia during his army tenure, Mead decided to relocate to the area because of its global business opportunities.

Now a 14-year recruitment veteran, Mead says candidates eager to work in Asia have a head start if they have an affinity for the region’s diverse range of cultures.

Candidates should embrace the culture, not just chase a big pay packet, he says.

“Anyone coming from outside of the region, who is not a national of one of the Asian countries, needs to be respectful. In every country there are certain cultural sensitivities and it pays to be aware of those.”

Professionals seeking Asia-based roles should note that organisations are increasingly hiring people on a contractual basis in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, he says.

The change, typically involving nine- to 12-month contracts, is gaining greater acceptance among companies and employees alike.

Mead says candidates for jobs in Singapore and Hong Kong, in particular, should factor in the development as the likes of US, UK and European banks seek a more flexible workforce.

“The employer, if you like, is trying before they buy. Some of those contracting people do get converted into permanent jobs. But from a candidate’s view they are also trying out the organisation as well in that contractual role.”

Mead says while there is strong demand for good people in Asia, competition for roles is often intense. He advises maximising job prospects by setting a shortlist of desired industries and roles and then relocating to the region to test the market.

“It’s more than doubly difficult to secure a job in another country if you are not physically there.”

An internal promotion through a multinational company with Asian offices is a logical way to fast-track entry into the region, Mead says, with many companies offering internal mobility as a means of keeping highly qualified employees.

In terms of value-added skills, the requirement for Asian languages varies from country to country. While English is the official language in Singapore, strong business-level Mandarin can help in pan-Asia jobs based in that country.

English is usually sufficient in Hong Kong, strong Mandarin can be advantageous in mainland China, while Bahasa-Malaysia is an asset in Malaysia.

In Japan, Mead says unless you have impressive business-level Japanese “don’t even try” – stick with English.

The brief one-page resumes that are popular in the West do not work well for job applicants in Asia, while a 30-page bibliography of every life experience is equally a turn-off.

Mead advises a three- to four-page resume, including a snappy cover letter addressing how you can add value to the business.

As a parting message, Mead warns companies and job candidates against an expectation that success will come easily in the booming Asian economies.

“What works in another part of the world won’t necessarily work here and you need to be flexible, both in your personal approach and your company approach.”

Chris Mead is regional director of recruiting experts Hays in Singapore and Malaysia. A former commissioned officer in the Australian Army, he has been involved in the executive recruitment sector for 14 years.

Key takeaways

  • Highlight relevant Asian experience on resumes without overstating the roles.
  • Demonstrate sensitivity to Asian culture and practices.
  • Target hot spots such as banking and finance roles, and regulatory and compliance positions.
  • Use government and business networks to foster connections with decision-makers.

This article is from the September 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

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