The Talent Scout
Theo Tombeur, Arcadis, Shanghai, China
PHOTO BY RYAN PYLE
THE MERE WORDS “talent shortage” are enough to strike terror in the heart of anyone looking for a few good project managers. And it gets more complicated in China, where the country's status as an emerging economic mega-force is putting an even higher premium on project leaders with the right skills, including cross-cultural acumen.
“The current business environment is extremely difficult,” says Theo Tombeur, general management, business development and buildings in the Shanghai, China office of global engineering, project management and consulting firm Arcadis. Headquartered in the Netherlands, Arcadis has more than 13,500 employees and $2 billion in gross revenues worldwide. In Shanghai, the company has a staff of 60.
Mr. Tombeur's talent acquisition strategy begins with a search for project talent with broad skills and expertise. “It's better to hire people with broader knowledge and expertise rather than specialists,” he explains. “It's always possible to find specialists and hire them on a temporary basis.”
But technical skills and expertise can take a candidate—and a company—only so far. A global economy requires project leaders to possess superior language skills. Yet it's rare to find candidates fluent in both Chinese and English. “It is crucial to understand the nuances of the business,” he says. “Misinterpreting words—or a lack of understanding about the nuances of language—can result in major problems.”
What's more, Mr. Tombeur estimates about 90 percent of all graduates of Chinese technical schools and universities take positions at Chinese companies. That means multinationals like Arcadis are left to battle it out for the remaining 10 percent.
“Candidates in China know they are in a position to pick and choose,” he admits. And supply isn't likely to overtake demand anytime soon. So the company has learned to target its recruiting, provide competitive salaries and offer ongoing training and opportunities for advancement.
When a new project hire is needed, Mr. Tombeur first consults with his staff “as they understand what profiles we need.” He then turns to a circle of colleagues who help spot contenders.
“By developing a professional network, it is possible to work together so that everyone benefits,” he explains. “Trust is a very big issue and knowing who is making a recommendation goes a long way toward simplifying and improving the hiring process.”
Of course, even if a company lands a solid employee, it still has to keep that person on board. Poaching is common in China, but Arcadis has lost only one key employee over the last two-plus years. Mr. Tombeur credits the firm's willingness to provide training, including, if possible, stints in Europe and the United States.
“This is important because the individual offices are not large and there isn't the opportunity to move people around and help them gain experience in a range of disciplines,” he explains. Arcadis also tries to foster a sense of autonomy and empowerment among its project managers and team members.
“It's better to hire people with broader knowledge and expertise rather than specialists. It's always possible to find specialists and hire them on a temporary basis.”
“China has a great deal of talent,” Mr. Tombeur says. “Cultivating it effectively and retaining key employees is central to success. Colleagues must believe that you're able to provide the required services and perform at a high level. For a long time it was hard to convince our colleagues in the United States and Europe that their Chinese colleagues could perform up to international standards. Today we do not have this issue.” —Samuel Greengard
Leadership 2009 www.pmi.org