Doing Business In China – Body Language, Lost In Translation

We are often led to believe that the non-verbal forms of our communication are so culturally bound that they are indelible and always remain with you even after living a lengthy time in a second culture.

This is far from the truth. The culturally bound, non-verbal habits of your native culture can often be over-ridden in spite of the inborn natural predilection of cultural blueprinting.

Most often, North American and European companies wishing to expand in China will send over their local ‘new market expert’ to initiate contact with local authorities and business leaders. Equipped with the socially proper forms of introduction; the acceptable patterns for exchanging business cards; the appropriate level of gift giving along with best wishes and the encouraging advice of “Go get’um cowboy!, the poorly prepared candidate doesn’t realize the formidable task before him or her.

Rarely, the company will leap for joy, when they realize that they have a native born Mainland Chinese employee on staff and he or her is given the task of opening up the new territory in the expectation that sending back the expatriate to do the job gives the home company a great advantage.

Certainly, the ability to speak the host country’s language is a distinct and valuable advantage. But it is not the key to success by a long shot.

For example, I was recently in a series of meetings where just this sort of unhappy scenario occurred. The company was marketing a software bundle to a Beijing Company, for the burgeoning Chinese real estate market. Two of the Canadian company’s employees were native born Chinese who had immigrated to Canada over 8 and 12 years ago, respectively. There was a key Beijing resident point man who had all the connections required to introduce the Canadian company to the Beijing authorities. It should have been a reasonably easy project since all of the necessary components for successful communication were in place.

But something wasn’t going well.

The first meetings went as expected. The point man was graciously received by the hosts and the meetings started with acceptably low level representatives. Apologies were given for the absence of higher representatives. The reasons for their absence were acceptable since these introductory meetings were necessary in any event.

After two such meetings there was a stall to meet the higher decision makers. Continuing excuses and apologies were forthcoming and time went on. These circumstances can be expected and are often used as a negotiating tactic when dealing with foreigners who the Chinese regard as too eager to make deals. The strategy is meant to frustrate the foreigners and to agitate their natural impatience so as to extort concessions during final negotiations. The two native Chinese employees were aware of this tactic but were not influenced by the circumstances. Like their Canadian colleagues, having lived in the foreign influence for 8 to 12 years, in spite of their cultural blueprint, they were becoming more and more impatient.

Another meeting was finally arranged with more low level and intermediate level Beijing representatives but still the absence of the decision makers of whom apologies were again offered.

During the meeting I had the opportunity to observe everyone’s body language. Here it was helpful to understand which gestures were universal and which were culturally bound. The universal gestures, such as facial tics and eye contact should have been apparent to everyone, including the two Chinese Canadians. But they were ignored, having been overtaken by the new cultural standards they had been living under for a decade.

Finally, quite uncharacteristically, one of the Chinese Canadians shouted out his uncontained frustration and anger at the slow progress. The point man, a native Chinese, who should have been able to read the body language of his own countrymen, also shouted uncharacteristically, threatening to pull all of his financial support out of the project.

Such behavior is regarded as the most unacceptable behavior in any meeting or company in China. It causes the ‘lost face’ of both parties since one is shamed and the other is embarrassed for them. After some calming and soothing efforts by the hosts it was agreed to close the meetings for now and resume later when the decision maker could finally attend the meetings. This seemed to placate all those who had registered their vociferous complaints.

What went wrong? Why didn’t the Canadian company ever get anywhere with what was clearly a great product and one which everyone agreed could be put to good use and make a profit for everyone?

First of all the Chinese Canadians had forgotten the explicit non-verbal signs of their native cultural. They ignored the fact that the hosts, although showing outward respect for the point man were not going further than the intermediate stage which should have indicated that there was something superficial about the relationship between the point man and the hosts. He in fact had exaggerated the positive aspects of the relationship which as it happens did not run as deep as needed in these circumstances. This fact was apparent at different times. For example, the point man’s seating position in the meetings was relegated to a diminishing placement in the various meetings. If this had been noticed by the Chinese Canadians, it was misinterpreted as a sign that the hosts wanted to speak more candidly with the Canadian guests. As time went on, the hosts began to discount the comments of the point man which is very uncharacteristic This would never have happened if the point man held a prestigious place in his relationship with the Chinese hosts.

