When DaimlerChrysler AG engineer Bob Emick was visiting Austria to prepare for an assignment there, he thought it appropriate that he pay a social call on his predecessor. Emick and his wife walked up to the front door, knocked and got an unfriendly reception.
'Hello. You just did it all wrong,' his predecessor said. 'In Austria, you're supposed to wait at the front gate.'
'When we looked,' says Emick, 'we saw that both the mailbox and the doorbell were by the gate next to the street. For us to push through the gate was tantamount to breaking into his home.'
Steven Landry, who will be spending the next few years in Brussels as president of Chrysler Jeep Automotive Europe, was dismayed to learn men do not wear shorts in Belgium. 'I'm a big CART racing fan, and when I go to the series when it hits Detroit, I wear shorts and runners and low white socks. But it doesn't matter how hot it is in Brussels, you do not wear shorts on the street.'
Automotive executives have more pressing problems, but even the small stuff can cause misunderstandings. More executives are working overseas, and the automakers' best efforts to educate employees cannot anticipate everything. Even the instructors do not always agree among themselves. Emick recalls an incident at a 'doing business with the Germans' class he attended shortly after the DaimlerChrysler takeover.
'The class was taught by an American and a German national, contrasting American and German lifestyles,' he said. 'After class, I went over to the German and said, `How different is Austria from Germany?'
'`Totally different, like night and day,' he said, and he went on about how strange their country is. Then the American instructor came over and said to me, `You're not going to even see the difference.' '
According to General Motors, 895 of the company's 1,591 expatriates come from countries other than the United States - principally Germany, the United Kingdom and Brazil. Any GM executive selected for an overseas post gets a chance to visit the country in advance, usually accompanied by his or her spouse. A typical assignment lasts three years; lately, executives have been asked to stay longer.
Cultural training can help executives adjust their management style before problems crop up, said Ravi Khanna, director of a Delphi Automotive Systems factory in Bangalore, India. 'It is difficult to teach Indians, for example, to tell you if something has gone wrong,' Khanna said. 'They see it as a big loss of face.'
Some Western executives can be caught off guard in an Asian workplace, where employees pay close attention to the corporate hierarchy. Carlos Ghosn, a Brazilian who spent his career at Michelin and Renault, confronted this issue when he was named Nissan's chief operating officer. In a speech at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit last January, Ghosn described his informal education.
'On my first day at Nissan, I entered the headquarters and waited for the elevator on the first floor. When the doors opened, it was packed with Nissan people who had come up from the garage. They all stared at me. They knew who I was - for better or worse. I got on and noticed that all of the floors had been selected, including the one I was going to.
'So, I did nothing because to push a button already lit would be redundant. But as the elevator went up, stopping at every floor, no one got off. Why? Because I had failed to choose a floor, or give them a clue as to where I was heading. So at each floor they were being - in typical Japanese fashion - respectful to me by allowing me to get off first. This was not really a culture clash, but it was a lesson for me in managing cultural differences that I knew would come.'
Thinking in Vietnamese
As one might expect, the language barrier alone can create confusion within corporate ranks. Most companies offer some language training to help managers who get foreign assignments. For such executives, knowledge of English - the world's de facto business language - often is sufficient. But not always. Englishman Steve Kitson lives in Seoul, where he works as international public relations manager for Hyundai Motor Co.
'Language is not a real problem, certainly in business settings where everyone wants to speak English,' he said. 'But being able to read Korean is important. Once you are outside Seoul, nothing is written in English.'
Chris Lacey, GM Russia's marketing chief, found himself intimidated by Russian road signs. 'It's easier to employ a driver,' he said. 'The road signs can be indecipherable to the Western eye, and if you get stopped by the police it's almost impossible to know what is going on.'
Other executives believe it is important to speak the local language, even if they do not expect to be fluent. Deb Aronson, general director of Ford Vietnam Ltd., made a commitment to learn Vietnamese despite an admittedly minimal aptitude for languages. 'I'm not thinking in Vietnamese yet,' says Aronson, who has been in Haiphong for a year. 'My personal objective is to give a short speech in Vietnamese in six months or so.'
Reading the local NEWSpapers
Learning the language had its benefits, Aronson learned, when she started reading Vietnamese periodicals. 'The English-language papers will say one story and the Vietnamese papers another,' she says. 'A lot of times there will be events going on and they'll appear in the Vietnamese papers first, and three or four days later in the [English-language] Saigon Business Daily or Vietnam News.'
When Steve Koch began his five years as director of sales and marketing for GM Brazil, he felt fluency in Portuguese was necessary.
'It was very important to me to learn the language,' says Koch, for the last three years GM's executive director of sales and marketing for Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
'Our relationship with our Brazilian dealers required it. Being in sales and marketing, I couldn't rely on translators to establish that kind of relationship. It had to be something where I could understand what they're saying - not just the words but the emotions behind it. I had to be able to get my thoughts across spontaneously.'
In recent years, automakers such as GM have steadily promoted local managers to senior positions. That reduces the need to move executives from the automaker's home country to overseas posts. Moreover, advances in information technology may allow managers to monitor factory operations from a distance.
'There will be different ways of working internationally in the future,' said Bruce Warman, director of personnel at Vauxhall Motors Ltd. 'Using information technology, we will be able to manage on a `virtual' basis.'
Meanwhile, expanding air travel has allowed managers in Europe to work and maintain an apartment in one country while traveling home on weekends. Warman, for example, traveled from Germany to play for his home rugby team. But that's simply not possible for managers assigned to emerging markets. GM's Lacey spent much of the last six years in East Europe, establishing dealer networks in such places as Albania, Croatia and the Ukraine. 'If I ever write a book about this,' he said, 'I'm going to call it: `You Want to Send Me Where?' '
You can e-mail free-writer Jeff Mortimer at [email protected]
International Editor Chris Wright's e-mail is [email protected]