From Boise to Madrid
John is a good guy who spent most of his career working for a single company in Boise, Idaho. He started at the bottom and climbed to the top. When his company started perceiving opportunities in other countries, John’s directors did not hesitate to establish the brand by acquiring existing businesses around the world. One of them was located in Madrid, Spain.
While many northern European offices were doing a great job of understanding the culture of the headquarters and the culture of its American leaders, the Madrid office had problems. They did not seem able to respect deadlines, they did not implement global strategies the way Germany and Scandinavia did, and it grinded on everybody’s nerves. This is when John was asked to relocate to Madrid to teach the Spaniards how to get it done!
John had never been to Spain and was thrilled by the opportunity to live in Europe for a few years. Upon his arrival in Madrid, he organized a big party in the house the company rented for him, and he invited ALL the employees of the Madrid office he would soon take over. In John’s mind, this was a warm way to let people know he was a friendly boss who could be perceived as a positive addition to the team. John served burgers, hot dogs, and tatter tots, as well as Budweiser and California wine. While John expected people to mingle and feel at ease in his gorgeous house, people seemed uncomfortable and behaved in a cliquish manner. They barely touched the food and left the party much earlier than people would have in Boise.
When John went to work on Monday, he told the staff about changes he wanted to implement. First, all employees would have a mobile device and would be requested to answer their email immediately, even when on vacation. He also expected people to shorten their lunch breaks and not drink alcoholic beverages at lunch. The list of changes John introduced was long but can be quickly summarized: He wanted the Spaniards to behave more like Americans.
Four months into John’s tenure in Madrid, some key employees left the company, joining the competition. Morale was low and productivity decreased. John’s plan had backfired, and he was frustrated. He found Spaniards to be irrational, uncooperative, inefficient, and depressing. In his mind, they resisted all his ideas and could not accept change. John was determined to let all of them go if necessary and rebuild from scratch. However, his attempts to recruit were not going well because his reputation in the industry had already traveled, and desirable candidates had no interest in joining his ranks.
A call came from the CFO of the Boise office. Madrid was on a downward spiral, and they were fearful of losing their remaining effective employees. The CFO wanted to know if they should close down the office and open one in another country or if there were some reasons why the company was failing in Spain.
When Valérie met John, he was ready to move back to the United States and call it quits. He was also very receptive to Valérie’s ideas because he had tried everything he knew to get results and nothing worked. Valérie started by addressing the first faux-pas John committed at his party. Spaniards have a pretty thick hierarchy in their society. Organizing a party where executives mingle with janitors does not flatter their ego. To them, it means that employees are all equal, something that may be perceived as true in Boise, but not in Madrid. Serving American food and American beverages also insulted the employees. It implied that Spanish bounty was not good enough for John and that he only trusted brands he knew and recognized. Eating with their fingers was another experience the Spaniards resented. Where were the forks and knives?
Feelings became much more intense when the imposition of John’s work trespassed on the sacred quality of life many European nations cherish. Employees felt disrespected. They also had no interest in becoming Americanized. They had no problem working for an American company, but in their eyes, their role was to interpret the American tenets and apply them to their Spanish culture, not the other way around. When John made it clear he had no interest in learning and respecting their Spanish culture, they lost interest and started marketing their services elsewhere.
Valérie’s recommendation to the CFO was to bring John back to Idaho. He could not be an effective leader for the company in Madrid. She suggested recruiting a Spanish national, or at least a European citizen, who was fluent in Spanish and English. She also suggested that from now on, a dipping system be put in place where employees would rotate from country to country and become more multicultural. Valérie set up a program where foreign employees could contribute to the development of the brand based on the cultural values they perceived as important in their home country. Her training informed the employees at the headquarters on how to embrace cultural differences, providing them with the tools needed to remain effective among the differences.
The viability of a multinational is in its ability to seamlessly perform across cultures. In Valérie’s mind, a multinational is successful when people in-country assimilate the company as a domestic brand instead of a foreign one. For this, selecting the right people for international assignment is key. Training local managers to become bilingual and multicultural is what will make international companies successful.
Is your company experiencing similar problems? If so, please, give us a call at 503-710-1234. We would welcome the opportunity to work with you.