Culture, etiquette, manners, rituals call it what you want. Functioning society thrives when people know and abide by a set of norms in the way they behave and interact with others.
I’ve previously suggested that the English thrive on ambiguity, a character trait that can prove hugely challenging to expatriates trying to comprehend what has (or has not) been agreed.
In an excellent comment, as part of my “A Collaborative Valedictory” reflection page, Maria Ana Botelho Neves who is Portuguese reminded me that, when she was CEO of the UK Charity I was a Trustee of, I gave her a book. The Culture Map became the backstop for many conversations with the English ex Army Chairman.
The author, Erin Meyer, poses business leaders these challenging questions:
Why does your Swedish colleague have so many problems leading his Chinese team? How do you foster a good relationship with your Brazilian suppliers while sitting at your desk in Europe?
How do you navigate the tricky task of performance reviews when your American employees precede negative feedback with three nice comments, while the French, Dutch, Israelis, and Germans skip the positives and get straight to the point?
What is the best method for getting your team based on four continents to work together effectively?
Face to Face collaboration can be tricky too: how do you intepret where people sit if you are in Asia; at what point in a meeting in the Middle East do you start talking business; if you are invited to the house of a client or colleague, what’s the appropriate gift to take; or is the taking of a gift seen as insulting? All have the propensity to cause unintended offence!
I’ve seen near misses in Italy where English drivers enter the Autostrada anticipate the car on the inside line will move over to accommodate them. They do not! It’s about custom.
As we move into a hybrid working environment and communicate mostly via social media tools (and email), the above challenges are amplified and the impact on business and relationships potentially damaging.
Bridging the cultural chasm in global wealth management
Many years ago, when I was Managing Partner of Sparknow, we undertook an assignment for a client who had recently rolled out a global administration system. Their challenge: to get people collaborating across timezones, cultures and language.
Virtual communications were at the core of the problem. There was a lack of understanding of the style and customs of others. Working with their learning & transformation team we asked each team member to keep a journal. Here’s an extract from our invitation to participate:
Following a set of interviews we created a booklet “Tick” (what makes us tick) to highlight their different cultures and customs and how to best work with each other.
Here’s a page from the section: “How not to write a confusing email”.
The success of this initiative was in embracing and affirming the positive contributions and unique aspects of different cultures. The global team had input into the booklet (we deliberately avoided the word ‘Guide’) and a sense of ownership. It was written in their words with their examples.
In the online world we inhabit today, where virtual presenteeism is becoming the norm, it is easy to feel isolated and misinterpret what is or is not being said.
Silence is a powerful tool. I’ve seen it used effectively by HMRC’s enforcement teams, I’ve used it when interviewing people about a sensitive subject or recollection such as an Oral History. It’s particularly effective when giving an address to pause and let an important point ‘land’,
However, a non response can be equally damaging to a working relationship. There is nothing more demotivating than sending a message to a colleague who you know has received it and get no response.
The thumbs up emoji is a wonderful tool to at least acknowledge and affirm a request.
What Does 👍 Mean. The thumbs up sign emoji 👍, also known as the “yes” emoji, is used to express general contentment. It can also be used to show approval and support for someone’s actions or ideas. It can also mean “great job” or “keep it up,” depending on the context.
I’ve previously written about the Japanese practice/culture of Omotenashi; the pursuit of excellence in customer service by anticipating and exceeding customer needs. Where such a culture is not the norm and you aspire to high standards it is important customer facing team members are confident they have the authority to make clients or guests feel special and keen to return.
Here’s what can happen when they don’t feel they have the autonomy to make on the spot decisions.
The golf glove story
I’ve been in Sesimbra, Portugal for an annual trip with a few of my golfing buddies. Bear with me, this is not about the golf or the astonishing Sesimbra Carnaval which took place concurrent with our arrival and continued with gusto all night outside our hotel window!
Despite having some of the best courses around, golf in Portugal has not attained the same cult following as in other European countries. And it’s very difficult if you play left handed to acquire accessories such as golf gloves.
I’d managed to acquire one near to our home in Lisboa, so, fired up and ready to go I was looking forward to the next day’s game at Qunita Do Peru with renewed optimism.