I later learned from a candid conversation with a nephew of the high ranking decision maker that the government had done business with the point man in the past but the relationship had deteriorated since. The offer of initial meetings was based on the appearance of respect in efforts to avoid unpleasantness. But the invitation was construed as a green light for the project. Also, when the two incidents of shouting occurred it should have been abundantly clear to the two Chinese Canadians that something was terribly wrong. If the relationship was solid this would never have occurred. Yet, the whole Canadian party held out for more than another month at great expense to the company, in the false hope of another meeting.

I have since witnessed several other similar meetings with English, German, American and South African companies to whom I have offered advice.

I cautioned each company, prepare your employees and representatives with knowledge that they can use when coming to do business in China. Arming them with superficial knowledge of greeting courtesies and gift giving rules just isn’t enough if you want to be successful. Teach them communication skills and especially appropriate non-verbal awareness and behaviour.

European Heroes (2005 )

Maud Fontenay

As my exploits in the field may be viewed as inertia personified, I always greet tales of extraordinary physical endurance with a mixture of awe and wonder. The awe is simple enough – and in the case of the youthful Maud, quite understandable – but the wonder is how bonkers some people are. There are innumerable cases of individuals fulfilling long held ambitions by testing their limits and Maud Fontenay demonstrates this point in spades.

Maud Fontenay is a slight, slender woman of 27 who sought to show that size and strength alone mean little without mental toughness and resourcefulness. Her achievement? Rowing 7,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean on her own in 73 days while variously contending with a broken seawater filtration system and diving into shark infested waters to fix her boat. Spending the first fifteen years of her life at sea was certainly a helpful start but, nonetheless, it’s a pretty staggering feat. As for my feet, you can be assured they remain rooted to the spot.

Jeff Porter

Thank God, I have never borne personal witness to a terrorist outrage or other catastrophe. Yet, if I was and I was also compus mentus, what would I do? Run for the proverbial exits? Sit in shock? Or, indeed, take some responsibility? That all assumes, of course, that I only had myself to worry about and not the scenario that confronted Jeff Porter.

Porter is a driver on the London Underground who saw a train on an adjacent track blown up as part of the orchestrated campaign last July by supporters of al Qaeda. His presence of mind as he approached Edgware Road station ensured the death toll was minimised. He decamped from his train, in the wake of this ferocious explosion, and groped his way through the dust, smoke and trapped bodies to raise the alarm in the main body of the station. He subsequently assisted in the orderly evacuation of around 1,000 passengers from his train in small groups. We often marvel at the heroic achievements of trained emergency services so Jeff Porter, a modest, self effacing train driver, deserves our great admiration all the more.

Lars G. Josefsson

I attended a seminar recently which, among other things, showed the result of a vox pop that asked members of the public whether they were both environmentally friendly and aware. The bemusement, embarrassment and mild irritation that unfolded on screen was highly instructive and was almost a mirror image of the attitude and stance of business leaders and politicians. Climate change is the most serious long term threat to the planet, far more than the threat of race wars or mutant viruses, and Lars G. Josefsson is among the most serious champions of this issue.

His influence reflects his position as CEO of Vattenfall, the Swedish state controlled electricity company, and he has used it to exert pressure on G8, the United Nations and the international business community to impose a worldwide system to limit carbon dioxide emissions over the next century. This will permit a market in which quotas may be traded and indicates that energy providers are starting to regulate their industry before governments demand it. The brand of enlightened radicalism displayed by Josefsson has been an infrequent guest in boardrooms hitherto but is, I suspect, something we’ll be seeing rather more of in the future.

