“Coach, my group of companies is expanding to several locations in Southeast Asia,” Thanong tells me. “I have to prepare my Thai team to be good expats when they arrive in other countries. I’d like to brainstorm some ideas with you.”
“Khun Thanong, what do you have in mind?”
“Most of my team are being posted abroad for the first time. They may not be sensitive to local cultures. From your experience in cross-cultural coaching, what are some of the common pitfalls?”
“Khun Thanong, most of my cross-cultural coaching deals with foreigners who come to work with Thais in Thailand. My experience may not be relevant to your concerns.”
“Don’t worry, Coach. I’m sure we can come up with some ideas.”
“All right. Regardless of the nationality of the executives, here are some common problems when they work with Thais:
1. They rush to deliver results but ignore the importance of building relationships first.
2. They lack knowledge about local beliefs and values. Hence, they insult Thais unintentionally.
3. They apply things that worked well in their home countries to Thailand without proper localisation.
4. They complain too much about Thailand’s problems and weaknesses by comparing things here with their own countries.
5. Some of them who came from more developed countries look down on Thais.”
“Coach, I think these are things that potentially could happen to my Thai expats as well. I’d like to prepare my team to minimise these kinds of problems. Let’s start with the first one.”
“Khun Thanong, what’s your plan?”
“There are a couple of ways I could approach this. First, I will clearly communicate to them that the priority in the first three months is building relationships with the locals. If they know this is the first key performance indicator, then they’ll focus their intent and effort on it. Second, I will ensure that the local team has the same understanding of how we want to proceed.”
“That’s a good idea, Khun Thanong. But what if people object and say to you that the first priority is supposed to be to build the business? Winning the hearts of local people is nice, but it’s not a tangible. What’s wrong with making money first?”
“Coach, it’s like building a house. In the first few weeks you won’t see many things, because it’s about building a foundation. The foundation materials are underground. If we have a weak foundation, it will jeopardise the long-term business performance.
“I have seen so many expats come to Thailand and fail miserably. That failure cost their companies way more than the investment of three months in winning Thai hearts would have cost.”
“That’s a great response. Let’s move on to your second point, learning about the local beliefs and values.”
“Coach, I want to apply the approach Carlos Ghosn used,” Thanong says.
He summarises the experience Mr Ghosn wrote about in Shift: Inside Nissan’s Historic Revival. He was sent from Renault, the French partner, to turn around Nissan in Japan in 1999. Before his departure, he hired a French expert on Japan to give talks about Japan to his team.
“I will hire Thai experts on each country to prepare my team prior to their departure from Thailand,” Thanong says.
“What about No.3, how to prevent Thai executives from applying whatever worked well in Thailand?”
“This is quite a challenging one.”
“Because there are processes that we want to be standardised. On the other hand, there are processes that need to be localised. This is a judgement call. I will have to coach my team individually. Not all of them have the same level of maturity and judgement. This coaching will take some time.
“Thank you for asking me to think about this subject,” says Thanong, excited about this “Eureka!” moment. He quickly continues: “For Nos.4 and 5, I think they are rooted in the same thing _ nationalism bias. Does a human being feel that his or her nationality is better than others?”
“Khun Thanong, this kind of bias is quite usual,” I say and share with him a passage from When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures by Richard D. Lewis. He wrote: “There are few countries in the world where people do not believe, at the bottom of their hearts, that they are the best, or the most intelligent, or at least normal. Perhaps in Europe the Italians and the Finns are the most innocent in this regard, often being willing to criticise themselves before others, yet both still consider themselves normal.”
Thanong nods and says, “I have to ensure all my Thai team members do not have the attitude that we are superior to people in other countries. If we want to succeed in doing business in their countries, we have to respect them as equal partners.
“I’ve heard of several cases in which Thai executives were assigned to lead offices in other Southeast Asian countries, and those who thought that we were better than our hosts failed _ just the same as some foreigners have failed with Thais.”