Saturday, October 5, 2013

Culturally speaking – from two expatriates

Call it coincidence. I was reviewing my notes before flying to Tallinn (Estonia) to make a presentation to the European culture-management community about culture in an organization – how it is created and maintained – and in the news was the “Asia CEO Forum’s Leadership Summit about Filipino idiosyncrasies.” [Manila Bulletin, 16th Sept 2013] For many years at my old MNC company, I was the de facto Asian desk. And the Malaysian expatriate who spoke about their success in PHL being sensitive to Pinoy culture reminded me of my own introduction to Malaysia. Like in most of Asia, relationships are the first imperative – and the Malaysian expat’s instincts I thought were true to form. The challenge is with Westerners. Yet it is dangerous to generalize. For example, the most culture-sensitive I would remember in the expatriate community were a Dane and an Australian. Yet there were also a Dane and an Australian that couldn’t figure out the Asian culture.
“Filipinos not only tend to avoid conflict, but problems as well. Problems are there to be solved, but some Filipinos may think that if they just leave it alone, it will go away. But I tend to think that the first mistake is often the cheapest so let’s try to get straight to it and get it resolved,” said the Dane in the Manila Bulletin article. And from the Malaysian: “We have to create a sustainable talent pool here in the Philippines. In my own opinion, the Philippines is favorable today because of the cheap labor, but one day, maybe 15 years from now, that would not be the case. To make this place sustainable, we need to bring research and development to the country. We need to be engaged in that sector of the business. To make that happen, we need to develop local leaders.”
What I shared with the Europeans: It is important for an organization and its people, irrespective of nationality or culture, “to sign up to the enterprise’s reason for being." And that presupposes treating everyone as an equal – otherwise, why engage them about the object of the exercise? The problem with some organizations, including local PHL firms and even MNCs, is they don’t want to share that with the people. And it sends the signal that the enterprise is a “command and control” environment. The one characteristic of a well-known MNC that we came to know about (through the people that left them and joined my friends in Eastern Europe), for example, was their “mantra of execution.” They didn’t realize that despite the efforts they put behind training and developing their people, there was no clarity in the organization’s reason for being. It was assumed that everyone knew the drill. Yet apparently people felt more like robots. (In contrast, working with my friends, these people found meaning at work.)
And the reason for that could be secrecy rules; for example, some don’t want to talk about the profit motive, among others. But successful enterprises are such precisely because they are a sustainable economic activity. And which is why even in ex-socialist Eastern Europe, people had to understand the “whys” of the profit motive – and that secrecy doesn't rule. And that means beyond the drive for profit is the sensitivity and commitment to transparency and integrity; and that means being a good corporate citizen within and without, being ethical and responsible, giving not simply taking. (I understood that even Europeans may not be unequivocal about transparency as a French-Canadian and a French-Dutch, from academe, approached me in Tallinn awed that my Bulgarian friends responded to the challenge posed before them.)
Once the organization’s reason for being is crystal clear, then it is imperative to reinforce the egalitarian footing of the enterprise: the business goals are understood, shared and owned by the organization and its people. And so commitment and motivation is internalized by everyone, and that assumes that it is a marketplace of ideas: who will do what, when, where, why and how – including “what’s in it for me.” People come together to spell those out being an honest-to-goodness team environment. And which is why, for example, the Balanced Scorecard became a global phenomenon – it facilitates goal alignment. (Disclosure: I opted against it because the process could overshadow “the object of the exercise,” i.e., we had to find a simpler way to institutionalize the process.)
Culture management is among the soft and the hard elements found in successful enterprises – which is also true for infrastructure, i.e., it is not only hard but soft as well. And that is why the expats in the summit touched on problem solving and leadership. We Pinoys can’t be all soft. Subservience by definition emboldens the powerful! Put another way, in a democracy we will always get the leadership that we deserve!

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