Do you speak Culture? Lost in Trains-lation…


(Originally posted 12.Apr.2011 on my old blog)

Last week I met up with an ex-colleague from the U.S. who was over in London running a workshop. It was her first time over here to run a course and she was a bit apprehensive, plus, she was facing some specific challenges from the group, which she had not expected. Welcome to when Training, Culture (organisational & national) and different Countries meet!

She came prepared with a list of questions to ask me (quite apologetic about it), but if we’d spent enough time talking “business” I’d get a free dinner out of that – I had nothing to lose, and since I can talk for Portugal and England combined, off I went…(and got my free dinner too)!

One of her questions was: What were your most peculiar training experiences or most surprising reactions from workshop participants in the region (EAMEE)?

Rather than list every peculiar experience (there are lots), I chose to share personal experiences, thoughts, observations, tips and ideas. I’d been meaning to write about this for a while and that conversation was the catalyst. Later that evening I got further inspiration from reading Rob Jones’ blog.

So here it goes…

As the G&Ts flowed, I explained that anyone who runs “corporate programmes” globally, be that in-house or as a consultant, knows full well (or should anyway) that what works in one country may not work in another (see my post Think Global, Understand Local, Act Global). You must be prepared to think on your feet and customise corporate or other content on the spot, to fit your audience.

Whilst basic principles of Communication Skills may be common sense amongst audiences in the western world, in Angola for example, a country deprived of education for over 20 years by civil war, those same basic principles may be the most interesting piece of information you’ll ever share and need therefore to spend a little longer explaining it.

Likewise, asking a group to reflect or share their ideas when their education system has been one of control and command may be too big an ask. It once took me 2 hours to get a group in Kazakhstan to openly talk and come up with ideas – this was supposed to a creative/brainstorming session…

The organisation had (has) plenty of resources to help prepare people “culturally”, such as The Cultural Navigator Tool, knowledge banks, intranet pages, fact sheets, colleagues who had been there, books and Google! Yet, the only way to really learn about these nuances is by getting there and experiencing it for ourselves.

Drinks and starter earned, now I had to work on my main course…so I carried on:

Geographical culture is only one component. The other, just as important, is you own organisation’s culture! Be mindful of the “corporate culture”, the various sub-cultures, the politics, the leadership teams and company’s operations – what’s actually happening in the business right now and how may this be affecting the group or impact how you run the session.

At this point she realised why some people in the workshop were being very negative and challenging. News of a business deal had just been announced and whilst some people knew they were being sold to the new owners, the other had no idea and were anxious. At the same time, other participants from a different Unit were totally oblivious to this since it didn’t affect their business.

Multiply that across 10 business units in over 80 countries and you have “cultural time bomb” in your hands. Luckily I only had Europe, Africa, Middle-East and Eurasia to deal with…

Before I go on, I just want to say that these events were my personal experiences and reactions. While it may give insights into the country’s culture, attitudes and behaviours, it shouldn’t be used to stereotype, label or undermine the countries/cultures/nationals referred to.

Most importantly of all, one should always be mindful of the fact that these events never happen in isolation. You need to take into account the physical and cultural environments in which you’re operating, the organisational culture and context, the programmes you’re delivering and of course, your own beliefs and assumptions. Welcome to some of the challenges facing the “global trainer”.

Now that I’ve shared my tips and insights, here are a couple peculiar or surprising reactions I experienced in my workshops:

One: In Holland, during a supervisors course, whilst talking about Performance Management, one of the participants (Mr A) was expressing how he felt about managing people and performance. It was pretty apparent he didn’t enjoy being a supervisor. As if this wasn’t sensitive enough (everyone had gone very quiet…), the guy next to him (Mr B) mutters something in Dutch and out the blue the two of start this almighty argument (in Dutch)! As Mr A gets up and leaves the room I looked around as if to ask for help, ie, someone please translate, when the Mr B responds: “He’s just being moody. He’ll get over it! Don’t worry, keep going!”

Two: While running the Diversity session or a workshop in London, I asked the group to discuss the company’s diversity vision in their groups and share their thoughts afterwards, when I was cut short by a female participant: “This is all American bullshit! What diversity? We don’t have enough black women in leadership positions. All the leaders in London are men,…”.

