As the year draws to an end, I am contemplating the biggest obstacles my clients have had and the root cause of their failures in the international arena. Interestingly, several cases can be linked to the cultural misconception that time must be accounted for in a similar fashion internationally rather than domestically.
As stated several times before, Americans are transaction-oriented; as such, they focus on the product, the price, the warranty to promote and market a product. Internationally, people assume that the price is competitive and that the product holds its own; what they are truly after is the relationship that will save the day once problems occur. As such, they need much more time to decide if partnering with a U.S. company is of interest to them compared to a domestic company. The expectations from the business relation are different, and they require a different time line to yield success.
The cultural dimension related to the way cultures differ with regard to time is a hard one to seize, especially when the executive suite is made of monolingual, mono-cultural people. The best they can do is base their forecast and expectation on the domestic experiences they have had, being oblivious to the difference they will encounter when dealing across cultures.
This is exactly what happened to Daniel, a bilingual, bicultural channel director for Latin America. His company asked him to relocate his family to Chile, hoping to generate some sales for the company in the region. Daniel was excited about the move, as he still had family and friends in Chile and wanted his son to spend time in Latin America.
What Daniel did not realize when he accepted the mandate is that his director's expectations with regard to return on investment were not at all aligned with the cultural reality he would find in Chile. Without articulating it out loud, his company was under the impression that Daniel should be able to make money for the company within a year. After all, the company offers a product that is in high demand and that has been adopted by the biggest U.S. multinationals, something that in his directors' minds should open immediate doors, wherever in the world. The directors had also experienced the opening of several offices in different U.S. states and one in Vancouver; they thus felt that the process and the time frame in Chile should be more or less the same.
Alas, for Daniel, he did not fully realize himself either that Chileans would be so much slower in their decision-making process and that one year in Chile, in the context of business, would be the equivalent of three months in the U.S. It was thus a shock and a huge disappointment for Daniel to hear that his directors had decided, six months into his mandate, that they would pull the plug on the Latin American project at 12 months, assessing that the lack of bites they witnessed in Chile was a sign that the product was not of interest to the local companies there.
Purchase orders started trickling in while Daniel canceled the office lease and signed his name to a new job contract with a local Chilean company. His clients were shocked and upset to see the company leave -- some feeling insulted by the lack of commitment the company was displaying for the region, creating a bad name for the company and U.S. companies in general. Disaster.
This mentality is, however, not to be found in the private sector only; institutions are not immune to it either. When I met Katherine at a social gathering hosted after a talk I had given, she told me she had been leading a USAID program on Zululand in South Africa for the past eight months and that she was ready to move the after-school care program to Malawi where locals, she thought, would be more receptive to her ideas. When prompted to define what made her think that Zulus were not receptive to working with her, she mentioned the lack of cooperation she was encountering from the elders and the fact that they were delaying every possible decision she needed to move forward. When I asked Katherine about her time frame, she told me she had been under the impression that her work should have been completed within 12 months; eight months into it, she realized she was barely getting started.
While moving to Malawi -- a country that has been in the news lately for having elected Joyce Banda, a female president -- sounded like the response to Katherine's plea, I was quick to point out that she would have to start from scratch all over again and would need as much time in Malawi to get the project started as she did in tribal South Africa. Truth be told, 12 months anywhere in countries where time is more circular than linear, such as South America and Africa, is the equivalent of four to twelve weeks at best in the Western world.
Why this information does not permeate to executives and university professors is beyond me. So much energy, so much time and money invested in projects overseas that dead end at 12 months due to unrealistic expectations. When will Westerners finally realize that the world does not beat to the sound of their own drum? Countries have their own tempo, and seldom will they adapt to ours to meet our needs. It is my hope that more people will understand this basic cross-cultural concept in 2013.