Finding and retaining top talent in China is a headache for most employers operating in the country. The solution? Find a celebrity leader.

That recommendation comes from a survey of senior executives at director level or above in mainland China, in which more than 90 per cent of respondents said that having senior leaders who are charismatic, inspiring, credible spokespeople is very important to their decision in joining an organisation.

It’s a finding that resonates in China and Hong Kong. For instance, mention the name Alibaba, the Chinese company that is now the world’s biggest retailer, and the image of a smiling, slightly built man with elfin features immediately springs to mind. Jack Ma, the company’s founder and chief executive, is synonymous with the empire he built from scratch, and attracts top talent as much because of his own star quality as for Alibaba’s phenomenal success.

Ma’s success story is well-known to everyone in China and Hong Kong. From a modest background, and after being rejected ten times by Harvard University, he became China’s richest man after seeing an opportunity in China’s lack of presence on the internet and plugged the gap by building Alibaba. The organisation is growing fast, with employee numbers rising from 22,000 in 2012 to more than 36,000 people today, mainly in China.

Talent is attracted to Alibaba by Ma’s fame and also because of an historical tendency in China to follow charismatic leaders, said Linda Zhang, partner in charge of Heidrick & Struggles’ Shanghai office.

“Historically, China used to be a society ruled by people as supposed to a society ruled by law,” Zhang explains. “Relationships and human interactions are very important in Chinese culture. Chinese people work for their managers and superiors first, then ‘for the company’. A charismatic leader obviously helps to attract and retain talent.”

It’s a similar story in Hong Kong, said Klaus Heldman, partner in the consumer markets practice at Heidrick & Struggles.

“Talking to senior executives in Hong Kong, high-quality leadership definitely makes a big difference – a charismatic, inspiring and credible leader is a critical talent magnet,” he said.

Heldman says the city’s compact size means leaders are very visible to their teams and have a big impact on an organisation’s employer value proposition and brand. Also, the city has a history of family-led business successes, fronted by leaders with celebrity status, such as Hong Kong’s Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man.

If you don’t have access to a Jack Ma to lead your company in China, Zhang advises looking for leaders with four key traits and abilities.

“They should be visionary or have dreams, ideals and beliefs in what they do; they should be passionate in what they do; they should be fair, honest and have a high level of integrity; [and they should be] able to make a big impact,” he said.

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