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Welcome to the World of International Business! … Now what?!

UntitledR.F. Hemphill // 22 February 2015

So you’ve done well in the United States, you’ve gotten things done for your company, you’ve learned the corporate standards and products and services and sales pitches and excuses and competition. And the boss likes you and thinks you have great promise, but you need some international experience. You love the idea, but you’ve never been much past Peoria, not that this isn’t an interesting city. Here are some lessons and advice.

No matter how well you prepare, and how much stuff you read, there will be many surprises. The first time I took on an international assignment – “go develop and build a power plant in Perth” — I found that there were both dumb surprises and interesting surprises.  In the first category comes the “gosh, it sure takes a long time to get places” reaction.  I was not an international innocent.  I had lived in Japan for four years as an Air Force dependent, I had been in Vietnam, I had done small amounts of government travel to conferences in Europe, I had visited my parents in Hawaii where they had retired.  And yet I had to look up which country Perth was in. On my first trip to Australia, I flew from Washington to Los Angeles, where we had some business.  Several days later I flew to Hawaii and spent a day with my folks.  Then I got on the plane to Perth, routed via Taipei, Bangkok, and Sydney.  I figured it was now just a couple more hours to Australia.  Not exactly. It took forever, 36 hours to be exact, all in tourist class.  With bleary eyed layovers in each of the three in-route cities.  Sydney to Perth was equivalent to flying across the US.  The distances never changed, I just got smarter and paid much more attention to the routing and the scheduling of departure and arrival times.

One of the most interesting surprises was how important it was, in every place in which we worked, to have an official company person on the ground, living and working not just in the country, but in the province and in the city.  The information flow was enabled, but more important, we finally figured out, was the demonstration of our commitment to the project in that particular location.  Local and national government officials, and local and national suppliers and service providers, were ever so much more cooperative when they saw us as committed to the country and the location.  Finding people willing to move to some of these places was not easy, but once we saw how important it was, we made it a priority for promotion in the company, and we made sure that when people came back from Cheng-du or Ekibastuz or Yaoundé they were put in good jobs and received promotions.  Building relationships is essential to successful business in every country, and you just don’t do that by flying in and out, no matter how charming you are.

Here’s another surprise: you don’t need a “Local Partner.” All the “International Business” courses in all the business schools I am familiar with teach you that the very first thing you do in going to a foreign country is “Find a Local Partner.” This partner should know your business intimately, be well connected politically, be successful in his or her own country, have the highest ethical standards, and be completely devoted to the success of your company. And you’re supposed to get this person the minute you step off the plane. Well sure, why not? This is advice similar to “you should have a perfect wife.” Right. Where do you get one? And if this “partner” is so perfect, why exactly does he need you?

You don’t need a Local Partner, and in fact you can get in trouble having one, especially on the touchy issue of business practices, i.e., paying people off. Local partners may be perfectly comfortable with local customs such as bribery, but that won’t meet the requirements of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Besides, it’s a bad idea regardless. You do need local advisers, and local counsel, and so on, but not a “partner.” They’re too hard to find, they’re an unnecessary crutch, and they’re hard to get rid of.

When you actually end up with business abroad, then there are two related and important but seemingly contradictory pieces of advice:  Don’t complain that you’re not living in the US any more, and do enjoy the differences and the opportunities a foreign location presents. However, never forget that your business skills and experience and values are why you’re there.  Don’t be satisfied with answers that make no sense, with practices that are counter to what you know to be world class, or with delivery schedules and staffing levels that are not as good as what you would find in a similar location or business unit in the US. Don’t be taken in by the “this is how we do things in our country” sort of responses that you will hear too often.  There is no reason that people in [fill in the blank] country cannot perform at the level you would expect in the US—all it takes is leadership, management and resources.  Well, it also does take a bit of time for these expectations to yield results, and more training and encouragement than you expect, but it’s possible anywhere with enough persistence.  Safety is a good example.  We never changed our safety expectations in our power plants, no matter where they were, and we eventually got safety performance across the company (Cameroon, Bulgaria, Pakistan, etc.) that was at the same level as US electric utility averages.  And way better than the averages in the country where our plant or plants were.

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, one of the very first things you should do before you even set foot in Gazikistan, is to call the US Embassy.  I started out with very low expectations that State Dept. bureaucrats were of any value at all, let alone useful to our specific business.  But that bias was rapidly disproved.  The commercial attaches we dealt with were routinely responsive, knowledgeable and helpful.  Of course they didn’t know the nuts and bolts of the power business, but they knew the service providers and the political process and even the general outlines of the regulatory and permitting regimes.  And they were free!  It is an excellent resource for anyone with a commercial mandate who is entering a new country. And you might as well use it, you’re paying for it.

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