En Route

I am writing this at 35,000 feet above the Atlantic, while some of my classmates slumber in the cabin nearby on our way from London to Brazil.

We are about to undertake (or undergo?) the EMBA International Business Study Trip – a week-long jaunt around Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires. We’ll be spending four days in the former, then heading to Argentina for three days more.

The programme seems intriguing and exciting, incorporating teaching sessions, company visits to global behemoths and indigenous businesses with global operations, and dinners and networking events with distinguished speakers. The trip will be rounded off with a set of presentations in our small study groups on various questions related to international business.

A little over two weeks ago, I was flying the opposite direction – from London to Vietnam. My company is setting up an office there to serve our current and future clients in the Asian and Australian region. I was headed over there to find office premises and to interview prospective team leaders for our small support team to be based there.

My experience interviewing candidates there has got me thinking even harder than normal about cross-cultural communication and organisational culture, a favourite subject for me over the last few years. I am trying to reconcile the hierarchical expectations of Vietnamese work culture with my company’s distaste for hierarchy, titles and structure. Or maybe not reconcile. Maybe just accept the gap between one and the other, and move forward regardless.

The candidates I interviewed varied from quiet and submissive, to bold and brash, to monosyllabic but technically skilled. How to work out what a Vietnamese team would respond well to, and who would fit with our business culture as it snakes through the internet across half the world?

When mentioning to friends and colleagues that I would be visiting Brazil for this trip, a name came up over and over again in glowing terms: Ricardo Semler. I must confess, I had never heard of him. However, after having been blown away by his TED talk here, I bought his book Maverick! to read on this flight. Just a few pages in, and he is bolstering my anti-hierarchy stance with gusto. I am growing bolder in my attempt to mould a team in Vietnam that shares knowledge, responsibility, failure and success as well as our superb team in London.

In the end, CI’s Vietnamese office, just like the businesses we will learn about in Brazil and Argentina, just like life itself, is an experiment with uncertain outcomes whatever approach we choose. The trick is to remember that malleability, and to be willing and able ourselves to bend and change with circumstances.

Now, while I think a bit more about all that, where’s my caipirinha? Stewardess?

Written while listening to ‘Sea’ by Roosevelt (Greco-Roman), and ‘Send Me A Postcard’ by Shocking Blue (Red Bullet).

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