By Jim Solich, senior project manager and partner at EFI Group
My father’s family was of Eastern-European decent and many spoke “flavored” English, so I grew up with the message that listening and seeking understanding very much mattered – literally in order to survive. But the lesson went far beyond that.
When I entered the workforce as an engineer, I saw over and over that what I learned as a child about the value of listening and seeking understanding holds true in the global business arena as well.
Very early in my career (during the Cold War era) I had the opportunity to work with Soviet engineers on a highly technical project. We were building a foundry on the Kama River and the U.S. company where I was employed was supplying the Electric Arc Furnaces that would melt and dispense steel into the casting operations.
I was in charge of technical communications with the Soviet team and, one day, while we were running a performance test of the electrical controls that would monitor and control the arc, I realized we were at a complete impasse because each team was coming up with conflicting data.
The situation was so bad that the Soviets were no longer confident in us and distrusted that we were supplying them with what they had requested.
We came to find out that the Soviet engineers were running the performance comparison using old technology while we were using state-of-the-art technology. Once we realized the discrepancy we were all able to move forward again.
Given the damage distrust can have on a project, how were we able to find the real problem and avoid disaster?
We could have easily perceived the situation as two cultures colliding. But instead we viewed the entire project as an opportunity for two cultures to come together – to mesh in service of a common goal. That perception allowed us to listen with open minds (rather than making assumptions about the Soviets based on stereotypes of the time) and solve the problem.
Since then I’ve had the privilege of working all around the world and my sense of the value of listening and seeking understanding has only increased with each engagement, giving me the chance to learn so much more than I would have otherwise.
The Japanese culture, for example, is known to be highly consensus driven, which translates into individuals being very agreeable. But if you do business with a Japanese company, it’s important to get beyond that politeness if you intend to really understand what your prospect’s or customer’s needs actually are. In other words, working in Japan requires a different type of deep listening altogether.
I learned this firsthand in my position with a previous U.S. employer. I had a Japanese trading partner and my company needed to define our expectations for the products and components they were supplying to us. In a multi-disciplined meeting, I outlined what we needed and to everything we listed our direct contact replied, “Yes, we’ll do exactly what you asked.”
All was well … or so I thought.
Later that day, my contact came into my office and asked the most surprising question.
“Jim,” he said, “what do you really want?”
I learned quickly that the very fact that a Japanese partner wants to get along, that their company wants to partner with yours, can actually shield you from delivering or receiving the information.
But these cultural challenges are not a barrier to doing business globally. They are a gift. Because what each culture brings to the business discourse adds to the fabric of the relationship. It makes doing business together more interesting and it builds stronger connections. That is, if you’re willing to listen and if you seek to understand.
Of course, one of the biggest challenges to listening and understanding is language itself.
In these situations, it’s your responsibility to do whatever it takes. I’ve personally spoken through translators with two, three, even four languages, because sometimes that’s what is required to properly communicate with the team.
I think of language translation much like putting a sentence of English into a Google language translator. Often it doesn’t come out exactly right because there are nuances that require a much more in-depth knowledge of language, particularly technical topics.
The question is this: Are you okay keeping business conversations at the surface level when doing business globally, or do you want a real relationship?
If you want to be successful in the international business arena, you need to go for real. Which of course requires letting go of what you think you know.
For instance, if you’re doing business in the UK, you might think that because everyone’s speaking English they approach business, suppliers and partners much like you do. Or that because Denmark, Germany and France are all in the Euro Zone that they do business the same way. The countries in the Pacific Rim provide another example – every country is different. It would be a mistake to think otherwise.
The point is every country and culture is unique and brings a valuable perspective to the relationship. But if you’re not willing to cast away your preconceived notions you will never really maximize the relationships that are available to you.
Another common mistake U.S. companies make when doing business in other cultures is entering the engagement thinking that their own organization has a higher level of technology or competency. That thinking will only shut down the process – and fast.
In truth, there’s no way to know what contribution an organization in another culture will make, or the value of the contribution of any single person sitting at the table.
The challenge is to leverage everybody’s contribution. Again, it comes down to listening.
This is something we practice actively at EFI Group both with our clients in the states and globally. We simply won’t stand for cultures colliding, and we understand the significant value that arises when cultures mesh – and the value of going for the group win.
After all, we want ongoing relationships and success for the entire team – not just our side of it.
While we may not always get new global business right away, we’ve found that the fact that we invite difference – that we listen for it, seek to understand it and want to mesh – is often cited as the deciding factor when we’re eventually given an opportunity outside the U.S. mainland. It happened for us recently in Puerto Rico.
We were pitching an opportunity that would allow us to take a relationship we were building to the next level when someone from the Puerto Rican team asked, “Have you ever worked on the island?”
The answer to that question was no. But what we were able to share is our stance that it’s our ability to listen that brings success to our projects with other cultures, and that we had partnered with a company for this pitch that also put listening to clients at the top of their list.
The Puerto Rican company asked us if we’d be willing to work with a different partner – a partner already on the island. The fact that we said no, that we weren’t willing to sacrifice a partner that valued listening and seeking understanding as much as we did, proved our integrity and while we did not get that project, we were told afterwards that what we said had a direct impact on moving our relationship forward for the future.
Here are just a few tips I would share with any company seeking to do business within other cultures:
Lessons Learned: Insights for Companies Working Globally
Do the Research – Even on Yourself
While researching the culture you’re doing business in is critical, what many professionals neglect is researching which aspects of their own culture that are distasteful to others. This does not mean putting on a façade (after all, authenticity is essential), but you do want to avoid major blunders.
Check Your Assumptions at the Door
Don’t just put away your preconceived notions for the moment. Rather put them in a trunk, put a chain around that trunk, drop them deep into the ocean and FORGET them. Going to this extreme ensures false assumptions won’t drive your discussions.
Listen & Slow Down. Way Down.
Leave lots of space in the conversation for all members from the other constituency to share what they need. Longer moments of silence might feel uncomfortable, but in so many cultures, there are hidden factors such as hierarchy at play and leaving room for everyone’s opinion is the only way to flush out all needs.
But Don’t Just Sit There Either. React.
If you’ve familiarized yourself with the other culture, if you commit to listening and if you don’t let your preconceived notions get in the way, but you also don’t react to what you’re hearing, you won’t get anywhere. You need to put what you know to use and participate both during the discussion and after.
Talk to People One-on-One.
Those who are quiet in a group environment can be a wealth of information one-on-one. Consider scheduling individual conversations with various stakeholders after the meeting to avoid missing out on valuable knowledge.
Appreciating Differences has Real Bottom Line Value
It’s important to celebrate cultural differences and no one would argue that it’s an important part of today’s business climate.
But I’ve learned that appreciating differences actually leads to greater financial return as well. Here’s why:
It’s at the intersection of difference where parts of projects don’t always line up and perhaps even begin to fall apart. Which means it’s also at this intersection where technical skills get refined and technologies get optimized.
In other words, appreciating the differences adds a type of texture that forces everyone to go deeper and taking those deep dives is typically what generates higher ROI for both parties.
No one takes listening to understand client needs more seriously than we do. If you’re a manufacturing company seeking a partner you can count on, contact Jim Solich at firstname.lastname@example.org