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The art of management in emerging markets - learning the strange, Part 4

by Alan Royal

In my last blog, I talked about our first new competency: having an explorer adventurer mindset. You have to be ready to encounter strangeness from the moment of arrival - sometimes literally from touchdown. This competence gets you onto the playing field, but it's not enough once you are in play.

A few years back, over coffee, a friend and I were discussing an especially difficult country we were working in. "We are in the boxing ring following Queensberry rules," she said. "And the locals are kickboxing."

Our second new competency, then, is the first to deal with what you do once you're actually in the ring. I call it accepting the strangeness of the unknown as a basis for learning. The ability to embrace the strangeness and initial ambiguity associated with local practices in order to observe and learn how the locals behave and operate, as well as the drivers behind them.

It shouldn't happen to a manager

I believe that most of us, in management, have gone home to our significant other at one time or another and said "you will not believe what happened to me at work today". Mostly, these strange situations are worth recounting because they fall outside of our learned set of responses to common management challenges. This is where the subjective art of management happens, and it happens a lot in emerging markets.

In my research for these competencies, I spoke with a manager who had been assigned to multiple quite successful emerging markets. He explains brilliantly what can happen when you accept the unknown as a basis for learning...

"In every new assignment I assume what is described to me by my company related to the challenges of my assignment are never reflective of the reality. I always expect that what I was told in terms of the complexities of my assignment will evolve to solving problems that I initially view as unachievable. So I have come to understand that the unachievable is actually achievable over time." Rejecting vs accepting strangeness

In emerging markets, these strange new management situations are the rule rather than the exception, and form the basis for learning rather than immediate action...

"I made the error of taking on a fairly aggressive management style, which resulted in my having an inaccurate perception of my engagement with the locals. My perception of being an enabler for delivery was, in fact, driving behavior based upon a perception that I was constantly angry with them, and that potentially they were all going to lose their jobs due to their sense of my anger. I thought that I was successfully engaging in managing the team, while in reality they were not progressing, because everything they were doing, and the behavior they were demonstrating, was representative of their fear."

In contrast to the previous expatriate, let's consider how embracing strangeness as a basis for learning can (and, perhaps, should) manifest itself...

"Most of the time the locals do not expect you to behave like them or to know their traditions when you first arrive. However, they do expect you to learn from them, and respect their culture. I have to figure out the best way of communication while balancing around their comfort zone. Thus, upon initial arrival, and at points during my assignment, the strangeness of management situations becomes the rule, rather than the exception. The mere magnitude of these encounters requires me to open up to these encounters as a basis for learning, rather than withdraw and resort to trying to force previously learned management practices on the locals."

The road to mastery

Having recorded and transcribed many pages of expatriate accounts of encountering and learning from strangeness, I have found the following, single sentence, expatriate account best encapsulates the 'secret' to mastery of this competency...

"In every new emerging market assignment, one of my first, most important tasks is to engage myself in the most granular level of detail in order to get a true understanding of the situation I'm inheriting, while at the same time establishing credibility by demonstrating my relevance at that granular level."

In summary

When we are faced with a strange or unfamiliar situation, we should not run from it, or use a learned management practice we are not sure is appropriate; but rather embrace the strangeness of the situation as a basis for learning.

In emerging markets, you have to take a definitive and conscious stand to embrace strangeness and constantly learn from it. Otherwise you are in a constant struggle of forcing learned management practices on subordinates that they will never adapt to, nor adopt as future state behavior.

Thus, after possibly achieving minimal assignment success, the moment you leave, the locals will once again take up their previous practices. And, at the end of the day, lose-lose is a terrible outcome for everyone - reflected in the bottom line.