How to avoid the icebergs

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The Independent Online
A BRITISH executive walked into a company in Tokyo and introduced himself to his host, who naturally presented his meishi (business card). The visitor apologised and said that he had arrived only the previous night and didn't have any cards on him. Instead, he tore in two the card he had just received, scribbled his name and phone number on half of it and handed it back to the shocked Japanese. He could hardly have com- mitted a bigger gaffe, and not surprisingly he failed to clinch the deal. In Japan, business cards have almost sacred properties.

Cultural banana skins are waiting to trip us up even in today's globalised business world. One way in which confusion may arise for the newcomer is over the issue of status. An expatriate new to Korea, for example, is unlikely to know that only those over 40 can expect to command respect.

International companies have been making piecemeal attempts to steer the trade ship past these icebergs of misunderstanding. For example, they put staff through a crash course in foreign languages, and arrange seminars on cross-border co-operation. But these training sessions have only partially succeeded.

Now, however, there are moves to increase international understanding through mentoring, whereby an experienced staff member acts as confidante and helper to a junior employee.

The level of awareness of cultural norms can be raised considerably in this way, according to a new report by Ashridge Management College, in Hertfordshire. Such a strategy also makes the company more competitive in the long term. International mentoring helps man- agers understand both the people they are dealing with and the different ways of approaching problems and making decisions, claim the authors of Developing Business and People Internationally - a Mentoring Approach.

The process facilitates more effective working patterns as fellow employees relate to each other better. What's more, "mentored" international managers have a better understanding of the company and its global strategies. Mentoring increases the integration of global business activities and advances knowledge of the international business environment.

There is still a vast need to improve efficiency in the international business arena. As one manager interviewed in the survey said: "As a company we do a poor job of preparing people for international experience. We throw them into the deep end of the pool. We get some Olympic champions, but we drown some good people, too. We could get so much more return on our investment if we supported their development."

Because some countries - Italy and China are examples - operate a rigid hierarchical system of management, the open-ended nature of mentoring is treated with suspicion. It is in the English-speaking countries and those of northern Europe that mentoring has made most inroads. British American Tobacco and Cable & Wireless are two companies that have successfully adopted the strategy.

Mentoring has come into its own in recent years partly due to downsizing. Working longer hours in a less secure environment is stressful and having a friend in the workplace helps. It is vital that the relationship remains informal, has a clear focus and does not report back - it should not parallel the line manager relationship. The international mentor should both support and challenge.

Not all the benefits of mentoring accrue to the junior partner, however. It also gives the mentor a rare opportunity to reflect on his or her own development, as well as on the progress of the company.

All these factors make global mentoring more involved than that which takes place on a national level. It is hoped such measures - still very much in their infancy - can help to prevent the kind of embarrassment suffered by a soap powder manufacturer which advertised its product in the Middle East. It translated its "before and after" picture sequence into Arabic but forgot that that language reads from right to left. Consequently, in the potential consumer's mind, using soap X left their clothes dirtier rather than cleaner.