Coaching careers and company culture in China
Interview with Camiel Gielkens on coaching in China
My guest this time is Camiel Gielkens. We talk about coaching in China and about the coaching industry from the perspective of the coach and coachee. We also talk about self-development and leadership, as Chinese leaders are normally about 10 years younger than European leaders and therefore the challenges are quite different. In addition, we talk about how coaching can change company cultures and, for instance, reduce the attrition rate of employees, which is soaring in China.
Transcript of the podcast-episode: Coaching careers and company culture in China
Sabrina Weithmann: Camiel, please tell us why you spent time in China and what you did there?
Camiel Gielkens: I’ve been in China for 9 years but I just moved back to Amsterdam for my new role as CEO of Schouten & Nelissen, which is one of the leading consulting firms in training and development, including coaching. I moved to China 9 years ago to support my wife with her job in Shanghai and then built up my own career in China as well.
Sabrina: Did you have any connections with China before moving there?
Camiel Gielkens: I had global responsibility at a Dutch multinational company called Reed Elsevier. They are a publishing company for scientific information. I traveled a lot to Japan, Taiwan and China to meet clients and to work with our teams in the region. So I had been in the APEC region a lot before I moved there.
Sabrina: Did you know what you were going to do when you moved to China?
Camiel: Yes, I’m also a coach and in coaching we always say it’s about dancing in the moment. So I knew what I was going to do there before I went. But I only had a few weeks and I was already full of projects, so time moved really fast.
Sabrina: When you say full of projects, you mean having coachees in China already or were you working as a coach at that time?
Camiel: My background is in strategy consulting and in connecting strategies and people. And coaching is a big part of my approach. My first role was in a fashion company and I became the GM of their production area. This was mainly for Inditex, the holding company of Zara, Massimo Dutti, and I was streamlining the production. I work a lot with international teams to develop a shared vision. Asking a lot of questions was also a powerful approach to creating a different way of working.
After three years I moved to the south of China and started at my current company. Schouten had two offices in China; one in Shanghai and one in Beijing. And I became the CEO of that company in China. Later on I became responsible for the whole APEC region.
Sabrina: Were you also working as a coach then?
Camiel: I have always been involved as a coach, both with individuals and with teams. In China I really loved working with the local companies and worked a lot with Tencent and Huawei for example.
Sabrina: Can you tell us about what the Chinese market is like in terms of self-development or career development? Do they take a similar approach as we do in Europe? My assumption would be that working for Tencent is very different than working for a Chinese State-Owned company. Or is that changing and they have also adopted a certain approach towards career development?
Camiel: So first, let me say that China is so diverse that it’s difficult to generalize. What I see is that the average age of leaders in China is relatively young. On average, they are 10 years younger than the leaders I work with in Europe and the US. It means that people in their thirties have an insane amount of responsibility and leading divisions of hundreds of people, whilst in Europe, leaders are at least 45 years old with a little bit more of a formal background. This means they had leadership lessons at the business school or they know about situational leadership, coaching models, coaching styles and leadership.
But it’s different in China and there are relatively young people with an insane amount of responsibility. What I feel is that the Chinese have a sense of urgency to make things happen and that creates a very different environment for coaching. Many young Chinese often feel unsafe with leading in a company they have been working in for a long time.
Sabrina: Are those people approaching you themselves or is it mainly through the companies?
Camiel: Often through the companies. We often work a lot with these companies, for example with Mercedes, BMW and the Chinese companies I mentioned before. What I can see is the Chinese coachees have a big drive to grow and are open and willing to make that transformation. For me it’s about making a big step in your personal effectiveness. Because of their age and little experience, for example, they ask questions like: How do I structure or how do I do a performance review.
But later on they are able to touch the real essence of leadership. They then ask themselves who they want to be as a leader and what is their passion. That’s when I often see the real transformation happen; when they release the urge to structure or to control and really become the best leader they can be by opening up and being more authentic. That often creates more space for others to take the lead.
