Q: I will be taking my first business trip next month to visit potential suppliers in China. Do you have any advice on what to expect and how to conduct myself? I am 22 years old - should I wear a suit and grow out my beard so that they take me more seriously?
- Simon Stanfield, London
A: I am glad to hear that you are planning ahead, but I would not stop shaving just yet!
You are going to be under some stress as you negotiate for your business’s needs in unfamiliar surroundings; your goal as you prepare should be to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you suddenly feel less sure of yourself, whether it is because you are under- or overdressed, or because you do not know what the local business etiquette requires.
But it is funny that you are asking me, of all people, for an opinion on formal dress. In Virgin’s early days, the staff used to joke, “The day we see Richard wear a suit to a meeting with the bank manager, we shall know we are in serious trouble!”
Since Virgin started out in the music business, working with artists like The Sex Pistols, Boy George, The Rolling Stones, Genesis and others, I was never expected to wear the pinstripe suits, bowler hats and rolled umbrellas typical of the stuffy British business world. To this day, I don’t own many suits.
By the time we launched Virgin Atlantic Airways in 1984, where the business dress code was more formal, I was set in my ways - I took the attitude that what they saw was what they got. Back then I favoured corduroys and baggy sweaters, and I found that it did not make any difference to my ability to do deals. The Virgin Atlantic executive team never once persuaded me to wear anything more formal than a jacket - and even then, the occasion had to be pretty fancy for that to happen.
I did, however, always pack a jacket for business trips to Asia. It would certainly be advisable for you to bring a suit, or at least a jacket and a smart pair of trousers, and perhaps to leave the worn-out jeans at home.
Consider who you will be meeting
That said, you should keep in mind who you will be meeting with. On recent visits to Japan and China, I have noticed a marked slackening in the once-rigid dress codes.
In the technology and Internet sectors, suits and ties are now rare. On the other hand, if you need to negotiate with bankers, government representatives or executives from a respected corporation, you will find that the dress code is still extremely formal by Western standards. You might get away with ditching the tie, but omitting the jacket will likely be seen as rude.
In Asia, I would err on the side of caution and dress slightly more conservatively for meetings. If you sit down with someone who is much older, they will likely appreciate your style. If your counterpart is dressed casually, you can always take your jacket off.
It is also important to plan the logistics of how to get to each meeting. This is especially true in China, where one of the biggest gaffes you can make is to show up late, which is seen as disrespectful.
Even arriving a few minutes behind schedule is problematic, so make sure to allow time for any difficulties that may come up. The traffic in Beijing and Shanghai is absolutely brutal, but it is never considered a valid excuse for being late - trust me, I learned the hard way.
If you are ever in doubt about anything, wait to see what your hosts do and then follow their lead. This can be a bit awkward at times. At one very painful business lunch in Japan, I was dismayed to be confronted with a plate of raw fish.
Sashimi was not yet popular in the West, and so I did not know how delicious it was, and did not think of it as food. I muddled through, getting so desperate that I even hid some in a napkin, but it was hard going - and in retrospect, I should have just eaten the meal and enjoyed myself!
Also remember that building personal relationships is especially important when doing business in China, so while you are there, do everything you can to develop friendships with people who matter to the success of your enterprise. Keep in mind that social occasions tend to be just that - business is not often discussed after hours.
There will be a lot of drinking though, and you will need to handle it without making a fool of yourself. It is all good fun, and as you build trust with your Chinese counterparts, you will find that the occasional gaffe on either side will not matter as much, because you will be able to laugh over it together.