Op-ed: Training and engaging young talent in China can be transformative for businesses

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Op-ed: Training and engaging young talent in China can be transformative for businesses


Tony Hughes, CEO of Huthwaite International, details key methods for helping young talent in China achieve its potential.

The Global Leadership Forecast – the largest study of its kind – recently found that only 19% of Chinese leaders reported they were 'very prepared' to create an optimal workplace where employees deliver their very best. 

Furthermore, the report, published by Development Dimensions International (DDI), found less than a third of Chinese leaders rated themselves as highly effective in leading a younger generation, while only 30% of HR professionals said their organizations were focusing on this area. 

Those are worrying numbers, but they can also be a source of optimism—If China is one of the world’s fastest growing and largest economies despite its shortcomings in engaging and training young talent, think what could be achieved were this to be addressed.

Huge numbers of young people enter the Chinese workforce each year, and the transformative potential of better engaging and training them is hugely exciting. The business case is only strengthened when the full costs of hiring expatriate workers are calculated, while the moral case for ensuring talented young employees can fulfill their potential is self-evident.

Reaping the benefits of more engaged young talent requires a preparedness to invest time and financial resources and to develop an understanding of the types of training that will best suit different industries and individuals. Some generalizations around training can be useful, though: DDI founder William Byham, for example, has noted that high-potential learners in China prefer more action learning than people in other countries (more on that below).

That might be useful insight, but only insofar that businesses are prepared to apply it according to the specific requirements of their industry and organization. What will most likely be required is a blended approach encompassing action learning, mentoring, and job rotation, scaled to varying degrees based on individual business needs.

Action learning

Action learning – learning by doing – enjoys the dual benefits of being popular among talent in China and demonstrably effective.

While some skills – driving, for instance – can’t be learned in any meaningful way without practical application, the majority of skills are better learned through a blend of theory and practice. But accurately identifying the business case for training a specific skill, understanding why this skill gap even exists and developing a targeted action learning program can undoubtedly deliver bottom line results.

One particularly strong example from my own experience is that of Dragon TV, the premier channel of the Shanghai Media Group.

Technological shifts, changing consumption habits and the ability for provincial TV stations to broadcast nationally created new levels of competition in the Chinese TV industry. Against this backdrop, Dragon TV recognized the need to differentiate itself against its competitors and found that many of its sales team were very young, came from different backgrounds and were new to sales. 

Its subsequent role-play training program – which we helped develop – simulated real-world sales situations, allowing its young team to develop their skills, use new selling techniques in the context of their own market, review their learning and receive instant feedback.

The result was a cultural shift at the company: No longer were employees falling into classic sales traps, such as simply listing product features during sales calls. Instead they were asking intelligent, probing questions to uncover prospective customers’ business issues and how Dragon TV could address these with real benefits. The station tripled its revenue within three years following the program’s launch.

Of course, not every business implementing an action learning program will triple revenue, but if sufficient attention is paid to the challenges an organization faces and the areas in which it could achieve a competitive advantage, action learning can be a highly effective way to establish behavioral change that delivers real bottom line benefits.


Mentoring can also be a hugely effective tool for building skills and engagement, particularly in China, where age and experience command such respect. Indeed, a broad range of benefits for senior and junior team members alike can be derived from a well-developed mentoring program. 

Young members get the opportunity to bolster their skillset and learn how to succeed in the organization from those who have already done so. They also become aware that senior members of the team are approachable and are happy to support them in their career.

This creates a virtuous circle in which young talent is more engaged with the company as a result of the support they receive from senior employees, making them more likely to ask a mentor for advice and increasing their likelihood of succeeding—which further boosts their engagement.

For senior team members, a mentoring program facilitates a better flow of ideas throughout the organization. Mentoring initiatives can also function as ‘reverse mentoring’ sessions, where young people can offer perspective on areas where they might have greater insight than their superiors, such as how to reach customers on social media.

That’s good for business on an obvious level – good ideas have a better chance of being implemented – but it’s also important because it engages young talent by allowing their voices to be heard and helping them to shape strategy.

Pairing mentors and mentees correctly can ensure the full potential of mentoring is realized. In the case of the reinsurer Swiss Re, this was achieved through speed dating events in China. Events such as these involve introducing potential mentors and mentees in rapid succession, facilitating effective matching of people with complementary skills, ambitions and personalities. Training senior team members in being effective mentors is equally important for enhancing these programs. 

Job rotation 

For larger businesses, providing the opportunity to rotate jobs can boost skills and retention among young talent. Employees spending time in different markets and roles will most often acquire new skills and perspectives that will be hugely valuable once they return from a secondment.

In China, job rotation has been successfully implemented by the likes of Swiss Re, while the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has also designed career paths to better train and retain employees by allowing them to cross business units in China.

Not all organizations will be able to rotate employees across business units and geographies, of course, and training methods always need careful tailoring to the requirements of a given firm. 

All organizations should, however, recognize that changing behavior is the most effective way to change results. In China especially, a better approach to engaging and training young talent could prove transformative in realizing the latent productivity of a wide variety businesses.