That’s the big shift I saw in China which has been happening over the last few years. I have been coaching a lot of leaders to create a different company culture that enbales companies to open up and allow more bottom up process, to really act as a whole.
Sabrina: This sounds like it’s mainly common to have coaching sessions or leadership programmes in internatonal companies. Is this also something for local Chinese companies? Because you mentioned only BMW, Mercedes and Tencent.
Camiel: The market in China is maturing very quickly and people from international companies often go to local companies later on. For example, they have been an HR director at Mercedes for three or four years and then after this period they move to a more local company and they bring all that knowledge and experience to these local companies. I’m often amazed at the level of professionalism in these local companies because they hire the best people in the market. So, usually what I see are these local companies that have international or very high growth ambitions and these have usually adopted a very open leadership style.
What I see in China is that people realize if you want to transform organizations, you need to start with your people. They need support and support must be more than just formal training or knowing the models. It’s really about you. And that’s where coaching comes in. I have seen a lot of interest in China for coaching, but also a lot of transformation happening through coaching. People are really willing to take it seriously and make it happen. Being a coachee requires a lot of vulnerability, openness, willingness to experiment and willingness to make mistakes, that’s all part of it.
Sabrina: When I first thought about coaching and China, I assumed that coaching ist not as common as it is here in Europe and I also thought that it is probably more difficult to integrate coaching as a part of leadership development.
Camiel: My experience so far was that the Chinese have a focus on long life learning and development. It’s also about the need to slow down because China is moving so fast that a lot of leaders are overwhelmed. I spoke to a lot of leaders who say after 5-10 years they are just exhausted and feel they are not creative. It took maybe 20 years in Holland or Germany since the 70’s to really mature, but in China that happens in 6-8 years and so it’s moving quickly because China’s market is also developing so quickly.
I see a big need for people to slow down. Coaching is an important way to slow down. However, it’s not just about knowledge, but also about the hard skills, structure and how to connect with colleagues. Questions like „how to align teams around the vision“ and „how to act as an example in your company“ are crucial.
Sabrina: Is „slowing down“ also related to showing weakness in China? In Germany and Europe, I always have the impression that if you tell someone that you were taking coaching sessions, they will look at you like you’re going to a psychologist or something is wrong with you. Is this the case in China as well?
Camiel: Actually two cases in China came to my mind when you mentioned this. The first is: I was working with a Chinese leader and he thought that he was doing too much and couldn’t handle it anymore. He said he was the barrier for future growth. Whilst working with him, he said that asking more questions is a successful way to change. He started doing this and the first reaction was: what’s happening with me? I feel that I am weaker than in the past. Why am I so uncertain? And that’s what’s very interesting. We then really started to work on making the team adopt more of a coaching style. And then on another project, I was working with young Chinese people and they mentioned that asking questions to senior leaders is a big risk. If the leaders don’t know the answer to the question, they will lose face.
Whilst doing these programmes, we said we need to work on all levels to create a transformation on an organisational level. I was very inspired by a project we did with Mercedes where we worked with the CEO and his team. We created that coaching style culture on an organizational level, and now they are more agile.
Sabrina: So you really have to take a comprehensive approach, coaching one person is not sufficient so you have to coach the whole organization?
Camiel: Well I also see that individual coaching in China is very common. I see more and more companies thinking how they can make it work on a collective level. They have made the individual a lot stronger and they notice this strength. They notice value and ambitions and now they want it on more of a collective level. This is where team coaching comes in.
Sabrina: When you mentioned asking questions and the boss might feel stupid if you ask him questions that he doesn’t know. This is something that is very common already from school and university, right? This is why the Chinese hardly ever ask questions. This is like a long life learning that they must sit and listen. So changing this culture of asking questions would probably have to start much earlier, e.g. introducing it in schools.
