Free-Book-of-the-Week Club: Advice for Advisors in China

Outside Tower 2, China World Beijing

Waiting for the air to clear

1139 hrs.

Much of the work that we foreign-born and foreign-educated types do here in China is of a consulting or mentoring nature. Indeed, if foreigners have any long-term value in corporate China beyond serving as trans-cultural connective tissue , much of it lies in our ability to serve as conduits for soft skills like leadership, creativity, quality control, project management, and the like to the nation’s growing ranks of executives and professionals.

A View to a Skill

Success in these roles means mastering an important but poorly-understood skill set. Whether serving as an advisor to the localized operations of a foreign multinational, as a quality inspector in a factory, a consultant to a Chinese firm expanding overseas, or as a mentor to talented young professionals, the way we deliver our counsel is as important – and in some cases, more important – than the information we deliver.

Sadly, the set of skills one requires to be an effective counselor, mentor or consultant is taught in only a tiny number of the world’s business schools. It is as if these institutions – training grounds, as it were, for ranks of future consultants – assume that as long as the fundamental business knowledge is duly inculcated into their students, they will somehow magically graduate with the ability to appropriately, tactfully, and effectively passing on their acquired wisdom.

Worse, a discouraging number of professional advisory firms – not just management consultants, but law firms, advertising agencies, accounting firms, I.T. consultancies, and public relations agencies – also give short shrift to teaching advisory skills to their new hires. Off go their consultants, filled with knowledge and wisdom and no idea how to deliver it with the skill and grace to ensure its effectiveness.

The Missing Manual

The prolific professional-services guru David Meister has begun the effort to fill this vast gap, most notably with his work The Trusted Advisor (co-authored with Charles Green and Robert Galford), a book that should be required reading in any advice-giving firm. While providing an incomparable framework for building trust and selling yourself as an advisor, the book falls somewhat short on how to deliver good advice effectively.

Especially missing in Maister’s work and that of others is how do deal with the challenge of giving such advice across a cultural divide – a particularly thorny problem here in China.

The good news is that there is a corpus of literature available to help, from the people who have been advising across cultures for decades: the military.

The U.S. military has been sending trained officers and senior non-commissioned officers into the field around the world as advisors to local military leaders since well before World War II. The British have been doing it for even longer than that.

And keep in mind that when these people give advice, it is serious business. When we provide advice, money and companies are at stake. When the military provides advice to senior officers of another country, the stakes are far higher.

Wisdom from the GWOT

Recently, the Yanks began pulling together the collected learning of a century of that experience into a form the rest of us can use. Most notably are two volumes of the U.S. Army’s Combat Studies Institute Press’ Occasional Paper series on the Long War: Advising Indigenous Forces: American Advisors in Korea, Vietnam, and El Salvador; and Advice for Advisors: Suggestions and Observations from Lawrence to the Present, the first authored and the second edited by Robert Ramsey, a retired US Army officer. (Both books are available as free downloads from the CSI Press website.)

Despite the ungainly titles, these are easy and fast reads. The first volume, Advising Indigenous Forces, is largely an exploration of the American experience in advising since Korea. Before you start, set aside whatever political issues you might have with these conflicts or America’s role in them – they will only get in the way of you learning from the tactical, on the ground experience of people sent to advise strangers from a foreign culture.

The first two-thirds of the book will recount the experiences in detail so as to set up the last third of the book, which uses the conflicts as a means of deriving some extremely helpful lessons. It is worth slogging through – the insights and advice are poignant.

The second book, Advice for Advisors, is meant as a companion volume to the first, with fourteen supplementary articles from men who had been advisors in the field, starting with World War I and moving through Iraq. The first article, for example, is “Twenty-Seven Articles” by T.E. Lawrence, more widely known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” For reasons that don’t bear going into here, I am not a fan of Lawrence, despite having read his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Nonetheless, his simple list of dos and don’ts elegantly encapsulates his learnings from years of field experience.

Another notable article in this volume is Edward Stewart’s “American Advisors Overseas.” From his position on the faculty of George Washington University, Dr. Stewart was one of the pioneers in cross-cultural communications and wrote one of the continuing classic texts in the field, and his article underscores how important it is to know your own prejudices and cultural issues before embarking on an advisory effort.

If you are in an advisory or mentoring position – or want to be – these are both worthy additions to your reading list. The price is certainly right (and much cheaper than one of my training courses on the same topic.)


Scott Emigh points out that the links to the two books published at CSI may be broken – the updated links (to CSI’s non-military site) are:


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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One Response to Free-Book-of-the-Week Club: Advice for Advisors in China

  1. Chris Carr says:

    Good post, David.

    To your list of soft skill development, I would add oral and written communication.

    I have seen some really, really bad presentations in China (and the US), by both Chinese and Western presenters. There is often no concept of how to use Power Point effectively.

    And the irony is that the most important ideas in business are often written before they are spoken.

    Written (and oral) words, and how they are presented, can make or break an idea, project or career. And things like models, cash flows, technology, financing, and marketing are all servants to language in one way or another.

    Cheers from Cal Poly.

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