How to drink Rice Wine with the Minister
Developing Cross cultural Know-How
Can you drink rice wine with a group of dignitaries in China and stay sober, as a virility challenge? This was the initiation challenge faced by the author, which prompted further elicitation of practical wisdom on global management. Some people see the world as increasingly converging, and in one sense that is right. Go to Shanghai and find Starbucks with a menu very similar to London or Washington or New York; go to Tokyo and you will find an Italian restaurant with a menu very similar to Naples. Cheeses made in Ireland may be sold in the North of France. The world is getting smaller economically, but by no means culturally. I have learnt a lot from real life experiences of operating globally and being faced with many global situations, hearing of the challenges that people have faced, seeing how corporations have come up against issues and how in a very real-life way, they have overcome those.
Going to different places and being polite and ‘nice’ is no longer sufficient. Let me illustrate with an example. Imagine yourself as a chief executive when something goes wrong in Asia, and you deal with your local people as if talking to an American or British team, starting off by admitting to a mistake. However, if you talk to the Asian team in a similar way you have not prepared yourself for a different culture; you will have failed to understand that admitting a mistake is based on a Judo Christian principle almost 4,000 years old. However, in China, there is a 5,000 year old principle which is no shame, no loss of face. In China that politeness could be seen as political, manipulative behaviour-and that is something which that senior executive never intended. So in China should there be a mistake, the first thing I do is to talk about issues with no loss of face; talk about some issue out there, talk about somebody else’s company, talk about how that company faced a problem and then found a way round it. And then with your own team, only talk about ways round it. So nobody loses face, everybody gains face.
To be successful on the global stage, you need to take on board some key messages involving knowledge, skill and particularly outlook which affect individuals and organisations. These can be summed up as stay connected, be at the ready, and deliver.
What does ‘stay connected’ mean in practice in a global context? For the organisation, it is the capacity to extend into different countries and cultures. For the individual, it is the skill to develop a network that will allow that to happen, or the ability of a team which is multinational and located in different areas to reach out to different parts of the organisation and their own stakeholders and yet still come together and work together as a team. A chief executive, for example, may need be sufficiently connected to contact a senior politician in South Africa to discuss corporate responsibility issues in a pharmaceutical industry and tie that all up with a deal. A corporation may need the capability to stay connected right throughout the supply chain to act on a responsible basis across Asia.
Be at the ready
The second aspect of global management is to be at the ready, by looking ahead and preparing. At a personal level, you may need to ask how well you understand what it means to operate in different cultures. Some of the most gifted CEOs and chairmen and general managers read a lot to widen their horizons. With busy schedules managers have to be able to create the time for that, which requires discipline-an important element of being at the ready. This ability creates the platform for developing a positive impression to bring together a business deal which can then can be that much more easily negotiated.
The same issues of preparedness must be exhibited at the organisational level and at the team level. As an organisation, you may need to question the degree of flexibility and responsiveness to differing needs and contexts. Hierarchical, rigid structures may give certain organisations competitive advantage through management of costs, but they will require a disciplined structure to also respond to differing needs.
The delivery component of global management is vital, translating intention into action, anticipating and overcoming obstacles on the way. This might mean for individuals the capacity to call upon the support of stakeholders. For a senior manager, it will mean being aware of issues from board level right through the organisation. There is a stewardship and a discipline required to really understand some of the dilemmas managers face at different levels and geographies. At the corporate level it could be how to structure corporate governance right down the global supply chain.
To lead in the global arena, you must begin by rethinking everything you know and assume about leadership. Global leaders recognise that right and wrong can vary with context. They are able to move from black and white to multiple hues of grey. Their skill is to grasp the full spectrum of the colours of the rainbow. Awareness of global management issues and sensitivities must be part of every manager’s remit. Responsibilities must cover handling complex inter-personal relationships, handling different personalities, but also reading and acting upon nuances of culture and context. The world may appear increasingly homogenous, but this is an illusion. In reality, our differences are more important than ever. The challenge is to live with the paradox rather than bulldozing a way through it.
Professor Andrew Kakabadse is the author with Nada Kakabadse of Rice Wine with the Minster: Distilled Wisdom to Manage, Lead and Succeed on the Global Stage.