Winning the hearts of thais essential for the new expat boss

‘Khun Kriengsak, I just came across a very interesting article,” says Klaus, drawing my attention to “CEO Succession 2011: The New CEO’s First Year”, by the management consultants Booz & Co.

“What fascinated you about it?” I ask.

“The authors spoke with 18 chief executives in a wide range of industries and regions about their first-year experiences as CEOs. They offered seven specific suggestions about things they felt they might have done differently,” he tells me and summarises as follows:

1. Deal with the obvious executive change early.

2. Be wary of changing strategy too quickly even if you think the current strategy is wrong.

3. Make sure you understand how every part of the company operates and how it is performing.

4. Build trust through transparency.

5. Be selective in listening to advice.

6. Find a well-informed, objective sounding board _ insider or outsider.

7. Manage your time and your life with care.

“How are these applicable to your first year here?” I ask.

“Most of them are, but I have some additional tips for expats new to Thailand.”

“Tell me more.”

“They’re probably similar to what you’ve written about in your book. But each person might have a different viewpoint depending on their background. In my case, Thailand is not my first overseas assignment. I had worked in other countries previously. I thought I already was aware of what was required for working in a cross-cultural environment. But I was wrong.”

“In what sense?”

“In my case, Thailand is unique. The language barrier is one thing. I’ve learned that the majority of Thais who speak good English are a new generation. They are young and energetic but lack experience. Hence, their judgement and maturity are not up to the professional level.

“On the other hand, I have smart, mature executives who have excellent judgement. But they have difficulty articulating their thoughts in English.

“During the first six months, I made quite a number of wrong decisions because I judged the quality of input based on the English levels of my direct reports.

“Later, I hired a translator to help me overcome the language barrier and at the same time I learned Thai intensively. After six months of hard work to overcome the language barrier on my side, I think I am now more settled down.”

“That’s a good insight. What other tips do you have for expat newcomers to Thailand?”

“Coach, in marketing we’ve been educated about the 4 Ps, right? I also suggest 4 Ps of working with Thais: Patience, Patience, Patience and Patience. It’s very crucial to have full self-awareness about Thai values and Western values.

“I was educated to believe that time is money. That’s not quite true when one starts working with Thais.

“To motivate Thais, I have to gain trust first. And trust for Thais is about relationships. I have to show them I care first, then people will show their respect and trust in return. To show one cares means trying to learn more about Thai customs, culture and traditions. I learned that Thai values are focused on relationships, respect for authority and saving face; they are much deeper and very different from mine.

“Anyway, Coach, I’ve talked too much already. What would your advice be for the new expat in Thailand?”

“Recently, I met a German who had worked with Thais for two decades,” I reply. “I asked him the same question. He gave me a very interesting comment.

“He said if it’s your first time working in Thailand with Thais, you have to think that you’re a guest here. If you have a guest’s mindset, you will have more self-awareness and will try to learn more about your host. You will make some mistakes, but the host will forgive you. They’d happy to give you feedback. And if you have an open mind, you will easily modify your behaviour.”

“Coach, that’s great advice. If you were a guest you would treat your staff differently. You would have more respect and less command because that’s what good guests do.

“Coach, from your experience how long would it take for an expat to learn and adapt to work with Thais effectively?”

“Klaus, I classify new expats into three groups: the quick learner, the slow learner and the stubborn learner.

“For the quick learner, it takes probably 3-6 months to learn and adapt to work with Thais effectively. I think this is a minority group.

“The slow learners are probably the majority group. It takes 12-18 months for this group to really accept Thais as they are.

“For the stubborn learner it might take more than three years to learn to work with Thais effectively.”

“How does one know which category one is in?”

“It depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“It depends on your karma. As a Buddhist, I believe in the law of karma. In this case, I’m talking about ego. The more ego you have, the slower you will be at learning and adapting.”