Camiel: Ideally you have to start working on this at a very young age. On the other hand, I feel that many Chinese organizations understand this very well. Like Huawei or Tencent feel that changes in technology are happening so quick and the market is changing so quick. Customer demands are changing so fast that they cannot control this from the top level. If they want to be successful they need to have leadership on all levels and this requires different leadership styles and a different mentality on all levels. So they have a big sense of urgency to change their culture and this has also happened really fast in China. So I am really impressed how some of the Chinese companies have been doing this. Mr. Ma of Alibaba, for example, wrote a book on his own leadership style.
Sabrina: Have you personally experienced companies introducing a coaching culture into their work?
Camiel: We actually see it in our own company with the moment people feel they are in the lead and they are in control. They understand their position in the hall in the whole assessment value and they can create an all system. People often get a lot more passionate then and a lot more engaged. This is when they become more creative. Usually when you tell people to do what to do they just follow. But when you create space for people to really be themselves, they will create things you never envisaged, and I think that’s really the most beautiful part of our job.
But this also happens on an individual level, but if you can make it happen on a collective level then this has an impact on creativity, innovation and the work atmosphere, for example improving morale and cooperation in a company. That’s where coaching plays a crucial role.
Sabrina: When you said that asking questions is a very important aspect that people often have to learn first, is there something else which you would say comes from cultural influence that affects the type of coaching you can do?
Camiel: When I look at my Chinese coaches they are usually very good at relationship building, which means listening skills. Atmosphere is usually at a very high and mature level. What they’re often working on is how to create a strategy and a shared vision with results? Not by controlling but by enabling people to be aligned around your vision and create a shared strategy as a bottom-up process by asking questions. This enables people to be their real self and not playing a role or just copying a leader, but really acting from themselves, noticing own strength and utilizing it in the most optimum way.
If you are on the street, you often see a lot of Chinese people fighting, so sometimes it can be quite an aggressive culture. That’s what I saw in many organizations: it is either very friendly or it’s like a war. The question is: how can you have a different opinion and still work closely together and respect that person? That is what I have been working on a lot in China and this has been helping many of my coachees in China.
Sabrina: Also, fluctuation among employees in China is huge and an issue for a lot of companies. Did you have experience with that through creating such a shared vision and giving people another mindset that they are less likely to leave the company?
Camiel: This has a huge impact for these companies. We are often working with companies who had attrition rates of around 30-35% a year. This means that every three years they have a completely new organization. The number one reason why many Chinese scholars left was the manager. They felt he didn’t respect or provide enough space to do what they believe in. They have no space to use their own strength and they just need to follow. The young Chinese really want to make a difference and by changing that culture, it is possioble to bring down attrition rates tremendously.
It also has a lot to do with finance. If people leave quickly, they don’t have the time to start performing for the company. This reduces the incentive cost for organizations to invest in people. We then start discussing how they can increase that loyalty. How can they create a more engaged atmosphere where people want to stay.
Sabrina: Does this differ between men and women regarding career development and leaving companies? Are men or women more likely to take coaching sessions?
Camiel: I always feel that there are not that many differences between men and women and I often see men that are so different from each other and I meet women who are so different from each other. The only difference is that it takes longer for the Chinese men to open up their hearts as they are more rational, logical and also trained in that way.
I work a lot in tech companies with people trained as engineers. And what I learned from it, is that it’s so important to start with their mind and how they understand it. If they open up on a mind level, then the next step is that they also open up on a heart level and then you connect the mind and the heart. They will be then more willing to change their behavior, but I have also met a lot of female engineers that were very rational and logical.
We certify a lot of people to be a coach in China through the ICF certification process. We have around 500-600 participants a year and about 80% of the participants are female. I always felt there was such a lost opportunity for male leaders.
Sabrina: Do you have to be certified in China to work as a coach, or is it like in Germany where you don’t need a certification?
Camiel: The system in itself works the same. But on the other hand, certificates are highly valued in China. The certification allows quality levels for coaching. So a lot of our clients look for this certification, especially an ICF certification process which stands out. However, there are many good coaches who are not certified of course. But in general, what I have seen in China, a certification is more important than over here in Europe. People here look more often for experience, but in China maybe that’s more difficult to judge.