Before I could catch my breath I had 6 women having the most almighty argument across the room. Took 10 minutes (which felt more like 10 hrs) to calm them down…the guys sat very quiet!

Three: In Moscow, during an Influencing Skills session, I asked the all female group to discuss, at their tables, What is influencing and What is not influencing. After a very long silence and a burst of Russian language across the room, one participant stops, walks to me and goes: “What you mean influence? What’s this influence thing? In Russia we don’t need influence! Police stop we give money! You want something you tell people or we point gun to head!”

“Eerrr…gun to head? That’s a bit extreme…and it’s not something the organisation…” I said, looking at my co-facilitator who was just as surprised as me.

“No, here we all carry money and gun in car…” OK….

Four! One group of local (Kazakh) supervisors didn’t understand the need for feedback (asking, receiving or giving), not even when challenged by their expat counterparts in the course. I asked them to explain why they felt feedback wasn’t important and the response was: “Why you need feedback? You get job because you good at your job. No need to say well done when it’s your job. Don’t do a good job, bye bye, you’re sacked! No need for feedback.”

All the other Kazakhs agreed by nodding and smiling in unison, at which point an American voice said: “Oh My God! You’re kidding, right?” No, they were not kidding….

So, there you are, when training, culture and different countries meet you get “lost in train-slation” experiences! Fun to look back on but quite bizarre and surprising when they unfold live before your own eyes!

Table for one? This way sir…

(Originally posted 08.Feb.2011 on my old blog passport)

The moment I start talking to people about my last job and the amount of travel involved (incl locations visited) they all go: “How did you do it? That’s crazy!”

To which I reply: You have to be crazy to do it!

Business travel is a bit like Marmite: either you love it or you hate it. I enjoyed the travel side (still hate Marmite) but I have to admit by the end (4 years later), it was getting a bit boring!

Short of being George Clooney (Up In The Air), how many of you actually enjoy business trips? Spending time at airports, security/passport control Qs, sleeping in flee infested hotels, most of which in the middle of nowhere? Dinners for one?

Last Sunday I was chatting to @onatrainagain on twitter about some upcoming business trips, and suddenly the flood gates opened…it inspired me to write this. For all the little fun and excitement, business travel is quite lonely!

Sitting in countless airports and lounges I looked around time and time again and thought: thank god am not the only sad f… here! In fact, I was surrounded by others like me! If only we dared talk to each other we might actually make those trips more exciting.

Living out of a suitcase was far from ideal! I wrecked so many too! Enduring –30c wind chill in Kazakhstan and +50c in Kuwait was…an experience! Saying bye to my partner for another week, sometimes 3 at a time was a real bitch! Sorry, there’s no other way to put it!  I’m lucky to have a very understanding partner, who now makes use of my hard earned airmiles  !

However, the one thing that always got to me (and still does): Good evening Sir! Table for one? This way please…

Here we go again…another lonely breakfast, lunch, dinner…day in, day out. The sad thing is I was surrounded by many others in the same situation, with that empty look of defeat in our faces, lonely! I hated it and I still do!

That was my Marmite of business travel!

Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely loved my job and enjoyed some of the travel. I got to visit some amazing places and whenever possible made the most of it! I was also fortunate that the company had a great travel policy (any flight over 4hrs was Business, and mine were all over 6hrs – Emirates A380 to Australia was just great!), we stayed in safe/secure hotels and our well being and safety was cared for, at least in my team.

Over time I had it down to a T. A bit like George really (looks and all)! I could pack in 30 mins, the shirts were counted and folded, shoes, trousers, jacket, tooth brush, passport, visa, taxi, fly!

