Examples of what your international meetings involve:
Global encounters that I’ve been involved in usually relate to complex presentations involving design — and different kinds of design: identity, packaging, brand strategy, retail design and environmental graphics. For years, I’ve worked in Japan, Korea, China, Indonesia — and presented design programs that are specific to those markets. We’re not taking American design, per se, and applying it there; instead, we are taking our expertise and applying it distinctly to their cultural expectations. That means that we are specifically creating solutions that are culturally defined — and relevant — to that market. Designing for those people. What that means is that you have to know that culture, know the rules, the spirit of the people, their story — and how to interpret that.
How to bring your knowledge there and present it in a manner that’s meaningful for them? Each one of these cultures has specific challenges that must be understood to effectively speak to them. That is the very heart of the work. Listening, knowing the story, and building this to relevance and resonance. Doing that in another culture requires that you are actually understanding that culture — what is relevant, what’s resonant, what is appropriately meaningful? What that means is that you have to dig in, explore, study the people, the culture. And more often than not, you’ve got to be there — in that culture.
Working in Europe? I’ve found there, especially in France, that some of this applies — but less so. The cultures are fundamentally continental, so the relationships — as well as the structuring of the language — are more similar. That linguistic alignment is somewhat more familiar; hence the cultures are more linked. But, for example, stepping to Eastern Europe, like Poland — the language connections begin to dissipate and the cultural familiarity is not so quickly comprehensible.
What percentage of your clients are international?
About 50% of our clients are truly global; it doesn’t mean that all the work that we do for them is globally focused or intercontinental — applications can be local. But it means that we do a lot of work for worldwide companies, sometimes getting called on to work in solving challenges that are globally savvy.
How many countries do you and your team visit annually?
That varies year to year. Most of the runs are to Asia — and it nets out to quarterly runs, or more, for different projects, during an intense year. As well, sometimes the meetings are global, but the travel isn’t — there are teleconferences and international forums to present and review ideas, as well as online working sites. So while you might not be there, you are dealing with the protocols that make those cultures operate in their context. That oftentimes is inherently very different from working in the West. In setting a meeting online, you are doing the same thing — following the cultural meeting ethos to respond appropriately, presenting in the right cultural context.
What are examples of prepping for a meeting abroad as opposed to N. America?
When there’s preparation for a presentation of strategic recommendations, or design, it’s important at the first level to understand the culture that you are working in. And the context of hierarchy in the teams in which you are working. In Asia, for example, corporate structure is distinctly based on a nearly familial structure — there is the leadership at the top that is frequently based on seniority and experience — either paternal or maternal. And clear understanding of this allows for communicating with either the person at the top, or the lieutenants in support and defining, for example, presentation layout. Your team presents to the leadership, but acknowledges that your actual communications might be to the support teams on the client side. And finally, working on the projects themselves, your team will be working with people that are, for the most part, distinctly in alignment with your team. Equal to equal. Your top talent links to theirs — and there’s no mixing of your talent tiers to theirs. Critical to understand these dynamics in managing your relationships and process. It’s important to understand the value of seniority in process and project development.
Examples of meeting situations that are unique to a specific country or region?
The Koreans and Japanese are very work motivated and traditionally committed to long hours — the process of development can begin very early in the morning, and extend easily all day long, working late in the night, finished by dining and drinking as a team. Even flying long distances, it’s possible that you will be met by the team, and begin working immediately, as opposed to having a day’s rest after your arrival. The Chinese might be somewhat more restrained in their commitments to action — they are, in a word, newer to using western consultants; while the Koreans and Japanese have a longer term experience in working with the westerner, and working with them — hard — to get the results that they expect. The Indonesians, to added reference, are hard working at the executive level, but much more casual about levels of commitment. The focus might be intense, but it’s not something that is last too far outside the normal expectations of business hours. Those hours would be something like 8.30am – 7.00pm, in Java.
How do you stay fresh when on the international road presenting in so many countries in a short time period?
The real key is learning how to not be overly dependent on sleep — in the regular manner that you might expect. That is, sleep when you can — and be prepared to rest when you can; it’s not necessarily going to come at you at a specific time; it just might be a quick nap at the hotel, an afternoon pre dinner break. When you work internationally, you begin to get a sense about what time it is, all over the world — so you have some consciousness about it. Standing at noon on the West coast in the US, you might know that it’s in the middle of the night (tomorrow) in Tokyo, it’s late evening time in Paris, dinner time in London, approaching morning in Jakarta. Being a world citizen means that you can frame time more casually, because you know the world and the ways in which time moves throughout the world. You also need to know what you need — like just when to grab an espresso, when to head out for a brisk walk in the sun, when to break for some boosted energy — and when, finally, to offer the idea that your day might be done.
Words of advice about conducting meetings abroad?
• Learn something of the language of the culture in which you are working. Most important? Learn how to say “excuse me”. Most Westerners tend not to learn this most important, humbling phrase. I find that learning to say — “pardon me, excuse me, I’m sorry” is almost the first phrase of importance. After that, there is other phrasing that are the more common tools of exchange – like “Hello; I am; my name is; thank you; good bye,” etc. Interestingly enough, the ability to humble oneself is the fastest way of constructively fostering relationships. Given the positioning of Americans in the current global culture, that is surprising and ennobling, indeed.
• Go early. It’s always a great idea to get there early to spend some time taking in the vibe of the culture. Too often, people simply rush in, rush out. If there’s a presumption that your life has something to do with matters other than work, take advantage of being there and explore. In fact, that exploration might lend itself to prepping you more effectively to present and connect with the constituency.
• Be patient. You are in another culture. You are doing something that’s been done for hundreds of years. You are an emissary from a foreign land. While you might be seen as having expertise, you will always be regarded as foreign — for all the good things that are represented there, and all the bad things. Americans are now universally (and politically) regarded as dangerously arrogant; don’t presume that your personal political views will somehow find their way into understanding; your clients might very well be surprised to know that you don’t support the current political party (how did that person get in office, then?) and while there might be a generally constructive point of view of your skills and offerings — you still are an American.
• Do not presume that you get it. What I mean is — don’t be, as I’ve noted above, arrogant. Be open, listen, pay attention, watch the body language of your colleagues, the people that you are presenting to — learn how to interpret what’s being said. And work with your interpreter in a manner that allows you to gather help in understanding how to listen, see and interpret. For example, in working with an interpreter, you might say: “what did he really mean; why are they huddling like that; why did they all lean backwards like that?” It’s never about the language translation alone — it’s about what’s really happening. With time, you’ll learn what’s really happening — and how to play your part meaningfully and authentically; and how to interpret rightfully the communications and gestures of your clients there, wherever you might be.