International Assignments “…Believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear…” – (N.Whitfield & B.Strong)

Never underestimate the differences in cultural idiosyncrasies and norms when you take up an international position and find yourself in a foreign country. That means never take anything you’re told at face value without seeing it with your own eyes. In today’s global market, it is de rigueur for someone with their sights on the C-Floor (or who just wants to be a more rounded individual) to seek out an overseas posting. And it’s not just about westerners having to become familiar with ‘exotic’ cultures. Proportionally more and more Asian and other new economy executives are becoming expats themselves and so will face the same personal challenges.

As Marvin Gaye once sang “Believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear…” in other words, get out there and wander around the office and the market place!

A while back when working in South East Asia, I recall finding my executives’ questionnaire topic coverage on shopping habits a bit shallow. It didn’t seem to match up with what I’d seen when buying the week’s groceries in either the supermarkets or the wet markets. As most were in their 20’s and 30’s, married with children, I thought this odd, for I expected them to have the same experiences as me. However, on further investigation I found that most lived in an extended family situation and that shopping was role of their live-in mother/mother-in-law/grandmother – it was not something a young corporate executive did – they worked too much overtime! Had I not ventured out beyond the usual expat hangouts, I would not have picked up on this and hence signed off the questionnaire without a further thought.

For most of us, nosing around and looking over people’s shoulders is not natural but it was something a colleague of mine picked up when he moved to become the company president or ‘shacho, 社長’ in Japan. He felt that despite the country’s reputation for efficiency and ‘zero-defect’ production, there was a fair bit of want and waste in his bailiwick.

He did not speak the language, so the only way to find out was to walk around, look into offices, meeting rooms, and peer over shoulders to see what people were doing and how they were doing it (or how they weren’t doing it to be more precise). On one occasion, after much insistence, and despite being told he would not understand it because it was in Japanese, he finally got to review a range of incentive payments for cooperating retailers. To cut a long story short, his company was paying $1,500 a month to a high-end retail chain that in 2 years had not been able to provide a single compatible and useable data set. When he challenged his colleagues as to why all this money was being spent for nothing in return, he was told “oh, it’s a very prestigious retailer and they don’t cooperate at all with our competitors so it looks better for us!”

Good advice to all undertaking an international assignment for the first time is keep your eyes open as well as your mind, especially if the market to where you have gone ostensibly speaks the same language. The search to find security in the commonalties with your own culture (especially for those from the English speaking world or, more recently, overseas Chinese finding roles in mainland China) often obscures the extent of the differences you will need to tackle to succeed and thrive.

When find yourself to a market where you don’t speak the language, try to learn the basics, although with a tonal language like Chinese or Thai, that’s a hard call. But don’t wait until you learn some basics before you start to wander around the office; not being able to communicate verbally sharpens your observational senses, and it’s likely you’ll pick up areas of difference, inefficiency, or whatever just by looking. As a broad rule of thumb if something looks a bit odd, 50% of the time there will be a perfectly good (local or cultural) explanation for it. But in the other 50%, often the reasons will be flawed or no reason (i.e. no understanding) will be proffered, just the ubiquitous “I don’t know, we’ve always done it that way ’round here.”


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