Expect the unexpected
The alarm rang; I had breakfast and commuted to work, expecting business as usual. Then I got a call from headquarters and was offered the opportunity to work as COO for TGW China in Shanghai. I knew immediately, that this is a great opportunity and a sign of confidence towards me and my abilities. At the same time, I had a sinking feeling and tried to gather my thoughts. Three weeks later, my spouse and I had the orientation trip to Shanghai. After that, we were sure to jump at the chance, even not knowing exactly what challenges and great experiences are ahead of us.
The following weeks were intense: In parallel to our daily work, we had many things to arrange with public authorities and encountered much bureaucracy, sold nearly all our belongings and rented a 9 m² storage for the rest of our stuff. After that, we said goodbye to our families and friends and arrived in Shanghai three months after the first thoughts about going abroad.
Once arrived, we immediately started setting up our new urban life: Apply for work and residence permit, go through medical exams, registrations and a lot of paperwork, get familiar with taking subway and taxi and explored the city, searched for an apartment and much more. In a city half the size of Upper Austria and three times the population of entire Austria, it is especially important to find a cosy apartment at a good location. It turned out that this was not an easy accomplishment. After examining more than fifty lousy and overpriced apartments, we found a nice one in a good area downtown by chance – an expat from another company relocated to his home country and we moved into his former apartment after living two months in the hotel. We also connected to the Austrian Association, an expat community that has regular meetings, where we got a lot of information helping us getting both feet on the ground. Members who already were veterans in Shanghai used to call us TUPSIs, which is the acronym of Totally Unaware Person Searching for Information.
Right after arriving in Shanghai and in parallel to setting up the private things there, I had to get familiar with TGW China, the new job and the new colleagues quickly. After a few weeks, I realized that TGW China has great potential, and some things needed changes and improvements. But first, I had to change myself – the way I used to approach and talk to employees, understand their thinking and Chinese history, how to elaborate solutions and lead people in this completely different and fast moving environment. Luckily, the colleagues at TGW China helped me a lot to understand how to conduct business in China, although I could not completely avoid dropping bricks sometimes :-). One major goal was setting up an organization, which is sustainable and capable implementing the increased order intake in the future. Furthermore, to make TGW a leading integrator on the local market, the IT capabilities of TGW China needed to be established. With a clear picture of the future organization in mind, I changed the organizational structure to meet these requirements. Now, the right people are in the right place, and I am very satisfied to see that everyone participates and works hard to grow and expand. The corporate culture, based on the TGW foundation values, the TGW core values and leadership principles, is one major goal to implement at TGW China. Considering the cultural differences between TGW China and other TGW entities, a special management and leadership programme will guide TGW China in the next months to anchor those values in daily business.
One of the things that I really appreciate is the personal development when moving abroad. Once arrived in Shanghai, there is no such thing like a comfort zone – at least for the first six months or even more. China literally tears you out of your comfort zone. Grown up and socialized in Austria, I immediately knew that my “autopilot” and the way I used to solve issues does not work properly in China. One example, representative for many other things: At the crosswalk, I used to start walking when the light turns green. Do not do that in Shanghai without carefully looking in all directions every step you take – as pedestrian, you are the last one in the traffic food chain, and you can easily end up as radiator mascot on a bus, or even on a scooter, although the lights are green :-).
Commuting is also challenging for someone used to take a 20 minutes car-drive to the office. Metro is quite easy to use, but being one out of 10 Million people using the Shanghai metro every day gives you an idea that it is challenging to get used to it, especially at rush hour. Once we knew how to deal with that – and many other things – we started to enjoy the big city life. In China, the mobile phone with all the apps is essential for a convenient life. You can easily order a taxi or private driver; buy tickets, order food, do household shopping, order lunch to the office and much more. You do not need cash; AliPay and WeChat pay is accepted and preferred everywhere. Arriving at Vienna Airport, showing my mobile phone with the QR code for payments, the quizzically look of the cashier reminds me that cash is still the preferred payment method in my home country ;-). Once I got used to it and all the other apps, I missed it when I was back in Austria.
In Shanghai, many restaurants with various culinary delights from Asia are literally everywhere. From cheap noodle boxes, traditional hot pot to overpriced luxury restaurants we tried many things, and finally Yunnan cuisine is our favourite.
Shanghai is also a good starting point for travelling: Whether you want to travel in mainland China or in Southeast Asia, you can easily get a high-speed train or flight to literally everywhere. Although business is very time consuming, we managed to see different places, for example Hangzhou, Suzhou, Hong Kong and Singapore, Bali and – of course – explored Shanghai with its modern places, skyscrapers and older parts.
After all those things that we came across, the good and the bad, I can tell you that personal development and things worth doing are outside your comfort zone. I think everybody who gets the chance to go abroad should think about it in detail, but I recommend not overthinking it. Once made the decision, you will automatically learn how to do it. This broadens the mind in a way you probably would never experience when not going abroad. And keep in mind: Expect the unexpected!