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The art of management in emerging markets - be an explorer adventurer, Part 3

by Alan Royal

This series is drawn from the lived experiences of expats, working in such diverse countries as Upper Mongolia, Armenia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and the Soloman Islands. These stories and our experiences are real. We say it as we see it.

These first hand narratives - gathered over five years of research - are intended to bring to vivid life a set of competencies that will help you to effectively manage in emerging markets and complex cultural environments.

Based on your interpretation of these narratives, I expect you to modify my definitions of the competencies to maximize their relevance. I hope this reflects my belief in the practice of management as art, rather than science.

The explorer adventurer mindset

An expat and his family must have an explorer adventurer's mindset. It enables them to encounter strangeness, and embrace it. For most, the need for this competency occurs the second you get off the plane...

"I just remember, when I landed there and I got picked up from the airport, which is a little way out of town. I just remember driving into town, it was really cold, it was March, and it was minus something stupid. I remember driving from the airport, thinking 'this is it, I'm here'. I was staring at everything as we were driving down the road. I was staring at the people; I was staring at the cars, the buildings, just everything. I was thinking, wow, this is Mongolia."

"Speaking of hostile, Armenia fit that bill in a different way. The summers had temperatures that often exceeded 50 Celsius and winters where the temperature often fell below 40. The weather was the most extreme that I had ever experienced."

Let's be careful out there

While this next account is one of the most extreme I have ever encountered, I include it as a cautionary note. When considering an emerging market assignment where your family will accompany you, safety is paramount...

"The Solomon Islands was probably the most extreme example of any place that I've ever lived. I remember in my early days my wife and I woke up in the middle of the night with several locals standing at the foot of our bed with torches and knives. This was a very small country and one in which foreigners were not welcome."

Strangeness is everywhere, even normal every-day business activities such as daily business banking. "Saudi was newly emerging. It was a very much cash-driven society. Every day I had to get up at 5 a.m., go to our safe and take a bucket full of money in sacks, and put them in the back of my car. I had so much that the trunk wouldn't close. I drove down to the central bank and asked them to take my money to credit our account. I could only get about half of the money I took with me to be credited to our account because there was so much, it was literally falling out of the trunk. It was fun, completely mad. You stopped at traffic lights looking over your shoulder to make sure that no one is running off with a million dollars in each sack."

And some of the greatest challenges lie in getting some of simplest things done. "The hardest thing in the world to find was some little red chairs that would be suitable for the office... my driver had to find them. He found one and came back and said 'here's one. I had to go down to a back alley where this guy was importing office furniture'. Apparently, the guy was just about to go to China on a trip, and would purchase the rest of my much needed little red chairs."

It's all about them

Finally, this competency relates to how you are perceived by the locals you are assigned to manage...

"What is important is not just your technical skills, but the way they feel that you're willing to work with them. Do they feel that 'oh gosh, I'm here for two years and the sooner I go, the better'? What they are looking to know is: are you pleased to be here? Do you want to be here? Do you want to make a difference to what we're trying to do here? If you do, you will score ten out of ten, but if you say 'I don't like this place, I don't like my job', they will pick up on that and say 'let's make this guy leave'."

Our first competency

So our first competency is really more of an attitude. The explorer adventurer mindset views emerging markets and complex corporate cultures as an opportunity for learning and self enhancement rather than an obstacle or insult to held beliefs. Embracing and engaging with the unknown and unfamiliar as a basis for learning and self-enhancement, as an individual and as a family, is critical.