|Posted on July 22, 2009 at 2:05 PM||comments (1)|
When I opted to make the transition from Corporate America to Corporate Africa, I left the certainty of my career path in the US to operate in the largely unstructured environment of West Africa. And if that wasn’t intimidating enough, immediately upon my arrival in Accra, Ghana, I was cautioned by my new colleagues of the history of the high rate of failure among North American (and several European) expatriate managers operating in Africa. This was notwithstanding their functional business expertise in areas such as marketing, finance, accounting and other areas. Accounting for much of their failure, however, was their inability to adapt to new cultural environments of their host community.
Simply put, I quickly learned that its one thing to acquire knowledge and expertise in a particular field of study, but expertise alone is not enough to guarantee you success when entering the complex cultures of Ghana, Nigeria, or Gambia. A small blunder, especially in the beginning, can ruin or even destroy your efforts. Furthermore, if not managed well, cross cultural misunderstandings can have harmful consequences.
Recognition of this early in my assignment paved the way for success over the long run. Unlike many of the expatriate managers who had come and gone before me, I steadily excelled from managing my company’s business operations in one country to overseeing multiple projects in Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Gambia, Nigeria, and Cameroon. What was initially meant to be a six month “experiment” turned into a multi-year contract.
The question becomes, then, how does a Western manager of an Africa-based firm learn to deal effectively across cultural boundaries? When dealing with business practices that differ greatly from your home culture, it is useful to consider two questions when designing business and communication strategies to deal effectively with your local counterparts:
1. Where are the gaps widest between the American cultural framework and that of Africa?
2. Where does communication threaten to break down due to cultural differences?
In developing a plan for market entry into Africa, it is good strategy to identify in advance what is culturally expected. Conducting business in Africa is complex and tends to be a long process because traditional African culture is based on investing unlimited time in building long-term and mutually trusting relationships. In contemporary African society this traditional principle is infused into the business culture. But once relationships are established, business ties tend be fruitful and long lasting.
To be efficient as a cross-cultural manager, you need to be informed of the major underlying cultural values that have direct or indirect impact on business relationships and organizational culture. To achieve this, you need to acquire those "soft" skills, which, for many, are considerably tougher to attain than the "hard" business or technical skills.
Soft skills provide insight into how cultural backgrounds of other people affect their character and ways of thinking. This includes the intangible social values - approaches towards time, teamwork, accountability, negotiation, planning, commitments, success, status, authority, rewards, social interactions and personal boundaries - which are not outwardly visible and usually require education and training.
For example, throughout Africa, consensus is crucial in decision-making. In many African organizations, particularly smaller ones, the entire team must be brought on board and consulted on almost everything before a decision is made. The process can take as long as required, without a time limit, to reach decisions that satisfy everyone. This need for reaching consensus is one reason why it may appear so difficult to get things done. In African terms, reaching a decision through consensus has the advantage of taking into account all reasons for concern or disagreement, whereas the Western style of “majority rule” does not. Thus, the pace of business is much slower and closing a deal, especially a first transaction, will likely require multiple meetings or trips. This custom of consultation, even though there is a great degree of hierarchy, is a key African value and is summarized in the Ghanaian proverb, “When a king has good counselors, his reign is peaceful.”
Cross-cultural management requires some crucial skills for the successful management of multi-cultural teams. One such skill is to develop and sustain knowledge about African cultural behaviors in a non-judgmental way. The effective cross-cultural manager should be inclined to work with the requirements and timetables of their local counterparts. In the end, what mattered most for me was keeping my attention focused on long-term goals, which kept me from ruining goodwill by seeking immediate results.
copyright 2009 by Erika Amoako-Agyei www.exploreafricanculture.com
|Posted on July 22, 2009 at 11:18 AM||comments (0)|
One of the most common frustrations I endured as an American expatriate in Africa lies in the question: "Why do I often get the answer 'yes', when they really mean 'no'?" But to understand this is to understand the African principle of maintaining 'harmony'.
In the beginning of my assignment, I was naively unaware that in African business settings, a show of dissent (or a direct 'no') can be interpreted as a show of disrespect. This is especially true when a young executive is facing a superior or a much older person. Thus, people will frequently reply "yes" to a request, even though they know they won't be able to fulfill it because that is what they think will keep you happy.
Hence, if I asked a local subordinate "Is this a problem you think you can fix?" the answer would often be "yes" out of politeness, but would fail to yield any real results. I used to find this extremely frustrating. But I later learned that by simply re-phrasing my questions, and making them open-ended -- e.g. "What do you think the problem is and how do you think it can be fixed?" -- I was able to encourage fruitful dialogue, avoid the easy "yes"/ "no" answers, and gain a genuine understanding of my African host.
The key here was being able to modify my approach in such a way that would allow my local counterparts to do most of the talking.
Generally speaking, in the cultures of sub-Saharan Africa, 'harmony trumps frankness' and saving face is highly valued. Direct and frank communication is not the norm in most parts of the region as most Africans are uncomfortable with blunt statements. Therefore, every action and every response is conditioned by the need to avoid offending or hurting the feelings of others. Consequently, Africans will often use metaphors, analogies and stories to make a point. That is why the ancient use of proverbs is still relevant in both the modern and traditional circles of African society.
This aspect of traditional culture is reflected in the business culture of contemporary African commercial environments as local counterparts may attempt to qualify what they say so that the message is delivered with sensitivity. This often leads to evasive replies, incomplete answers, and to what a Westerner may call, "white lies". To an American or European executive trained to interact with openness and directness in business dealings, this seeming lack of transparency can be disconcerting.
Therefore, understanding the African principle of maintaining harmony at almost any cost in interpersonal relationships will serve the Western executive well. An expatriate must understand the degree to which Africans will resist opening up without first being personally close. If the relationship does become close, the communication style will become more direct. But for newly established and more formal relationships, the use of tact and diplomacy on the part of the expatriate will be of utmost importance--particularly in getting at the truth.
In the harmony-seeking societies of countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and Zambia, many people will avoid saying negative things outright as it is generally accepted that one does not "have" to say everything. In light of this, it is crucial for the expatriate manager of an Africa-based firm, to modify their management style by making concerted effort to invite conversation in order to gain a genuine understanding of their African host.
copyright 2009 by Erika Amoako-Agyei www.exploreafricanculture.com