Matteo Giovannini, ICBC Leasing - On the importance of intercultural competence

Matteo Giovannini is the Senior Finance Manager at ICBC Leasing, the first financial leasing company affiliated with a bank in China and a subsidiary of ICBC. Here he talks about working in China, how he got started and more.

I’m the only non-Chinese employee here in China and joined the company four years ago. At the time I was hired I was one out of eight non-Chinese hired by our previous CEO. As we cover both domestic and international businesses, he had the idea to make the company more international. But since then there has been personnel and strategy changes, so I’m the only one left.

I always aspire to explore the business culture in China, and when joining ICBC through an MBA career placement, it was a golden opportunity. In a country like China with a mix of both large private and state owned enterprise, I believe it’s only by working at an SOE you get deep into this type of unique environment. You can’t achieve this level of understanding working at other companies here, I aim to continue building this unique expertise to gain a competitive advantage.

“The culture was very difficult to adapt to at first, as it was totally different from what I had experienced before, working for a listed private company back in Italy. Comparing the two I feel that they are almost complete opposites.”

The most important and difficult thing for me at the beginning was the relationships you have to establish with colleagues, especially with people of higher rank than yourself. The respect you need to show, the obeying, teacher-student like relationship is very different from what I was used to. In Italy it’s less formal, and pretty much anyone can have atalk with the CEO. In China you don’t jump the hierarchy, you need to talk to your superior, and he or she talks to his or her superior and so on.

In the culture where I come from you’re expected to challenge seniority, it’s viewed as an exchange of ideas and opinions. I adapted by changing my behavior and mindset, paying more respect to authority. Changing your mindset takes time, willingness and patience, I’m still working on it and learning every day.

My attitude is to always see myself as a guest, not try to change the environment because I don’t think I’m supposed to, the only thing you can change is yourself. In terms of style switch, if I land in Italy, I would behave totally differently in comparison to here. I’m a guest here and I need to respect the local culture.

The two biggest mistakes I see some foreign enterprises in China make are – Trying to apply the same business model here, and don’t adapt for China, it will never work. And, not paying attention to the selection of the expats they send to China, it’s very risky and a waste of money. Just because you’re successful in your home country or elsewhere in the world doesn’t mean you will make it here.

You need patience and time to develop your China competency. And I also believe that by investing in developing the intercultural competency on both sides, benefits can be easily realized. In communication understanding is key; without awareness one can only guess what the other is thinking. To paraphrase the author Dr. Stephen Covey: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Only through understanding can goals be met in an intercultural organization.

  • The perspective of this article belongs to the interviewee.