At the start of my career, I was offered a dream contract by a company in the energy sector. From this international project, I learned some lessons that stayed with me through my career. It was an exciting time. The employer wanted to learn what its important business partners around the world thought of it. I was tasked with creating a survey, gathering the data and then reporting on the findings. A considerable time was spent developing and refining a Likert scale survey instrument and I was confident that at the end of the project I would have excellent data.
If Stuck, Take Outcome Over Process
The first overseas destination for the project was Malaysia. The interviewee had a long title and an office in the Petronas Twin Towers. It was upon entering the building and waiting for an escort to take me up the elevators that I noticed an English language company brochure. Opening it up to first page, I noticed a picture of the interviewee whom I was soon to meet. He was the chairman of Malaysia’s national oil company, Petronas. It dawned on me at this point that sitting down and asking him to respond with a 1 if you agree with the statement or a 5 if you disagree, might not be a good interview strategy. I quickly changed my approach to one of open ended questions and writing very fast.
History is Important
One of the companies on the list was based in Australia. Yes, I was flown down under to do a one-hour interview. The executive was a middle-age man. The first impression that I left with him was not a good one. The reason for this was the exuberance of the small talk that I initiated upon meeting him. For some reason, I waxed on eloquently about how exciting it was to cross the Pacific Ocean and how different Australia was to a previous trip I had made recently to Japan. It was mid-way through my description of the Tokyo train system that he interrupted me with a red face to explain that his father had been an island garrison commander in WWII and had lost his life in a Japanese POW camp.
Rules of Communication Differ
Buenos Aires, Argentina, was another of the stops on my travels. I was scheduled to meet the managing director and other executives of the construction arm of my employer’s partner in that country. I had learned that a small number of family firms controlled the economy and this executive was a representative of one of these organizations. At this point in time, the rule of the military was still a recent memory for most of the adult population. The first clue that not all was on track for my interviews was the cancellation of my meetings with the two subordinates. My meeting with the managing director was fifteen minutes in length, ten of which were characterized by the sound of his loud yelling at me. What I came to realize near end of this encounter was that my social stature was such that it was not appropriate for me to be meeting with him. He only dealt with other company presidents. I should have read Hofstede’s ideas about power distance before I got on the plane.
National Culture Matters
Santiago, Chile, was the next stop. I was asked to talk with a younger executive from a leading energy company. The country was a democracy at this point although seeing a young police recruit on every street corner left a few doubts in my mind. There was certainly a dominant business class and I was about to meet one of them. While waiting in the meeting room, I glanced through an annual report and noticed that almost all the executives of this one company had attended the same university. The interview itself was an odd one. The executive did not seem all that enamored with my presence and strongly suggested his time would be better spent on other tasks. Indeed, he was unimpressed that I did not speak Spanish and rightly suspicious of my knowledge of South America. But the ultimate source of his indignation was my lack of knowledge of the singer Julio Iglesias. In his mind, I was the stereotypical ignorant North American. After a few moments of contriteness on my part, he agreed to do the interview. Interestingly, his indignation got the better of him as his musings became quite important competitive intelligence for my employer.
Say Yes When an Opportunity Arises
Finally, among the group of individuals to be interviewed was the CEO of an American energy trading company. The day before I was to receive sign off on my survey instrument, I was surprised to receive a call from the administrative assistant of this executive. The CEO was in town and had time that day for a phone interview. I hesitated, said that the survey was not ready, and asked if I could schedule the call at a later date. Subsequent phone calls on my part to set up the interview were not returned.
Conor Vibert PhD. is an innovative user and researcher of new educational technologies, a practitioner of flipped classroom teaching methods, a developer of evidence-based instructional techniques, and a creator of streaming video multimedia cases available through Casenet.ca. He trains individuals to use online information sources to understand company behavior and has published a number of books on the topic. Conducting over 600 video interviews with entrepreneurs, managers and executives around the world has invested him with unique knowledge of business behavior.