Arriving in good time for our tee slot at “…one of the most prestigious golf courses” whose mission includes the phrase “Provide premium and unique experiences…”, clubs and glove were loaded onto our buggy while we went for a pre round bica. Almost immediately a very affable South African lady (Caddy Master) came to tell us she’d moved our bags and shoes to another cart. Coffee drunk, we went out to collect our gear only to discover my recently acquired (and unused) golf glove was nowhere to be seen.
Caddy Master was confused; she remembered transferring it to the new buggy and could not explain its dissapearance. Not wishing to create a fuss I asked her to make a few enquiries to see if it had been handed in at reception / pro shop. It had not!
The professional had a right hand glove in my size. Great I thought, problem solved. Except it wasn’t. I was then asked to pay. When I queried why, since they had moved my original glove, I was told it was on the replacement buggy and it was not their fault it had gone missing.
The giveaway phrase: “we would have to pay for the replacement”!
The mail bag story
Every 6 weeks or so, Bees Homes writes a letter to selected homeowners in which we provide an insight on the housing market as well as tips on how they might effectively present their property in the event they decide to sell.
Though time consuming, it has proved to be a valuable way of demonstrating expertise and generating future clientelle.
We usually manage to fill a couple of sacks with envelopes and the local post office (before it was closed) gave us sacks to make it easier and avoid clogging up post boxes.
A few weeks back I took two sackfulls into Ringmer Post Office housed (as most now are) in a convenience store. Greeted by a closed sign, the welcome was less than effusive. However a kind soul ‘John’ said if all we wanted was to deposit the sacks that was ok.
I thanked him and asked for replacement sacks. He was about to hand some over when a surly woman, perched behind the closed sign, said “Be careful John, we don’t have many sacks left”.
Fortunately, John ignored her and handed me a couple of replacements.
And the moral is?
In the first example at Quinta Do Peru, while everyone was very pleasant their response in a crisis was kilometres away from what they espoused to be. As a result none of us felt like going into the clubhouse for a meal and drink at the end of our round.
In the second, it was the crass stupidity of the remark and the way it was delivered that struck me. Had John not have offered replacements I would have asked him to put our sackfull into theirs and asked for mine back!
Reflecting on these and many other similar situations over the past few months I am left wondering where the disconnect occurs between the coporate narrative and those charged with delivering the service.
I think it comes down to empowerment and ownership: we hire expensive brand consultants to develop vision and mission statements but, absent a service culture, the lofty ideals they come up with fail to land with the people charged with implementing them.They don’t own the story!
How would your team behave in these situations. Are they empowered to make on the spot decisions and feel confident to do so knowing you have their back?
It would be remiss not to give a shout out to Alexandra Goncalves of Orizonte Golf the organiser of our Sesimbra sojourn. She ensured we were well briefed about the traffic restrictions around our hotel caused by Carnaval that might hinder our arrival and arranged for temporary storage of our golf clubs at Aroeira.
Post script (March 23)
Alexandra shared my post with Quinta do Peru’s Director of Golf, Hugo Amaral. He responded to me as follows:
I was just told today by Alexandra about what happened on your visit to Quinta do Peru and I was shocked to know all the information.
I remember clearly such date as on the same day hosting a tournament for Edge college, and it was a very busy day. May that’s explains why I haven’t been informed on spot about what happened as I was probably on the course with the Tournament organizers.
I feel ashamed by all this situation and do hope that that incident didn’t ruined your experience at Quinta do Peru.
The fact that the Pro Shop isn’t owned by us, and of course we would have to reimburse the shop owner for the glove, shouldn’t be used as an excuse to incur you on an extra expense, and it should be our responsibility to fully replace your lost good.
I do hope that next time you are in the region you pay us a new visit as I would be more than happy welcome you and compensate you of this extra (forced) cost.
Please accept my apologies and my kindest regards,
Hugo’s response was appreciated and reminded me of an experience in Cuba after which I wrote a piece on “A complaint is a gift“.
A few weeks back, Dr Madelyn Blair, a friend of many years standing, approached me to ask if I’d participate in one of her weekly tv slots. She left the topic up to me and, with the world emerging from the pandemic and international business starting to resume, I thought I’d share some of my experiences of working internationally.
