As a consultant at the Thunderbird Emerging Markets Laboratory (TEM Lab), you are expected to hit the ground running from day 1. Our team’s challenge was expected to be more than just implementing recommendations; it was about continuously getting buy-in from the officers at the Lemon Bureau and the Anyue Government, proving to them that we are capable of the responsibilities handed to us, and that we can be trusted.
In recent years, I have learned a lot about learning. I have learned about relationship building in several countries where I did not speak the local language but had to learn how to communicate effectively and “read” people. In fact, I think I developed a deeper sense of “radar” than I ordinarily would have if I had not moved around so much. This new work experience in Chengdu and in Anyue, China, has reminded me of a few rules of thumb for thriving in complex environments:
BE COMFORTABLE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE.
No one ever explicitly told us exactly what the client wanted and expected from us in a coherent manner. In fact, we quickly found that the information provided to the previous teams over the past 2 months by different members of the Lemon Bureau was completely inconsistent. This was very frustrating as we expected our client to have full capacity to implement our recommendations (but they do not). What’s the lesson? Because your expectations almost never correlate with the reality once you hit the ground, you enter in this new world that it is unpredictable, fast-moving, and tough to adapt to. Your attitude embracing and responding to this challenge determines how much you will get from the experience. This is like “riding waves”. You must ride waves as you go. You might often find them collapsing underneath you, and you have to ride the next one when it comes. But in the end, how you ride your waves is up to you; it is up to the attitude you decide to have. I believe your attitude reveals how well you can cope in an increasingly changing and complex world. You need to be comfortable with levels of uncertainty and volatility by leveraging a positive attitude no matter how ridiculously frustrating or tough the situation at hand becomes. You must be open to other viewpoints, and expect to be surprised. Yes, “expect the unexpected” – wise words. But above all, you must be comfortable being uncomfortable.
First, working in environments completely different from the ones you are used to requires you to push harder to understand the context and keep an open mind. During our meetings and presentations, Chinese officials occasionally stare back at us with facial expressions exhibiting everything from cautious optimism to anxious skepticism. Unaware if or when we make a serious, albeit unintentional, “faux pas” by attempting to remain silent or lower ourselves discreetly, we are left unsure whether or not the meeting was a success. How do you make a realistic interpretation? Though difficult, you must think through the project from the point of the view of “the other side”, looking at all players’ motivations and interests, or else you might miss the whole point. Leadership requires authenticity, and authenticity requires empathy. It is not until you walk in another’s shoes can you truly understand what it would mean to work together toward a common goal. Only leaders who have high levels of awareness of others can adapt to these local cultures and as a result, have a chance to develop authentic relationships. This relationship will be the strongest determining factor of how much impact your work has on a client, or simply how well a meeting went.
The Chinese way of working relies heavily on a hierarchic culture, and a lot of business is conducted based on power, as well as around colossal food banquets. Any requests our team has must go through our translators first, who then pass on our message to the officers (who do not speak English). This often distorts our message and is highly ineffective, not to mention how it slows our work down (time is not your closest friend when you need to complete a project in only 4 weeks!). TEMLab teams’ approach to this was simple: go directly to the Chief’s office ourselves, knock at his door and request a meeting. This made our translators feel very awkward, and it definitely was against the “Chinese business rules”, but sometimes you must think you are that important in order to make anything happen. What’s the point of this example? You can address a business challenge in a respectful way that is acting “professionally”, even if it means disrespecting the traditional hierarchy. As it turns out, our approach works, whether or not we are being excused as “foreigners”, you can bend the rules to move forward.