World Economic Forum Will Showcase Confident Leaders

The crisis of the past few years may well be behind us now, so say many of the business owners and leaders who participate in the WEF (World Economic Forum) held each year. This year the non-profit Swiss foundation will hold its annual meeting from January 26 through the 30th at the eastern Alps region as usual, in Davos Switzerland. Political leaders from around the globe, along with economists, journalists, intellectuals, and top businessmen will converge to discuss world issues ranging from finances to the environment and world health. Business opportunities will grow based on confidence in the world’s future.

The world’s recent financial crisis may be a thing of the past

As the world returns to normal as far as finances and the economy goes, there is an increased feeling of high expectations for a brighter future to be found in 2011. It has been said in a survey that 2010 was the year for investing and 2011 will most likely be a pivotal year in which to make money once business CEO’s emerge from their past “bunker mentality” and regain confidence in their operations and business dealings. The global credit crunch that has been oppressing financial dealings around the world since 2008 has been showing signs of weakening the past year and 48% of the business leaders express high hopes in the future of high finance for the foreseeable future.

Asia may prove to be the driving force due to expansive growth

Emerging markets such as China and other Asian countries including India, Thailand, Paraguay, and Colombia are progressing rapidly in the world of financial development they will prove to be extremely capable of forcing the world’s economy into high gear and help bolster confidence in top leaders of the financial world, including their own. Many bosses in Western Europe show less confidence in the performance of companies of the area, although eighty percent of top leaders in Germany and Austria have high expectations and confidence that their company will perform exceptionally this year and forward. Among the most successful leaders are those who can look beyond the recession and see a brighter future ahead. Other emerging marketplaces showing high potential for rapid growth in the near future include Africa, Latin America, as well as the Middle East.

As major exporters the U.S. and Europe are less dominant than before

When Africa and Latin America increased in importance as top exporting countries for places like India, the domination of that area of trade by both U.S. and European countries weakened and they fell behind. Expanding a country’s exportation means job expansion and investment in the future of that area of the world. More jobs are expected to be created in the coming year and over half of the company bosses say they plan on increasing staff by hiring. Just a year ago that figure was only around thirty nine percent and another sixteen percent still had plans to cut some jobs.

Chief executives fret over budget deficits at the government level as well as unsettling economic levels, lack of skilled workers, and over regulation. The fact remains that much of the world has issues with shortages in many natural resources, political instability, and even the changing climate only contributes to the worries on CEO’s over burdened shoulders.

Surveys conducted conclude the world’s economy remains at risk

With rapidly growing populations raising the demand for water, energy, and food by an estimated thirty to fifty percent by the year 2030 a Global Risks for 2011 survey speculates on the success of emerging countries and states the world is not in a position to face up to new major shocks and we need to take it a bit slower to avoid further collapse of the world wide economy. The meeting this week at Davos will prove to be an interesting one this year where some two thousand top business as well as political leaders will converge.

Commodity prices often foretell the future

When prices of the “basics” soar to new heights they often display predictability when it comes to where the world’s economy is heading. Prices have risen on items such as corn (up 52%) Coffee (up 77%) and cotton (up 84%) in the past few years making for a volatility that brings out the “worry wart” in economists. As the world’s population increases there will be ever higher demand for those basics such as water, increasing by 30%, food increasing by 50%, and energy usage higher by 40% or even more.

How To Develop Leaders At All Levels

“The wicked leader is he who the people despise.

The good leader is he who the people revere.

The great leader is he of whom the people say,

‘We did it ourselves’.”

– Lao Tsu, from the Tao Te Ching

Or, as Sinclair Beecham, founder of the sandwich store group Pret a Manger, said recently, “I used to think my role as a leader was to be indispensable, with the phone always ringing, showing what a good leader I was by always being there to solve problems and fight fires. Now I know my job is to stop that phone ringing. The less it rings, the more dispensable I am, the better.”

Make leaders, not followers

You make yourself dispensable by making more leaders. The role of the leader today, says the consumer rights campaigner and occasional US presidential candidate Ralph Nader, is not to create followers, but to create more leaders.

