|Posted on July 22, 2009 at 2:05 PM|
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
Categories: Tips in Cross-Cultural Management