The Wishing Star
Advising US and international companies on doing business overseas usually begins with the client’s dictum: “Just tell me what to do so I don’t offend anyone and get my job done.” A more confident if less insightful corollary of that proposition is, “Don’t worry, we know the right people.”
If these propositions are the common wisdom, then somewhere along the road to success, in my experience, there has been a decline in common sense and effective business practices. Some business leaders think that if you’re not being poisoned by your Chinese partner or held in custody in an Arab Gulf country jail, there’s a near certainty that the rest is easy. While globalization has brought us closer to a nearly universal use of English as the language of business, events of the recent decade reinforce the reality that national sentiments of exceptionalism, from the smallest African country to the BRICS, still dominate how business is conducted and done. The role of intermediaries and “local representatives” may have evolved, but the bottom line is the same: if you don’t know the territory, really know it, you are going to make mistakes and undercut your competitive advantages, if you had any in the first place.
As in a negotiation, the first three steps in international business are preparation, preparation, and preparation. So, as a visual aide to help you think through what you need to consider as you develop your global or regional marketing strategy, I have put together two illustrations, in the form of stars, that address what propels the worldview of ‘others,’ and how to understand the context/environment in which you will be operating.
The Wishing Star focuses on why people make decisions every day, from selecting what they wear in the morning to what enables them to develop options for solving problems and defining interests. This “Wishing Star” is what reassures the person that what he/she is doing is consistent with their world and provides them a sense of satisfaction and reward. If you want to see how this plays out in most Arab societies, check out the paper “Negotiating, Working, and Living in the Middle East” in the training section.
The Wishing Star has five points: motivation, judgment, relationships, sense of conflict/cooperation, and rewards.
The first point of the Wishing Star is motivation – what drives a person to assess opportunities/risks, take risks, make decisions, and set priorities. I call it the “survival imperative” because it defines why a person takes or does not take actions.
The survival imperative can be tricky when, too often, it is masked by a seemingly confident, proactive, knowledgeable personality, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. This person, in fact, may be cautious to the point of inaction, rely on close contacts and relations for moving forward, and is adept at smoke and mirrors. Slow and steady doesn’t always win the race or even come in close, but in international business, being impatient can easily be manipulated by someone who senses your frustration. While younger Arabs may claim that they are not bound by the practices of more senior business people, the reality is that they still work within a cultural milieu that discourages risk-taking and encourages exploitation of limited resources; if you’re concerned with survival, no matter what the timeframe, it usually means a short time horizon and allergy to risk.
The judgment point of the Wishing Star relates to how risk is managed; it’s about the process of trying to improve oneself and one’s family and friends once an assessment of the odds is in place. I like to call this the “souk mentality” in referring to the Middle East, because in the souk/bazaar/market, everything is negotiable and every seller knows their walk away point. It’s about controlling and mitigating risk, not hiding from it. The souk mentality also has to do with controlling time…if the buyer is in a hurry or the company changes its representative to someone new to the territory, then time becomes a factor to be exploited in the negotiation.
Relationships refer to more than familial ties. It is about trust—with whom one will do business, how the business is conducted, and what is expected in return—trust, loyalty, reciprocity. Despite continued stereotypes about the path to business in many countries relying on making shadow payments and employing show personnel, ultimately a business transaction is best understood as part of an ongoing relationship, not a one-off (unless that’s what it is). Even the Chinese, masters of the new business world, have very high hurdles when it comes to trust, loyalty, and reciprocity; and there are too many stories of failures by outsiders who think they really know what the Chinese, Indians, or others are really about. And here’s where concessions and facilitating payments become problematic—when does it end? Is that what it’s about, money? Is this just another test that you have to pass to do business? Not so easy to answer these questions but there are plenty of reliable sources who can clue you in about how to succeed.
The first three points—motivation, judgment, and relationships—each have two or more sides in looking at the worldview of the customer/client because the focus is on decisions about a process involving two or more parties. The fourth point – sense of conflict/cooperation – looks at the person’s determination of how hard they will have to work to make a deal. There are several layers of push-pull factors in any transaction and we don’t always see where it’s headed. If one perceives deals in terms of zero sum outcomes, then my outlook on a negotiation will usually not be as flexible as someone moving more from a win-win point of view. There is always the caveat that what looks like win-win to one party may look patronizing or a deception to the other; learning how to spot that difference is part of the homework. One of the toughest calls in assessing how others see the process is the capacity to sense their perceptions regarding responsibility, which is tied to position and title, versus accountability – being held responsible for results. Responsibility is the business card; accountability is the report card.
The fifth point of the Wishing Star is about feelings of success or failure; it’s about what matters to someone at the end of the day and how I perceive how others see me. There are plenty of references in cross-cultural literature to “shame” cultures and the impact of the collective on the individual’s expectations and performance metrics. This is about how the individual internalizes those societal and cultural indicators of success and failure and the rationales that are constructed to avoid imbalance in how someone judges himself. If we don’t know how they define and deal with success and failure, then we miss the ultimate motivators and could come off sounding patronizing. Beware of colleagues who have a penchant for conspiracies and gossip; they are the first in line to project defeat/failure on others rather than learn from mistakes (except for more avoidance tactics).
While this Wishing Star outlines what shapes the values that underlie a person’s business behaviors, the SMART STAR, in the next segment, provides guidance to the content that will help the wise expatriate avoid pitfalls in international transactions.