By Michael Dilberto, Thunderbird graduate
I still remember my first international manufacturing sourcing trip. Way back in 2005, I traveled with the founder of my previous employer (a technology manufacturer) to China to explore our Asian sourcing options. I remember it well because it left an impression on me that I will never forget. In a few weeks of being on the ground and visiting suppliers, I left knowing that we had seen the future. This is where manufacturing was gravitating now, and it was only going to accelerate. I also remember how “in over my head” I felt when trying to conduct business in a place where I knew almost nothing of the language, culture or expectations.
In the end we did some great things over there, and I went back again and again over the years that followed. My lack of cultural knowledge continued to weigh on me, and as I looked at my personal five-year plan for myself and my career, I knew that China was where I wanted to be. Being a technologist by training, I had always had in my mind that an MBA was going to become more and more necessary to fill in the gaps in my business knowledge. After a few years of China experience, I knew that I needed to go back to school and focus on international business.
In late 2007 and early 2008, I started exploring my options for international business programs, and time and again, a school right in my own backyard kept rising to the top of the list. I had been relocated to Scottsdale, Arizona, for work, so it took only a few minutes to head over to Thunderbird for an information session one night after work.
I remember listening to several alumni tell stories just like mine, feeling all at once like a fish out of water and knowing that they were in a place where they belonged. And so, after much deliberation, I took a two-year break from work to attend Thunderbird School of Global Management.
Recently, I have joined the team of Lynx Innovation as the general manager of our soon-to-be-opened design and manufacturing center in China. Over the past five months, I’ve traveled to China countless times, and the feeling that I have while I am there could not be more different. Although I am far from knowing everything about any foreign culture, I understand the differences in communication, in cultural understanding, and in communicating across not just language but cultural barriers as well. I even found myself discussing the nuances of communications across these cultures to some of my colleagues. Quite a difference from how I felt during my first few trips.
I was reminded of this change by a recent article posted on bNet about this very topic, where they quote Thunderbird and the lessons in communication taught there. I can say without a doubt that I am better for having learned these lessons and you would all be well advised to read this article.
In addition, I have a few tips to share with my fellow manufacturing professionals:
– Learn a little language: You would be amazed at how much traction you will get in even just trying to speak the language of those with whom you are doing business. Especially in a “high-context” culture where actions quite literally speak louder than words, this can really help to open the doors of communication with your hosts. There are countless ways to learn a language, my personal favorites being Byki and Pimsleur. Try an iPhone based system to give you something to do on your long transpacific or transatlantic flights.
– Understand the culture: As with language, a little effort goes a very, very long way. There are many tools available online and at your local library (or university library). Cultural Navigator and CultureGPS are two great tools, CultureGPS even has an iPhone app that you can use to quickly look up cultural information.
– Reach out to colleagues: You’re probably not the first person to embark on this particular sourcing adventure, so reach out to those that may have done it before. LinkedIn groups are a great resource, as is the ARE website. You may even find someone on the ground that can help you out, as I have done on a few occasions.
– Eliminate pre-conceived notions: When all of the information that we have about a foreign culture comes from news outlets or other media, we end up with a skewed view of reality. Almost everyone asks me what it is like to work in China, and I always start with, “It’s probably not at all like what you think it is”. One of my colleagues summed it up well, that the answer to the question “How long is a piece of string” inevitably is answered only through our cultural outlook, not some absolute truth. Overseas you will find this applicable to countless situations, that our individual cultural viewpoints may give two people a completely different answer to the same, seemingly obvious question.
– Beware the China hand: This last piece of advice was given to me by one of my professors during my Thunderbird studies in Beijing, and it’s one that I have found to be particularly valuable. I’ve been to China more times than I can count, and yet I know that in terms of culture and understanding, I’ve barely scratched the surface. My value comes in knowing enough to know that I don’t always have the answer, but that I can ask the right questions. The China hand is that person who has been to China twice and is now a self-declared expert on China business. Be aware of anyone who can give you an immediate, absolute answer to any question that comes up in international business dealings. As with all situations in business, if it feels wrong, it probably is. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, dig deeper, understand the situation fully before you accept the answer.
Michael Diliberto is a general manager at LYNX Innovation. He has a background in retail experience design, visual merchandising, interactive presentation and digital signage. Dilberto is a 2009 MBA graduate of Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona, and has bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware. This post originally appeared Feb. 7, 2011, in a blog for the Association for Retail Environments. It is republished here with the author’s permission.