By guest author Tony Scott
Managing across Cultures
Tony: Do you see a cultural gap between your people in China compared to the U.S. and Western Europe? If so, how do you manage that?
Jean: I have a fundamental belief that in the end we are all human beings, so it doesn’t matter what country you come from or live in or what language you speak. We are all the same in that we want peace, prosperity, and a better life for our children than we’ve had. If we can relate to people as human beings, you can bridge whatever country, cultural, or bigger-picture gaps exist.
We drive the idea of one team, one culture across our organization. We have values that we translate into behaviors that we expect people to demonstrate, and taboos that we expect they will not demonstrate. These values and taboos are what we use to measure performance.
Tony: What are some of those core values you are trying to encourage?
Jean: Open and honest communication; integrity and respect; team excellence; a sense of urgency; and knowing what your skills are and where you don’t have skills. Those things work equally well in every culture. Of course, we do run into issues with cultural expectations in China, but it is the same if you are working in India. By nature Chinese are compliant in the workforce and do what they are told, so they need someone to tell them what to do or they won’t do it. In the United States it’s a different world: We do what we want and we don’t like anybody to tell us what to do. That’s one clear cultural difference that you come across in China, and you just have to be aware of it and call it out when you see it happening.
I don’t know how you overcome those things other than to move people both ways between countries, and have them travel. We put people into our rotation program, and we take them from their home country for five months. Then they go back and a different set comes over.
Tony: If your plan for Freeborders is to forge a new path in a pretty short time, is there any “secret sauce” that you think will make this successful?
Jean: I think our secret sauce is a couple of things. The first is the methodology we use to service our clients. We believe in transparency, and we take in the best practices from India, the Netherlands, the U.S., and so forth. For each nationality we work with, we try to learn the best practices from their country. We put all this together into something that we call “Chindus,” which is China, India, and the U.S. That is how we manage and engage with clients.
Underneath there is something we call Atlas, which is a framework that provides transparency to clients so that they can see what we are doing every day. Even if we are not doing it right, I would rather that they see it today than let it build for a week or a month and then have them say, “You have not been doing a good job.” We have total transparency and a matrix-oriented set of methodologies that everybody uses independent of the category they are building. That keeps us grounded and close to our clients, and it keeps our clients close to us. We like to make sure that our clients see whomever they’re working with from our company as an extension of their team.
We try to embed somebody from our company with our clients, and we also try to make sure that our clients visit China. Once they visit China, they get it. It’s like, “Wow, this place is amazing!” And after they visit, they don’t feel like it’s such a foreign place; it becomes an interesting and different place.
Tony: Are the Chinese staff members you are hiring able to interact with clients in the way you would like them to, in the way consultants operate?
Jean: At the team leadership level, yes, definitely. We have different centers of excellence, and I was meeting with the architecture center of excellence and they were talking about a new client they have. They are building a settlement system for a brokerage section of the client’s business, and we are designing the architecture in the initial build and sharing part of the build with another vendor. I was incredibly impressed with their knowledge of what it means to have a settlement system in China. Now you might ask, how do I know about what they were discussing? It was because the entire conversation was in English.
Tony: Are you looking at other locations beyond Shenzhen in China in the future, and how will you grow those locations?
Jean: We are definitely looking at Shanghai. In terms of growth, we are certainly not ruling out acquisitions; we know that we cannot grow organically fast enough, so we are interested in acquiring. I think any acquisition that takes us to a new location before we grow there organically is a good idea. We have pretty good capacity where we are now, and we are finding more and more clients in Hong Kong, but Shenzen is so close so that it doesn’t matter.