I understand this is not a lifestyle suitable for everyone, least for those with young families. For some people this can be stressful, lonely and not very enjoyable, specially don’t doing that often and only go for a day or two. Other’s love it! So, to make your next business trip a bit more exciting (you can always read this on the plane/train) here are a few tips (free of charge) that might help:

  • Avoid flying on a Monday morning or Friday afternoon/evening! Chances are so will every other business person! Heathrow can be hellish even at 5am! Fly out on Sunday evening or midday Monday. If you can, fly back Saturday morning. Avoid peak time trains too! It’s not stressful…It’s hellish! Passenger rage extreme (I’ve done it)!
  • If you have to fly at some hellish time of the morning book yourself at the airport hotel the night before. They usually have cheap deals and you don’t have to get up at 2am for a 7am flight!
  • Travel light/be practical (easier said than done)! Chances are you are travelling to a place where you can buy most things you need. OK, not if you’re going to be in the middle of a gas field, but you’d be surprised at the things you’ll find even there! Hotel soap/shampoo miniatures are perfect travel size
  • Purchase tickets in advance (cheaper) and look for cheap upgrades on the day! Collect airmiles/status points and use these to upgrade you for free! These aren’t just tips…these are MrArmiles’ Tips! Oh, and check in on-line! I timed it so my journey involved taxi to airport, bag drop, security, gate, fly!
  • Security checks can be a pain in the butt! Be prepared! Don’t wait till you get to the point to start removing your laptop from your bag or your phones, wallets, jackets, etc…be practical about it! Watch those around you and always follow other business people, not the 5.6 family travelling together!
  • Avoid Duty Free shops on the outward trip! You only have to bring it back again! Chances are you’ll break the bottle of Gin at some point or forget it on the plane/train! You also risk losing your flight!
  • That goes for sitting at the airport bar…good idea at the time…not so good when they call your name before threatening to offload your bags! Oh, and everyone staring at you as you crawl into the last seat right at the back (never done it myself…was usually 1A which was even more embarrassing!)
  • Choose a hotel with a gym/leisure facilities, so you can relax in the evenings. It helps reduce travel stress and keeps you fit! Hotel food is very bad for you…I put on almost 15kgs eating junk food! I was so tired from running workshops all day that I didn’t feel like hitting the gym in the evening….yep, guilty as charged!
  • Ask your colleagues/clients for restaurant alternatives in the area. Not only it will be cheaper than the hotel but you get to try local food. People may even offer to take you out and you get to see the place from the local’s point of view! Californian, South African, Aberdonian and Australian colleagues: you rocked!
  • If your family doesn’t mind (or you’re single), and your company allows, stay the weekend! Explore the place! Ask the locals for suggestions/recommendations. Look at it as an opportunity to visit somewhere new. I know it can be hard if you have a young family, but think of it as a little “me time”.  I loved walking all over Pembrokeshire and going up a mountain in Almaty. Not so much visiting Shopping Malls in Kuwait City…
  • Ask for a hotel room away from reception, from the bar, lifts and ice machines. Still, it won’t guarantee you a good night sleep! It depends on the hotel or if you have someone snoring next door, new born babies or a couple on honeymoon across the way (I had one guy and 2 hookers one day staying across from me…it was so distracting, not to mention noisy!).  Naughty tip: If you have a loud snorer next door (I had lots!), call their room number and wake them up – yes, I did it, lots of times, and they never knew it was me!
  • Get to know the hotel staff. They will look after you! The breakfast lady at the Lamphey Court in Pembroke was an absolute gem!
  • If you’re brave enough to sit at the hotel bar, do it! You can meet some interesting people (and some not so interesting). The Sports Bar at the Renaissance in Atyrau can be quite colourful…specially if you’re a male on your own (need I say more?)! Hyatt Houston Downtown…noisy! Avoid!
  • Not a social animal? Not everyone is! Order room service! Stay in your room, watch tv, read a book, listen to music and relax! My choice most of the time!
  • Talk to your family, partners, kids, etc…as often as you can. It’s expensive but worth every penny spent – they will keep you sane! Nowadays you have MSN Live/Skype/Facetime. Some hotels even give you free wi-fi (not many I know).
  • Don’t forget your passport! Enough said!
  • Remember: you may be lonely but you’re not alone!

Now off you go…turn that Marmite into some sweet jam! Oh, and travel safely!


PS: have a few tips of your own?  Share them here! I’d love to hear them!