#72 Karen Hampton – Ford executive offers insight into the nuances of cross-cultural communication
Karen is Ford Motor Company’s Vice President of Communications for Asia Pacific. In this role, she is responsible for internal and external communications in the more than 20 markets of Ford’s Asia Pacific operation. I had a blast interviewing Karen and capturing her insights on how to operate successfully as an expat executive in China. In this episode she also covers everything from why she said ‘no’ to China (…twice!) and what helped her say ‘yes’ in the end; how she balances career and family life; and why her family is thriving. This interview is simply not to be missed!
China operates as a complex web of relationships – family members, university buddies, former colleagues. Somebody that your contact went to university with may now have a reason to be interested in your business and you might never know if you don’t take the time to understand the “real” environment in which you’re operating.
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How she got to China
In Karen’s words “she came late to China.” She had a nice 20-year career in the US and was in a job she loved when the company asked her to come to China to run Ford’s Asia Pacific communications. She actually said “no” twice but thanks to a persistent boss and an open husband, that eventually turned into an excited “yes.” They’ve now been in Shanghai three years and wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world.
What were her reasons for saying ‘no’ initially
It really came down to the fear of the unknown but once she got into the details of the fears, she and her husband discovered that those reasons for not wanting to go abroad were really just excuses – excuses that unraveled quite quickly as they dug a bit deeper.
For Karen, her typical day is pretty much the same when she was working in the US, with only one exception. She likes to get up and get into the office early. In those quiet early hours, she has the chance to work through individual work, such as editing or reading in the quiet still of the empty office. On the flipside, she prefers to leave the office relatively early at the end of the day so she can spend her evenings with her family doing homework and having dinner together.
What’s the difference? Now her meetings with her US counterparts happen at night. She endearingly calls it “second shift”. Did she know about this “second shift” before she came over? Not exactly and in fact, she tells a great story about how she really didn’t understand nor was sensitive to her overseas counterparts when she was still in the US. Armed with a bit of empathy now for how taxing late night meetings can be, she tries to be very sensitive to schedule whatever is most convenient for the group.
What made the role attractive
For Karen, there were three pieces of the job that really drew her in:
- The chance to be part of a growing business and to build an organization was completely unique. Her career has been in the auto industry in the US. Many of her biggest challenges were related to taking things apart, closing operations, etc. But in China, they are building something and it is generating good careers and strong communities locally.
- She had met the Asia Pacific team during previous trips to China and had fallen in love with their “anything is possible” attitude. The energy is very high and the sense of possibility is natural.
- This was an amazing opportunity for her family. Being in Asia allows us to experience people, places and events that they never would experience otherwise.
Family concerns before moving
One of Karen’s daughters has asthma and a peanut allergy and naturally Karen and her husband, Howard, had concerns for her safety. After chatting with people here on the ground whose family members had to navigate similar challenges she decided that it was going to be just like it was at home – always double checking ingredients and being on guard to protect her daughter’s safety – nothing radically different that should hinder their family from jumping at the opportunity to work and live abroad. In the end, her initial concerns melted away as more and more great info was presented to her and they’ve not had any problems.
Like many multinationals, Ford does much of its business through joint ventures. For that reason, much of the interesting activity, in terms of things the media would want to see and hear, takes place in the joint venture. At one point in Karen’s time here they had been pitched on a story by an award-winning journalist at a major international media outlet. It was going to be a great story for the Ford company and brand. The just needed to give this journalist access to some of their people and a tour of their manufacturing facilities.
In the US, Karen would just call up the people she needed and book their calendars for interviews. So that’s what she did… again and again. Day after day, she found herself making the same arguments for why this was good for the business and the brand, convinced that her sound logic and strategic sensibilities would win the day. But she just couldn’t get anyone at their joint venture to agree to help. After days and days of trying, one of Karen’s colleagues explained to her that the interviews just weren’t going to happen.
It turns out that the same media outlet was in a different discussion on a different topic with a different organization in China and that discussion wasn’t going well. Due to some mutual relationships that had nothing to do with the joint venture or Ford, there was pressure on the joint venture to not assist this particular media outlet at that time. The opportunity died.
Relationships matter. China operates as a complex web of relationships – family members, university buddies, former colleagues. Somebody that your contact went to university with may now have a reason to be interested in your business and you might never know if you don’t take the time to understand the “real” environment in which you’re operating. Pressures and interests aren’t as linear or evident as they are in a US or European business setting.
On the flipside, those same relationships can be incredibly helpful. There was a high-profile media opportunity in China that the Ford global leadership team was particularly interested in securing. Their normal contacts at that media outlet weren’t interested in what they had to say. After taking the time to learn more about why, it became clear that a member of the outlet’s management had a personal interest in this opportunity and the editorial team was cut out of the decision making. After learning this, Karen utilized some of the lessons learned in her failure story and looked through her own contacts and found that one of their team went to university with the brother of this key member of management. A few emails and phone calls later and they were able to secure the access they needed for this high-profile opportunity.
Sound crazy to you?? Yeah, me too in the beginning, but once you’re here for a while and you begin to understand how deep these connections go, you’ll definitely see how wise Karen was for utilizing the school network of her team!
How’s your Mandarin?
“Terrible, with a capital ‘T'” says Karen! Yet, not speaking Mandarin is not a barrier for her specific role and in her specific company, but speaking Mandarin would be an enabler for even more success. It is the difference between having discussions and having nuanced, complex discussions.
What’s her secret weapon to engaging cross-culturally despite the language barrier? Active listening. If a conversation is taking place in Mandarin, she spends her time watching and listening intently. By doing this, before the interpretation is shared, she already knows a lot from body language, tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions and the few Mandarin words she does know. (In fact, one of her Chinese partners once accused her of only pretending to not speak Mandarin!) Karen also touches on the importance of showing respect to the person speaking by listening intently and not just waiting for your interpreter to translate.
Balancing work and family
Karen shares that this isn’t really a topic specific to working in China. Everyone, no matter where they live or what their family situation is, faces challenges in balancing their personal and professional lives. It just comes down to personal choices. She makes the same personal choices in China that she made in the US – the biggest being that she will give up a little sleep in the morning to get to work early and leave early so that she is able to help her kids with homework in the evenings.