Here’s a few of the thoughts I covered:
Looking back & looking forward
I am lucky; I’ve worked across five continents and experienced many different cultures over the last 40 years. I’ve been shot at in Ireland, detained in Sudan, been part of an aid convoy in the Philippines after Typhoon Ondoy, slept in a tin shack in Darfur, shared a room with a desert rat while watching oil fields burning in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Desert Storm and landed in Barbados after the island’s only hurricane. When I reflect on a few snippets from a lifetime of conducting international assignments it’s perhaps unsurprising that my daughter once said “Dad are you really a spy?”.
As I’ve visited/worked in: China, Colombia, Cuba, Iran, Russia and Sudan and the fact that I have two passports it’s surprising I rarely attract the interest of immigration officers. Over the next couple of paragraphs I will try and explain why I think that is and share a few stories about conducting international Knowledge & Information assignments in an ever shrinking and connected world.
I’ve made 6 visits to Iran as part of an assignment to help develop a Knowledge Management Strategy and oversee the implementation of a set of pilots. All the preconceptions I had were wrong as I discovered on March 21st when Iranians celebrate their new year, Norooz, based on the seasons rather than the Islamic calendar.
Getting organizations to embraceKnowledge Management (and become Knowledge Driven rather than merely Knowledge Enabled) requires a deep understanding of the way they work and the context in which they work. The more challenging the environment the more some of the techniques I describe below come into sharp focus.
We practice what we preach and learn before, during and after and make sure those learning’s are fed back into the methodology we use.
Winning the business
We’ve all had ‘we’d like to invite you to tender for’ requests from organizations we’ve never met. As you become more visible and published so these increase. As a rule unless you can trace a direct link to someone you know or somewhere you’ve been then you are being used as padding for a tender process. Be warned. It takes a considerable effort to respond to tender requests especially when there are procurement specialists intermediating.
I learned this in my banking career from a Canadian client in the mining industry who set up an informal cartel in order to meet overseas government tender requirements for at least 3 bids.
Looking back over the major (£250k+) assignments I’ve won and led, in all cases they came as a result of a referral, a presentation or an enquiry stimulated by targeted marketing activity.
I use this criteria for deciding whether to submit a proposal: what new knowledge will be learnt as well as will it be profitable? To that I add, is it something I really want to do, will it enhance our brand, will it make a difference to the prospective client and will it be challenging?
Negotiating the ‘deal’
Having ‘teed up’ an opportunity, the next (big) challenge is how to tie down a mutually agreeable scope of work and a payment schedule that reflects the effort. Here’s where the fun starts and I try to find out how strategically important the work is as this can influence when / if you get paid!
Big international organizations have defined processes (and payment terms) that often make it difficult for SME’s to work with them. Cash flow is king so be prepared for the potential impact on your business of a delay.
An African friend of mine signed up for a consulting engagement with one of Africa’s major organizations. It looked great and met all of the criteria I outlined above. Payment was triggered by receipt and acceptance of a set of reports and recommendations. Now 9 months later he is still waiting for formal approval for his reports. His mistake? He had no milestone payment and no upfront mobilization fee. Next time he might insist on a payment for delivery with balance on acceptance.
Travelling and staying
Another big consideration is travel. Your safety is important, as is your health. Before I decide on whether to go or not to a country I check out what and whom I know who might help – I conduct my own ‘Peer Assist’ – and visit the members’ library at Chatham House.
Many of the countries I visit require visas and sponsors – that process needs to be built in to your budget and timetable.
Remember you are probably going to be more expensive than a local competitor and unlikely to be able to charge for travel time so do the planning.
Choose your carrier wisely – it’s how they treat you, how they respond when things go wrong and how quickly you get there that matters not the air miles.
My travel checklist works like this:
What’s the quickest route on the safest carrier (in my case that means leaving from Gatwick and transshipping if necessary)?
If over 7 hours, can I break the journey?
What’s the most economical way of getting there in comfort?
Does the airline have facilities to work while in the air?
So I have a working knowledge of schedules and use SeatGuru.com to check out the best seats with the most legroom on the plane.
Accommodation can make or break an assignment! A client will often give you an allowance or have preferential rates. Expensive doesn’t always mean good; proximity to your client is vital as is the ability to work in your room.
For Darfur I had to undergo UN security training. It taught me a number of things I use today when asking for a room:
Above tree line and below floor 7
Preferably not facing the street
Proximity to fire stairs.
Working & communicating
In an FT Article, A guide to (mis) communication Gillian Tett draws on ‘Mind the Linguistic Gap – Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide’, to illustrate how easy it is for people from developed nations let alone developing ones to have major communication difficulties. The guide lists phrases that are commonly – and completely – misunderstood when English and Dutch people talk to each other.
