China: Not your grandpa’s kind of grown-up

“My grandpa is still waiting for me to grow up!” announced my good friend Josh to peals of laughter as we sat in a swanky London cocktail bar. It had been a while since we’d seen him, and we were thrilled that a speaking engagement had brought him to town. You see, Josh’s job as a professor and principal investigator at a top-ten global research institution keeps him pretty busy, so we don’t get to see him as much as we’d like.

Josh is a 45-year-old with an Ivy League PhD, and he’s been running his own lab for nearly 10 years now. Funding agencies trust him with millions of dollars, which keeps his cutting-edge research humming along, unlocking the secrets of horrible diseases. He’s shepherded dozens of young researchers through gruelling graduate programmes and post-docs, helping them to launch their own careers. He pays his taxes, knows which fork to use, and always flies business class. He sends flowers whenever someone is born or dies. In short, Josh is pretty much everything you could want in a grown-up.

So, what exactly is grandpa waiting for? Well, as we sat with Josh, he was wearing his daily uniform of a hoodie and Converse sneakers. He lives in a rental apartment in the city, not a house in the suburbs, and he’s never owned a car. He has a boyfriend, not a wife. They don’t have any kids, but they’re starting to think about it. If you get him started talking about Doctor Who, he will go on longer than you thought possible. And so as grown-up as Josh may be, it’s just not a type of grown-up that his grandpa recognises. Indeed, Josh will never be that kind of grown-up. Many of us won’t—and honestly we’re pretty happy about it.

I was thinking of Josh as I read some of the things consultants had to say this year when we asked them about their experiences in China. It’s the same stuff they say every year, really. The market refuses to mature. Clients don’t really appreciate what consulting can do for them. If they do want to hire you, the red tape is so extreme as to make you wonder if it’s worth it. They expect champagne quality at beer prices. They don’t work well with consultants once they’re on site. You could hear the exasperation in their voices, and the sentiment was clear: When will China’s clients grow up?

But what if they’re already grown up? What if this is just how they want to approach consulting? Maybe they’re not looking to hire swarms of outsiders to tell them how to fix their businesses. Maybe they want those they do choose to work with earn their way in through a labyrinthine bureaucracy. Maybe they love pinning them to the wall on price. And maybe they’re happy with how they engage with the consultants who come to work with them—even if the consultants don’t like it. Maybe China’s consulting market is already grown up—it’s just not a type of grown-up that big global consulting firms recognise.

If true, then surely those firms wanting to work in China would do better to think hard about what they’re offering and how they can meet this market on its own terms instead of futilely waiting for it to change. After all, Josh’s grandpa accepts and supports Josh even if he doesn’t fully understand him. Perhaps it’s time for Western consultants to take a page from grandpa’s book.

To find out more about our report on the consulting market in China, click here.