Recently, a colleague asked me for some of my views about the role culture and background play in the behavior of business managers and leaders.
While intercultural management is not the specific focus of my research and teaching, both my personal and professional lives have provided me a close-up window on this fascinating field.
On the personal side, I hold passports from both the USA and Argentina, and I have spent most of the past three decades teaching MBA students in Europe. To complicate matters further, my life partner for the past 15 years is from the Netherlands.
As a business school professor, I have lectured in more than 20 countries and regularly taught students from all over the globe. My consulting and public speaking engagements have taken me to a wide variety of Latin American, European, and North American businesses.
So, while I state that intercultural issues are not my primary field of study, I have often been asked by various groups to address the topic. In fact, In my public and “managing across cultures” has increasingly become a major theme of my work.
In addition, I have been fortunate to teach particularly diverse groups of participants in international MBA programs. Interacting with these individuals has demonstrated one fundamental point to me, again and again: The places we come from, the customs and the habits of our upbringing, have an enormous influence on our approaches to managing people and solving problems.
One of my most striking memories of this phenomenon happened in a leadership seminar I taught in France, with students from some 20 different nations. In this group of 60 people were many Europeans, perhaps a dozen Latin Americans, 10 Asians, and a handful of North Americans.
On this occasion, we were studying the philosophy of Japanese industrialist Kōnosuke Matsushita (1894–1989). The widely celebrated and respected founder of Panasonic is still referred to today as the “God of Management” in his native land. Long time Harvard leadership professor John Kotter has called Matsushita the 20th century’s most remarkable entrepreneur. Though this man passed away more than thirty years ago, the lessons of his management practices remain timeless.
At one point, our classroom discussion focused on Mr Matsushita’s belief that every enterprise has a far-reaching responsibility to society. In his view, companies have a moral duty to achieve long-term profitability and sustainability. Failure to do so, according to Matsushita, would mean that the business is using the community’s resources in inefficient ways.
A firm belief in this concept ultimately led Mr Matsushita to develop a comprehensive corporate planning system, one that looked as far forward as 50 or even 100 years.
As might be expected, student reactions were quite varied when it came to the idea of making a 100 year plan for his businesses. And, I still remember quite clearly the lively debate that ensued.
The Japanese students, who grew up in an environment that values stability and avoids uncertainty at all costs, endorsed fully Matsushita’s desire for a 100 year plan. Those most opposed were the Latin Americans, who were in complete disbelief.
One Argentine even talked, with some exaggeration, of not being able to see 100 days into the future. In Latin cultures, uncertainty, upheaval and economic crisis are simply a part of the landscape. One Peruvian even said: “It is fine to plan, but in my country it is more important to learn to dance through the ambiguity…to adapt constantly.”
If we keep in mind the cultures and mindsets of each group, it is relatively easy to understand the arguments of both the Japanese and the Latin Americans. In the end, each group gained valuable insight about a culture that they had not previously experienced.