So when the English say, ‘please think about that a bit more’ we actually mean ‘that’s a bad idea’ whereas the Dutch (and many others) would assume we mean, ‘that’s a good idea, keep developing it’.
Gillian goes on to look at The Culture Map by Erin Meyer which notes that human speech varies depending on whether there is a “high” or “low” level of assumed shared cultural context. This affects vocabularies: the English use more words whereas North Europeans (and Americans) tend to be more forthright.
Why is this relevant? If you don’t adapt your style and (in my case) speak slower, write more succinctly and with less jargon, there is huge potential for miscommunication.
Here’s one vivid illustration of the need to adapt styles and approach. Many years ago I ran the energy portfolio for a bank. It involved frequent travel and meetings with clients from different backgrounds and cultures. I was in a meeting with the Deputy Minister of Petroleum and it was fully 15 minutes before we got around to discussing the issue to hand. He led the conversation, about the investment climate, the property market and the oil market and then when he was ready (body language changed) we got down to business.
That same day I met the US CEO of a major oil corporation. He opened with ‘you got 15 minutes, what have you got to show me?’ A rapid change of pace that reflected different contexts.
Importance of set up
If the way we speak, write and hold ourselves is important so are the technological underpinnings. Consider this: in many organization the jump drive (memory stick) is banned. There is a limit on email size (try sending a video to a client), browser activity is monitored and restricted and guest access behind their firewall requires countless sign off and takes days!
Before setting off on your mission, ask the uncomfortable, check whether you need a Mac adapter to show a presentation, are plug sockets receptive to your adapter? I’ve arrived at the HQ of a Swiss organization and discovered that the only way to access their power sockets was with a special plug.
The other key issue is to develop an advance view (hypothesis) of the organization and its culture. Is it a ‘red line’ organization where obsessive attention to detail suffocates innovation and creativity? Or one that is so loose nothing happens.
Agreeing a weekly plan is a great way to surface this as is developing specific agenda for each session.
And we all take things for granted, I once arrived at a ridiculously expensive hotel in Khartoum to be greeted by a sign that read: ‘No credit cards in Sudan’. Thank goodness we had a friend with a local account and a suitcase full of cash!
Listening ears and noticing eyes
How you are received on arrival is usually a good indicator of how important your visit is. I make it an objective to see the President (or similar ranking officer) of an organization during my stay even if to say hello, it is courteous as well as tactically smart.
I also try and get a view of the meeting areas and informal spaces early in a visit. And where the water cooler and coffee stations are located to see how people interact and what they talk about.
I also find it pays to listen more than talk especially in the early parts of an assignment, as someone once said ‘you have two ears and one mouth and should use them in that proportion’.
Assuming you are by now super observant and minding your P’s & Q’s, the next big challenge facing you is how to work with your immediate stakeholder group.
You need to establish separate sounding boards not just your project sponsor.
Wherever possible look to work with a cross functional/silos steering group to whom you can turn to for advice and critical friendly fire.
Show respect to everyone. While our organizational structures tend to reflect importance it is not always the same elsewhere and the power brokers / influencers who can help you to make things happen or identify blockers who can be opaque to the uninitiated.
When yes means no and timing is flexible
Working with global businesses I’ve come to realize a one size fits all ‘approach will fail. I once had ‘ownership’ of the integration plan for an acquisitive business during the dotcom era.
With offices in UK, Germany, Netherlands and USA (where the CEO was located) it became pretty apparent that incentives in the US didn’t play well in Europe (and vice versa).
“Employee of the Month’ is probably universally accepted as a way of incentivizing and measuring performance. I shall always remember the response of a Dutch winner who when told that her prize was lunch with the CEO said ‘And that’s worth winning?’
A serious point: in many cultures, yes means no or at best maybe and you need to know which is which.
I would turn up for an agreed appointment only to be told by the PA or Secretary: ‘Mr … is just coming’ ‘Mr… is on a call’ or ‘Mr… has been called to see …’
All are bad news. 15 minutes is about the maximum time to wait. I’d leave a card and suggest returning in the future or ask for an area to work in while I waited.
Timekeeping is often the biggest challenge on an international assignment. Rare are the occasions when meetings start and finish to time irrespective of the venue.
