#78 Three mistakes expat executives must avoid
To date, I’ve interviewed over 60 expat leaders all over China for the Limitless Project. With each interview, I sit on my end of the mic – expectant – actively soaking up unparalleled wisdom, perspective and insights from combined decades of life and work experience. It’s the best job… ever. It’s time to gather my thoughts together, though, and share some of the golden nuggets I’ve been blessed to obtain from hours upon hours of engaging interviews. I chose this as the first topic because it hits home – hard! I’ve personally made every one of these mistakes, each time necessarily picking up the pieces of broken relationships, shattered business opportunity, and let’s just say it, shards of splintered face.
You see, local teams feel it. They sense leaders who hardly pause for a moment, those who can’t stop crunching numbers long enough to consider the needs of the people.
So here goes…
1. Mistaking the words you hear for the words they mean
True cultural fluency is a rare find now a days and it takes years to develop. In an environment where most expat executives don’t have much more than 2-5 years on the ground, VP of Asia Pacific Communications for Ford Motor Company, Karen Hampton, who uses capable, talented interpreters for her work in 20 markets around the world, has a useful strategy to get to the bottom of critical communication. Let’s me be frank here. One minute with Karen and it’s clear she knows a little bit (or rather, a lot of bit) about communication – and her vast understanding of cross-cultural communication is no different.
Her tip when working through interpreters: focus on the speaker more than you focus on your interpreter. For one, it’s just plain polite to do so, and secondly, over time, she says, you’ll know how to interpret your interpreter’s interpretation (Phew! That’s a mouthful!) based on what you’re observing through your newly-crafted, culturally sensitive spectacles. To be sure you’re getting the message clearly, ask question after question, using angle after angle until you’re confident you’ve heard the whole story.
2. Mistaking English language ability for talent
Just because someone speaks rockin’ English, doesn’t mean their the best engineer, designer, or creative for the job. President and CEO of Giganet Inc., Eric Baden shared with me in his interview that one benefit of being fluent in Mandarin at the executive level is that he can hire local talent based on, well, talent, and whether or not they can effectively do the job at hand as opposed to whether or not they can effectively communicate with the boss.
Eric’s been in China for a long time and has worked hard on his Mandarin level, but if you don’t speak Mandarin, that’s OK, too. Hire for ability and put good people in place who can be a powerful bridge between you and your Mandarin-speaking team.
3. Mistaking yourself as the most important person in the company
Some expat leaders from countries with cultures very different than China’s can easily fall prey to this mistake. With so much pressure to leave a measurable impact on organizations, often on a strict timetable of a just a few years, the tendency is for executives to touch down and run through the organization like a bull in a china shop, leaving the local team floundering in the dust. In fact, it’s not uncommon at all for local teams that have been mismanaged in the past to just sit immobile, stymied under the new regime, patiently waiting it out, doing the bare minimum, until the next guy or gal comes by to implement yet another strategy, oftentimes before the last layer of dust has even had time to settle. Can you blame them?
You see, local teams feel it. They sense leaders who hardly pause for a moment, those who can’t stop crunching numbers long enough to consider the needs of the people. Oh, right. The people. We’ll get to the people in a moment.
Privy to that unfortunate tale too many times in my decade in China, as well, I was floored by my interview with Derek Flint, General Manager of the Portman Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai. I envisioned a man with a resume and title such as Derek’s to be presumptuous, all-important, and maybe even a little entitled – and to be honest, he probably has earned the ‘right’ to be all of those things. After about 60 seconds on the phone with Derek, I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Derek is the type of leader who is unabashedly humble. The only way I can describe it is, he oozes respect for mankind. He’s the kind of guy who makes you feel ridiculously important for no reason other than the fact that you exist, that you’re alive and breathing.
And he wasn’t just putting on airs for his interview with me. He tells his local team, his ‘ladies and gentleman’ at the Ritz-Carlton, “You don’t have to earn my respect. You’ve automatically got it.” In times such as ours, especially in the tumultuous unknowns of a cross-cultural context like ours here in China, where trust and empathy are too often replaced by cynicism and apprehension, those words reminded me of the potential for greatness of mankind when we so choose to be good stewards of any power or influence bestowed upon us.
Is this just lip service from a busy exec who in reality has far too many important boxes to check off his daily to do list? Nope. You know what one of the first things Derek did when he started at the Shanghai property was? Inquired about and addressed his staff’s biggest complaint – the staff cafeteria. In partnership with a committee of those who cared the most, Derek transformed the cafeteria into a welcoming place that his team is proud to call their own. Almost on a daily basis, he gets Wechat photos of the Meal of the Day, always paired with kind words of thanks. Do you think his team feels important and valued, or what? Mere lip service? Nah, that doesn’t seem to be Derek’s modus operandi.
Want to win the hearts and minds of your staff? Want them to follow your ‘laowai’ self into theoretical battle? Look to the example of Eric, Karen and Derek. Start with respect, hire based on merit, intentionally read between the cultural lines, listen to the needs of your staff, prioritize and properly address them, and you’ll be well on your way to being the leader they’re looking to follow.