China Exit Strategies are a hot topic, both among my friends and readers who call me for career advice. People are concerned that they might hurt their prospects for advancement by staying in China too long, or that they might not be able to find a role that would allow them to transition back home. Candidates I’m working with always ask me how a given job will fit into their career plan – what the promotion track looks like or what the exit options are.
There are better and worse ways to transition out of the China workforce. If you’ve done a great job for your company and developed a specialized expertise, it’s pretty straightforward to target a few growing businesses back home or to make a strong case to the right grad program. Alternatively, people who have been bouncing around and never really hit a stride need to use repatriation as a reset button, which is a trap for many returnees.
Here are 3.5 ways that I’ve seen foreign professionals leverage their China experience into success back home:
1. Going to grad school*
Every year, Beijing’s expat community sends what seems to be more than its share of people to elite MBA programs. Just this year, off the top of my head, the top Western experts under 30 in genetically modified crops, U.S. meat exports, and industrial logistics in China are all moving back stateside to pursue MBAs at top schools. They are setting themselves up spectacularly for high-level positions with multinationals or Chinese companies that will be expanding in their fields.
No matter the degree program, the market will need more highly specialized experts in China subject matter. You can make contributions in any topic based on your professional experience in China and understanding of the differences between theory and practice. Once you’re on campus, you can also help your program become more engaged with China, something that everyone is interested to do. This will have the added benefit of providing you exposure to the companies that will be hiring you later.
The asterisk is because a lot of people go to grad school after their second disappointing job in China because that’s the thing to do – not because they are ready to drill down and focus, but because they think ducking out of the professional world for a few years and spending six figures on a new credential will magically make them marketable.
2. Transferring home with their company
Though it’s not exactly common, some international companies have brought locally hired China expats back into growing departments at home. The mechanics of such a transfer will depend on the company size and structure, but the goal is to build the capacity of home-country offices to work with their clients and counterparts in China, either supporting existing service lines or establishing new ones to accommodate Chinese outbound investment.
If you have the credibility and have put in your time, consider making a presentation to your boss (or their boss) on the business case of creating a position for you back home with the company. I’ve only seen this work with truly top performers who can be recommended highly by their colleagues and managers within the company, and who have demonstrated a great return on investment for the work they have done in China.
For what it’s worth, the examples that come to mind of people who have pulled this off are all at professional services companies: real estate, public relations, and consulting.
3. Heading back to join a new project
Three other types of projects offer career opportunities in international China business. Young China-related startups and service companies based outside of China often find talent a constraint to their growth and have work for the right specialist. Many more mature, but still relatively new companies that started without a China focus are looking to expand their international strategy. These staffing needs emerge as China becomes a more attractive target market for business leaders and entrepreneurs.
At the same time, Chinese companies are opening subsidiaries and offices in foreign countries and many consider finding staff who understand and can anticipate the business and cultural dynamics of their home office a challenge. Foreign employees with Chinese language skills and work experience in China can help these companies get established and improve their international prospects.
Again, specialization is key here. Since these projects are creating new jobs when they hire, expertise and passion for the market are critical to give decisionmakers the confidence to build a position around a recent returnee. From a jobseeker’s perspective, specialization in terms of field and location will also narrow the world of possibilities down to a handful of opportunities back home worth pursuing aggressively.
Bonus half option: stay in China and specialize more
If you don’t have a solid exit option yet but you’re good, don’t leave just to leave – talk to me first, and really see how to get yourself to a point that you can leave China with what you want, even if it takes a bit longer than planned. A lot of people who stayed on after most people would have quit end up breaking through in some form or fashion. And if you’re thinking about leaving your job because you don’t see a path upward, make exorbitant demands first for more responsibility and the portfolio you really want.
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