Two Important Traits For Those Working Internationally
Russian Cruise Ship on Volga River
Photo Credit: Raymond Joyce
People underestimate the value of being open-minded and flexible, especially in an international environment. Below illustrates the importance of both of these traits.
It's 1992 and I’ve just quit my job of 16 years to start my own consulting company. My initial idea is to offer my services as a controller on a contract basis to small and medium sized businesses. However, my long-term goal is to work internationally offering training and consulting services but that is something I need to work on, as I’m known locally as a small business specialist and people locally don’t know of my International Finance background. On my last day, out of the blue I get a call from my friend Pete that someone who was due to teach Entrepreneurship to Russian business people has just dropped out and asked if I would like to go. Having previously taught many businesses I immediately said yes. They wanted me to leave in 10 days and would also provide me with the materials that I would be teaching.
I prepared my material but, being usually a cautious person by nature, I decided to pack some additional more advanced material just in case. After several adventures, (which is a story for another time, stay tuned), I arrived at the place where these courses were to be taught. A small cruise ship sailing on the Volga River. The first class arrived and the room was full of mostly older people who had obviously risen through the ranks in the old soviet system and I’m thinking what have I let myself in for. I decided to ask them to tell me more about themselves and the companies they worked with; in particular how many employees they had. The first person got up and said I have a woodworking Kombinat with 17,000 employees. A Kombinat was a company with many divisions ranging from sourcing the raw materials to manufacturing fine furniture and everything that could be done in wood in between the two ends of that spectrum. Not quite what I was expecting but I thought to myself it’s probably an exception. But no, out of the 50 people in the room that was the smallest business. I realised that the material I was supposed to present was not going to apply to their businesses. I could have presented the material as is anyway and would still have fulfilled my contract or I could work out a compromise that I would show them advanced management techniques that we used in North America and they would teach me what they did and we would find a way to merge the two. I stayed up all night and completely redid the course using the books I had brought with me. By getting them involved in the solution I got their buy in. We had a great time together and shared many ideas and had many fantastic discussions. To accomplish this meant that I had to have an open mind to realise that they must have done something right to get to the positions that they held and to look beyond the philosophical differences that we had. It also required me to be flexible in that having realised that the original plan wasn’t going to work I was able to revamp the material on the fly to ensure that the participants got something they could use.
These traits have stood me in great stead throughout my work in international markets. For instance, I’m constantly teased about the fact that I try to always be early for meetings. In Mexico this doesn’t work. The most extreme case was when I had an appointment to meet with a group of managers from BancoMext. I was advised that I could be delayed on route so I left early; however, I was still over an hour late. Once I arrived, one of the managers came out to see me and I apologised profusely. He laughed and said that they didn’t expect me for at least another two hours and would I please amuse myself in their library and they would come and get me when they were ready. I was happy to do this. On that same trip, one of the other businesses I was travelling with had an appointment with the president of the company he needed to talk to in order to enter the Mexican market. He arrived on time but was kept waiting for over two hours for his appointment he felt slighted and left. If he had been patient he would have had the opportunity to make a major sale, as the president of this company only rarely met with foreign business people and only when the product was of great interest to him.
There have been many other instances, too numerous to mention, where being open minded and flexible have opened doors for me and the businesses I have worked with and I strongly believe that these are two traits you need to have and/or improve upon if you want to be successful.