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Commencement advice to all my “师弟” and “师妹”: What you’ve learned matters, but learning to be professional is important too

Once I recommended one of my friends for a job in my company. I knew her personally and believed that a very smart girl like her should have no problem getting the job. However, when I saw her wearing a pair of Converse All-Stars to the job interview, I knew immediately that she would have trouble getting people to take her seriously for the position. Dressing properly for a job interview is basic common sense, but surprisingly many young Chinese still don’t get it.

My friend’s case is not isolated. Over the years, I have heard many of my foreign friends complain that their Chinese colleagues are “unprofessional.” Of course, there is the question of just what “professionalism” even means. It could simply mean small details like shaking hands firmly and looking at people in the eye when talking to them. It could also mean dressing appropriately for a particular job. For example, if you are a teacher you probably should not wear jeans or an evening gown to work. Professionalism could also be taking initiative at work without always worrying about “this is not my job” or making constructive suggestions and solutions  to your boss rather than just complaining or whining about the problems.

To be fair, this isn’t only an issue for young Chinese. Many young people around the world face this kind of challenge when they start to have real jobs. However, I feel that Chinese young professionals have a steeper learning curve about professionalism compared to their peers in European countries and in the US.

First, unlike many American kids who work at part-time jobs during their summer vacations or after school or participate, many young Chinese have never worked until the day they find an internship in college or their first job after graduation.  They don’t know how to cooperate and collaborate with their co-workers or negotiate with their bosses regarding salary. It also doesn’t help being an only child in the family without siblings to teach us the need to compromise and share.

There’s also an issue of family cultural capital.  Like many people in their generation, my parents worked in state-owned factories. They went to work at 8:00 and came home at 5:00 every day for their entire life. They didn’t need to wear suits to work. As long as they didn’t want to push for a promotion, they could just have a stable easy time. The key was to listen to their bosses and not to make mistakes. Thus, nobody in that situation wants to take any risk or responsibility. Taking initiative is not encouraged either.

Consequently, many young Chinese don’t know how to behave in a professional environment. I was one of them. I had my first internship when I was a junior in university. I couldn’t figure out why my colleagues in the company were so mean and what I was doing wrong. That internship only lasted for ten days.

Luckily, a few years later, I had a great opportunity to intern at the Mayor’s office in Haverhill, a little city in the Massachusetts, and learned how to be professional from one of my colleagues. Jeff was a student at Harvard Kennedy School. At the age of 26, he was already a young politician in his home state, having been elected as a state legislator.  From watching him, I learned the importance of a professional appearance, how to answer phones, how to handle crazy visitors in the Mayor’s office and how to take initiative in the job.

When asked to do something, he never replied that it wasn’t his job so he didn’t need to work on it. Once a town visitor called the Mayor’s office randomly from a highway and asked for direction to Haverhill. It is unbelievable in China that you just call the Mayor’s office for directions. However, Jeff answered the phone, looked up Google maps and explained to the visitor nicely how to get to the town.

It’s not about “Chinese” practices versus “Western” professionalism either.  Professionalism is professionalism.  Do your job. Take initiative. Be forthright. Respect your co-workers and your clients. Don’t take short-cuts if it means harming your or your company’s reputation.  And yet, my experience working with many companies in China is that these basic standards are often lacking, and I worry that it’s hurting our competitiveness, especially as China seeks to move to a more service-orientated economy.

Over the years, I have been lucky to receive advice from my family and mentors on how to do my job right. I also see more and more young Chinese operate according to the same professional standard. I am in a company now with about a dozen foreign colleagues and a dozen Chinese colleagues working side by side. Ten years ago, it would be very difficult for an office like this to function. However, today everyone in this room works seamlessly together because everybody more or less follows the same protocols and standards for professionalism.

My concern is that many Chinese young people feel that success is solely dependent on credentials or guanxi. Sure these are important.  As is having a solid skill set.  After all, what you know and what you can do is the most important thing.  But without the right demeanor and attitude – the soft skills – then it will be hard to find people willing to give you a chance to show what it is you can do.

Good luck.

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