Tip for success from China: Train and keep your best staff

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What does it take to get a company back on track after it wanders away from what brought it success in the first place?

Time and time again, people use the words "core values" and "back to basics" to describe how to regain lost momentum. That's certainly what Procter & Gamble and McDonald's have done. It's easy to get off track by chasing rainbows or by ignoring the fundamentals: good people, well trained.

When I visited China in September for the International Advertising Association World Congress, we convened a roundtable of marketing experts to discuss the complexities of selling to 1.2 billion consumers.

Viveca Chan, Grey Global Group's chairman-CEO for Hong Kong and China, said the key to success is mastering the rapid changes in the Chinese marketplace-but doing it in a way that's consistent with your core operations. "There are two types of companies which can successfully master change in China. One is the likes of P&G, which has a good structure. They are very confident and good at mastering diversity with their in-depth resources.

"But smaller companies can also succeed because they look at the market with gut feeling, and they have a very good sense of their product and their category. They have a clear sense of product differentiation and what they stand for and they're willing to take risks and they pursue it with a passion. That's another way to win."

Austin Lally, P&G's general manager of beauty-care business in China, added that to succeed in China "you have to have the best Chinese people working for you. P&G is not a big American company that has imported a battleship full of people here. We actually have more Chinese employees on foreign assignments outside of China than we have foreigners working in China. China is an exporter of talent for P&G today."

Mr. Lally also spoke at the IAA conference, where he said that a big reason for P&G's turnaround was the decision to keep marketing people in the same job for longer periods of time. Mr. Lally said Procter has now created career paths for staffers who would want to stay in marketing whereas it used to be "up or out."

Changing jobs on a frequent basis, he said, led to "superficial rather than a deep understanding" of what works and what doesn't, and it also prevents its people from learning the lessons of winning and losing. Product managers would be shifted to another position before they saw whether their marketing plan had been successful, Mr. Lally said. Now, "continuity of assignment" is what is helping drive results.

One of the key attributes Procter looks for is executives who can develop people, Mr. Lally said at our roundtable discussion. "China has too many expatriates on `tourism' assignments. They come here for two or three years, but they don't leave any footprints organizationally. That doesn't solve the fundamental issue, which is that we need to develop a creative industry here. If you bring in expats, their No. 1 job should be to train and grow their replacement."

Come to think of it, not leaving any footprints is a pretty good formula for a company losing its way, and why it all has to start with training and keeping good people.

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