Sabrina: How do coaches in China work? Are they a freelancing or are they employed at companies?
Camiel: The interesting part in China is that the fees are so much higher than in in Europe. The salaries of managers are, on average, around 30% higher than in Europe. In Europe, this would be around 280 euro, but in China, this is like 500 euro, so almost double. This has to do with law of supply and demand and the demand is bigger than the number of coaches available. So there is a scarcity for good and certified coaches.
Therefore, fees tend to be higher and because of this, a lot of people like to be freelancers as there is less risk. Freelancers often connect with companies, like us. By connecting with companies, they are able to work with the head of the Tencent’s and the Mercedes of this world because these often will not work with individual freelancers and don’t want to go through all the hassle of invoicing.
My experience is that most companies prefer to work with larger companies that coordinate a pool of coaches. That’s the model I see a lot in China. I see a similar model in Europe where people with less experience prefer to work full-time for companies like us.
Sabrina: Is coaching in China always done in Chinese language or is there also a market for coaching in English?
Camiel: More than 90% of what we do is in Chinese. This is because it is important in coaching to get deep on a heart level and to really be able to express your emotions, your feelings and to reflect, which is always easier in your mother tongue. Of course, there are a lot of Chinese people who studied abroad or have been raised abroad and their English is a lot better than mine. In cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Chengdu or Chongqing, there are also lots of expats of course who look for coaches speaking their mother tongue. I have been coaching Spanish people from Inditex as well as English and German people.
Sabrina: Is there also a big online market for coaching in China or is this considered an impersonal way of doing it?
Camiel: There is also a big market online. I actually know a lot of coaches who are working in China, they live abroad and often have some face to face moments when they are in China to connect on a deeper level and then continue the coaching through tools like Zoom. Even with myself, I’m still coaching some people in China, sometimes even through Wechat. They type a short story to me of what they are facing, I then ask questions and then we can connect through Zoom or Wechat call.
This flexibility creates opportunities to go deeper and to allow the coaching to be more effective. For me, coaching with a distance can also work really well because I don’t see them, which forces me to really listen and focus. But I also believe that you need to build trust. So some face to face moments help as well.
We sometimes also coach international teams online. People dial in from all over the world and then we coach them virtually, but for this we need to ask a lot of questions. We have people in China who are working with people in Taiwan, Japan, US and Europe. And I saw a big impact in those sessions as well. What really makes it interesting for coaches like us, is that the willingness to transform and to reflect on a personal level is huge. The impact of the coaching has almost no limits, so this is really fulfilling.
Sabrina: Are you working with different methods when you coach Chinese people? Or do you use the same methods as commonly applied in western countries? And also, are there methods that you apply in China that wouldn’t work over here?
Camiel: In a way, my methods are always the same and focus on the person as a coachee. I try to find out what really makes the transformation for them. Then my starting point is that I always believe in their potential. I also use embodiment all the time because I know the body is smarter than our minds. We use gestures and moments of silence. What is important in China or Europe is that that you are committed to making the change, so there will be challenges. Sometimes you feel that a certain method just doesn’t fit with a person. So it’s really about looking at what has the biggest impact on that person in that moment.
And then you need to have courage to experiment as a coach and to go out of the comfort zone. We have a lot of executives who we work with, who need to unlearn a lot to make a transformation because they have experience and sometime this is a disadvantage as they need to learn other things.
Sabrina: I would like to use that as an end note as this really shows that people are people. It’s just about focusing on people and not nationalities. I think we should all use this in daily life. There is a lot of talk nowadays, especially in Europe, about discrimination. But maybe we should all adopt the perspective of coaching sometimes and apply our listening skills. We are not that much different from each other. So I thank you so much for participating in this interview and introducing these deep and exciting insights on coaching in China.
Camiel: Thank you so much Sabrina.