CULTURE IS STRONGER THAN KNOWLEDGE

June 19, 2018
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We often hear of the General Manager who moves from Tucson to New York and finds her/himself completely lost the minute a union representative demands an audience. Worse yet, suppose your company promotes you, after 10 years in Seattle to Atlanta. Or from Provo to San Francisco.

I am asked a number of times a week “what is like to live” in Georgia, Texas, Colorado, Utah, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, New Mexico and many more. It is our job to know not only the corporate culture of the potential placement but the local culture of the potential city. There is no such thing as “the United States” when it comes to leadership and upper management. Large corporations are well aware of it, hence the “Irish promotions” they generously issue when they are looking to get rid of someone. One of your General Managers has never worked in a large city, raised all four of his children in Podunk, and has a wife involved with the local Junior League. You happen to know he owns a home in a depressed market and is accordingly “under water”. But the man is not your favorite, and obviously you cannot terminate him. So you reassign him to New York-a city that is far far away, culturally, from Podunk. My prediction is that he will not last or will his marriage.

When “expats” started being shipped around the world by the initial Big Three (InterContinental, Hilton International and Sheraton) back in the late fifties, it did not matter much who was shipped where: the General Manager of a global hotel had basically NO contact with the local population and was mostly a figurehead. Whether they were Austrian, German, Swiss or Dutch, as long as their English was fluent, they had no need to speak any other language: you could be the GM of the Istanbul Hilton for 8 years without having to learn or utter one single word of Turkish. In Africa (Cameroon, Senegal, Congo, Rwanda, Togo) the GM and their family often did not leave the hotel compound for weeks on end, and then mostly to be taken to the airport for an R&R flight*.

Those days are over: you do not assign a General Manager, for example, who is Jewish to Muslim countries any more than Taiwanese executives are assigned to China.

ACT GLOBAL, BUT THINK LOCAL?

We have heard this for a number of years now. Yet I believe it requires some debunking. Take Ramadan as the most visible example of a cultural phenomenon in a very large area of the world. If, as the General Manager of a luxury hotel in Egypt, Qatar, or Bahrain, you do not try to understand the hardship fasting in 100+-degree temperature imposes on your staff, then you just do NOT belong there. Unless you learn that when Balinese say “yes” they often mean “no”,  you will not get much accomplish there either.

Dealing with ownership, however is where a high level of understanding and diplomacy belongs: to a Chinese owner, a white round plate is just a white round plate. He can purchase or have them made for $1 apiece. The problem is, for you, there is a huge difference between his $1 plate and the $42 Villeroy & Boch plate you specified for your fine dining restaurant. Avoid featuring an “all you can eat” buffet anywhere in your hotel: within minutes half of the food will be on the floor and fights could erupt over shrimp.

Owners in the Middle East often are interested in building monuments to themselves: as an architect, do not spend too much energy proposing a streamlined, purely elegant building: they will have so many change orders until it morphs into “La Mamounia meets the Candy Spelling Mansion” you won’t even know what hit you. Give them what they want in the first place.

Last but not least, do not go around, as a General Manager, with inflexible staffing guides and productivity indexes: what is no big deal in Houston or Minneapolis is an impossible goal in Istanbul.

ACT LOCAL, THINK GLOBAL

*Until very recently (it still exists in the worst of hardship destinations) senior hotel management would receive, as part of their benefit package, a once-a-year or twice-a-year R&R gift from their employer: 4 days in a major destination of their choice, including flights, hotel and food. Suppose you ran a hotel in Borneo, your R&R would take you to Singapore. Were you to run a hotel in Guangzhou, it would be Hong Kong.

4 Comments

  1. Fernando Horta June 19, 2018 10:20 pm

    Having worked in 6 countries in 3 continents I must agree with the content of the article. Times have changed. True, in certain destinations you tend not to leave the hotel but at the end of the day if you don’t mingle with your associates, if you don’t earn their trust and their commitment, if you don’t empower them to take action on the spot, it will be very difficult to get the most out of their skills and ultimately it will be your guests that will not receive the service they expect/paid for.
    Sometimes in your hotel you might have 50+ nationalities in your workforce, and it’s your responsibility as a Manager, to understand the different cultures so things run as smooth as possible.

    Reply
  2. Julian Payne June 20, 2018 5:51 pm

    Completely Agree, if you don’t integrate and submerse yourself into the local culture, whats the point?
    Being an Englishman living in New Jersey, having worked in London, Pars, Hong Kong, New Jersey and California is it impossible to break into the New York market?
    I certainly hope not. I remember coming back to London from Hong Kong and again finding the same resistance..
    As I say to my son and any other young person, travel whilst you can, immerse yourself in the local culture, learn and listen every day, there are only 86,400 seconds in the day!

    Reply
  3. Mario Sarafraz June 20, 2018 10:12 pm

    In other words, Be Worldly ! A lesson which is best learned simply by traveling the world and never assuming what you see on TV is how the real world is.

    Reply
  4. Kate Buhler June 21, 2018 10:59 am

    Great article! I chose a different path for my career in hospitality. So that my family can have a stable home life in one location, I move around the world 275+ days a year – sometimes visiting a different country each week.
    Communication styles, religious beliefs, history, language nuances, human rights views, economic status, and politics all play a part in how people arrive at decisions and prioritize. My tip is for executives to do their homework by reading about the places they are locating to, and network with people that they will potentially be working with ahead of time. Being flexible and remaining open minded will also help to transition.

    Reply

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