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Cultural Challenges Doing Business Overseas

26 Apr
Cultural Challenges Doing Business Overseas

"Why Would I Do That?"

An Irish reader was incensed by my Monday letter.

He took offense specifically to my comment suggesting that the Irish electrician who didn’t show up until weeks after the appointment he’d set only showed up after he’d run out of pub money. My new Irish friend didn’t take the position that I was wrong in my assessment of the situation from a decade ago. He simply didn’t like me pointing it out for the world…as if the world doesn’t already know that the Irish spend much of their free time at the pub.

Of course, to be fair, Ireland isn’t the only place where some workers take this approach to work. It’s not uncommon in much of the world for some people to seek gainful employment only when they need money to eat.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed it on four continents, and I first encountered it while working in Chad. As one worker there told me one day, “We were fine before these jobs, and we’ll be fine after.” They didn’t need their jobs with us (I was managing the local office for a drilling company) to survive. They took them only to have some extra spending money…to be able to frequent the bar more often. (Please, no hate-mail from Chadian readers.)

In Latin America, I’ve known people in business for themselves–taxi drivers who own their own cabs, painters, car mechanics, etc.–who know how much they need to earn each week to feed their family and pay their rent. If they earn what they need to live on by Tuesday afternoon, their work is done for the week. They take off fishing or hang out at the bar or whatever until the new week rolls around. Then, again, they work until they’ve made enough money to cover that week’s expenses.

It’s a concept we Americans, coming from the Type A personality-driven entrepreneurial economy of the United States, have a hard time coming to terms with.

American Businessman Offshore Story

An American businessman on vacation in Latin America thought he’d try to instill some American entrepreneurial spirit in a local guy he noticed on the beach. Each morning, the American watched as this fisherman went out fishing. The fisherman would come back to shore just a couple of hours later with a bunch of fish, sell most of them, and then head home, taking his remaining fish with him.

After watching this for a few days, the American asked the fisherman why he didn’t go back out after he’d come back to shore and sold his first batch of fish.

The fisherman wondered: “Why would I do that?”

The American explained that, if the fisherman went out for a second round of fishing…and then a third round of fishing…and so on…he’d catch more fish and make more money.

Again, the fisherman responded: “Why would I do that?”

The American, getting excited that the fisherman seemed interested in his ideas, went on to explain to the fisherman that, if he earned more money, he could eventually buy a bigger, better boat for fishing.

Same response: “Why would I do that?”

Getting more excited about the business plan taking shape in his head, the American explained that, with a bigger boat, the fisherman could stay out longer and catch even more fish. Eventually, the fisherman could earn enough money to invest in a fleet of boats. He could have other fisherman working for him. Then he would need to work only a few hours a day. He’d be able to spend more time with his family, relaxing.

The fisherman pointed out that that was what he was doing already.

It’s not up to us to change the people we find in the new places where we plant ourselves. As much and as often as I have tried over the years, I do recognize the futility and the wrong-headedness of that approach.

At the same time, you don’t have to abandon your interests in efficiency and productivity. You can find driven workers in any country, in any culture. We have in Ireland, France, Nicaragua, Argentina, Honduras, and, most recently, in Panama. We go into each new market where we intend to do business taking the position that we aren’t going to adjust our standards. We’re going to expect hard work and results. We’re disappointed and disappointed…until we’re not. Until we find someone–Irish, French, Nicaraguan, Panamanian–who embraces our approach. And then we try hard to keep him engaged.

Just like the lady who wrote in to me yesterday. See below…

Lief Simon