“Africa time’ is often jokingly used to describe that continent’s loose association with timekeeping.
But it is not only there! If you have a number of meetings in a day remember it can take considerable time to navigate from one office to another and you need time to catch your thoughts and make field notes.
Handling left field moments
Even the best of us can inadvertently put a metaphorical foot wrong.
Our actions are magnified when we are dealing in a different environment and out of our comfort zones.
I narrowly averted a faux pas in Iran. A copy of the Koran had been placed on the table I was sitting at in full view of the audience I was addressing. A technician came to wire me up and put my coffee cup and working papers onto another desk while he did so. He gave me back the papers and cup as he left and I was a whisker away from putting the cup on the book as one might in the UK.
Another issue that often comes up is the formal greeting. I now let the person I am meeting make the first move and respond accordingly. I’ve been slapped, kissed on both cheeks, put my hand on my heart, bowed, even touched noses (a strange experience) and had my hand crushed.
Rituals around food and entertaining can be the most challenging to deal with when working cross border. I was having dinner in Abu Dhabi with a Saudi professor who told me a wonderful tale about an early experience when he was just married and was at language school in upstate New York with his wife.
As is customary they were invited to dinner but did not take a gift as in his culture to do so would be an insult. His hostess was not impressed and it took some time for him to understand the reason.
Perhaps my most surreal experience occurred in Sudan when I was invited to visit a major company for a discussion only to find on arrival there were 200 people assembled to hear my presentation on ‘Knowledge Management in the Energy Industry’.
After recovering from the shock I conducted a 45-minute Q&A session prompted by an opening, ‘What keeps you awake at night?’
Reporting and getting paid
I’ve had mainly positive experiences dealing with international clients and getting paid.
Typically the more ‘developed’ the country the worse organizations (especially governments) are at making payment if you are an SME.
However I’ve found people will try and find a way to pay you if they feel you’ve done a good job. Your challenge is to manage that perception!
In the early contract negotiations it’s important to have an advance or mobilization payment built into the contact. The assignment scope should cater for that and it should be clear the work that is being done in order to trigger that.
Reporting steps should be specified and wherever possible adopt a Value Frame approach wherein each milestone is evaluated jointly to assess the value and impact you’ve provided..
I discovered one of the best ways of setting expectations with clients is to present an early draft to test the format and language. `
The most important technique is a visualization of the service you are providing which is updated frequently. It is so much easier to talk to people in their 2nd language with an image or roadmap as a backdrop.
What do you do when one of your team has to self isolate just before Christmas and is unable to join the pre Christmas celebration? Put the celebrations on hold, go on with the show without them, or make them centre stage of your event?
The team at Bees Homes chose the latter and having dusted down a few of my “Managing Virtual Teams” notes, we asked our Team Executive, Gemma who was self isolating, to come up with an online quiz to accompany our hastily (re) arranged pre Christmas gathering.
It proved to be a success with much laughter. Why?
Snacks (and wine) were shared as we had passed by her home on the way to the office and left food – Gemma had what we had.
Gemma was the host so drove the pace of the event which lasted a couple of hours.
Drawing on some great ideas on this Team Building site, she came up with a “Spin the wheel” quiz and added questions such as “What is your favourite Christmas Song?”
The whole team were visible throughout – see Gemma’s view from my laptop.
We have spent time in f2f team meetings developing a collaborative and supportive culture.
Gemma is someone who responds well to adversity and takes responsibility.
It reinforced many of the tips I’ve given clients over the last couple of decades about managing virtual teams.
Many years ago Nicola, my daughter, asked this question. I spent at least 3 months of the year going to places that would not feature on any list of recommended travel destinations. And when I came back much of what I would discuss was somehow from another world. She was mystified (and probably still is) which is one reason I started recording my adventures and writing books.
I’ve learned much about people, places and culture to the point where I have more friends outside of the UK than in it. Someone asked me how many countires I’d visited – while not yet in three figures the number is not far off.
During a 40+ career I’ve managed countless assignments while pursuing a portfolio of activities and dealt with many clients while I was a banker plying my trade in the Middle East.
So, I was delighted when, on assuming office as CILIP President, I received a request from one of their special interest groups, International Libraries & Information Group, to give a talk to them about working internationally.
They very kindly recorded the event for posterity and here it is: