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Where in the world: Shanghai, China

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Experiencing the culture and ever-extending reach of an emerging market helps leaders to develop a global mindset. John Kivel, head of Asia Pacific recruitment at GSK, provides an insight into life in Shanghai.

When and why did you move to China?

I felt that, to become a successful leader with a truly global mindset, I needed to understand China better. It’s such an important global market. I’ve lived in Shanghai for four years. 

What are the cultural differences?

As an American, I feel our style of working can be very direct. It’s taken me a while to be more thoughtful about the conversations I’m having. I have an appreciation of different cultures, having lived abroad for so long. Some cultural differences here have a history that I will never understand, but respect.

Has this move enhanced your career?

Working abroad has given me perspective I would not otherwise have had. The ability to navigate working environments across countries is like any other skill-set. 

How did you feel about moving abroad?

I was excited, but anxious about how I would be received. It was humbling and helped me to step back and be more reflective. 

How have you adapted to an emerging market?

I find emerging markets exciting to work in. We are constantly trying to leverage global best practices, while innovating.

Emerging markets are exactly that (emerging), because of the speed at which you need to move, and the nuances in each environment. I work best in environments with enormous ambiguity. 

How do HR practices compare?

GSK’s practices are a reflection of our values, so they don’t change much around the globe. Differences may be more visible in terms of how we implement, or localise something for a particular market.

Are the costs of living similar to those in the US?

I started my career in Boston, Massachusetts, which I thought was an expensive US city at the time. Living abroad has proved that wrong, particularly living in Asia, where groceries, rent and entertainment can be triple what they cost in your home country.  

What do you do in your spare time?

A huge benefit of living abroad is broadening your perspective through travel. I spend time with friends; being surrounded by like-minded people, you foster relationships quicker than normal.

What advice would you give others moving abroad?

It’s critical that you fully understand the potential health, safety and financial implications for yourself and your family. 

Don’t underestimate the nuances of the healthcare systems in foreign countries, the banking and cultural differences. I would advise people to be open but thoughtful, to ensure they don’t indirectly insult people in their host country.

Do you have any regrets?

Absolutely not. I feel lucky and try to live my life with as little regret as possible.

I miss …

The (whole) internet! Living in a country with restricted access poses challenges.

I don’t miss …

US portion sizes in restaurants.

Best…

Restaurant? Mercato restaurant on the Bund in Shanghai.

Tourist attraction? Check out Shangri-La in Yunnan Province, it’s amazing!

Activity? Shanghai has a great arts scene. There’s always a good show to see.

Place to meet other expatriates? Sunday afternoon on Yong Kong Lu draws a fun crowd from all over the planet.

Shopping? Tianzifang’s boutique shops always have good stuff to buy for family back home.

Emily  Sexton-Brown

By Emily Sexton-Brown

Emily is the commissioning editor at Changeboard

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