According to Apple founder Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s powerful culture and epic growth was not down to Bill Gates’ charisma as a leader, but his ability to create ‘mini-me’ leaders who drive Microsoft forward:

“Bill has done a great job of cloning himself as the company has grown. Now there are all these aggressive ‘Little Bills’ running the various product groups and divisions, and they just keep coming at you and coming at you. They’re not afraid to stumble…”

Mike Harris, till recently executive vice-president at the European on-line bank Egg, says any attempt to drive transformational change from one leader at the top, or even a small group of leaders, is doomed to failure. “I recall when we reached a point where I just couldn’t see us moving forward with the speed we needed. The whole organization was running on my ability to generate transformational change.

The clear answer was we needed 30 or so leaders generating transformational change, not just me. Creating a cadre of leaders around you who can take the odd failure and not be cowed gives you an exponential growth in your organization’s ability to transform itself.”

Leaders everywhere

You need to go even further than that and cascade leadership to create leaders everywhere: people who take the initiative, make decisions, take calculated risks on behalf of the organization and for customers.

The key to spreading the leadership virus is not being afraid to help other people to achieve greater levels of control; not feeling threatened by their increased power or independence. Dianne Thompson, CEO of the world’s largest lottery operator, says you have to be enthusiastic about appointing people who are better than you are.

Reward viral leaders

One obvious route to encourage leadership development is to reward it. Tony Highland, a leader at Barclays Bank, began rewarding his people based on their development of the people around them. Barclays’ central development unit is looking at the possibility of replicating this model across Barclays. Tony, incidentally, is an example of an customer-focussed leader who has the ability to create a vibrant culture within a business unit that is part of a giant, fairly slow-moving, group. His secret is that he just does it. Talk to his direct reports and they tell you, reverentially, that they’ve never worked for anyone like him. “It is just so liberating”, said one.

Concerned that his large organization needed to channel its energies, Tony took to the road, asking all 2,167 people who reported, ultimately, to him, what kind of organization they wanted to work in. They all, more or less, wanted the same six things: challenge, responsibility, trust, reward, learning, and to have fun while doing it. They were then challenged to commit to behaving in those ways.

Tony also puts regular time in his diary to be out on the ‘shop floor’ at least once a month for a day, working in the front of house area of one of his banks, to soak up customer issues and observe and be part of the customer experience.

Leaders learn

John Stewart, CEO of National Australia Bank Group, told me this: “When I was CEO at the Woolwich (a mid-sized UK financial services company) I noticed, as we all do, that there are branch managers who can be put into a poorly-performing branch and turn it around to top all the league tables.

So, we got ten of these leaders together for two days to find out how they do it. Let’s see what they have in common, bottle it and spread it around the organization, I thought. Two days later, we realized it wasn’t possible. You can’t clone leadership. They all had their own leadership styles and approaches.

But, there was one thing they all had in common: they were learning from each other all the time. I watched them, and noticed that they were all writing pages and pages of notes after talking to each other. They were constantly saying ‘That’s a great idea!’ They were enthused. They were pushing forward and getting 1% better at everything all the time.

They just kept learning from each other what works and what doesn’t. Learning from the experiences of other leaders is what this generation of leaders has to do. It’s how you minimize mistakes – learning what to avoid as well as what works. What you don’t do is as important as what you do”.

At a European Conference on Customer Management a few years ago, one of the keynote speakers was Feargal Quinn, whose chain of retail supermarkets in Ireland pioneered customer innovations that supermarket chains around the world – from Wal-Mart to ASDA to Tesco – copied. Quinn wowed the audience at the conference with his morning keynote session.

Later in the afternoon, after most keynote speakers would have disappeared, there was a small figure sitting at the back of a break-out session, scribbling furiously in a notebook. It was Feargal Quinn, multi-millionaire transformational business leader and Irish senator, still learning.

Developing leaders is time-consuming. As Warren Bennis puts it, “You can’t put a person in a microwave and out pops the McLeader. It doesn’t happen like that. Leadership evolves.” That’s why Jack Welch, legendary former CEO of General Electric, spent up to forty per cent of his time developing GE’s leaders. And it’s why his successor, Jeffrey Immelt, continues to do so. How much time do you spend on it?