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Is This Your First Trip to Asia?

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Respect Local Culture, But Be Yourself Respect Local Culture, But Be Yourself

You are organizing your first trip to Asia looking for suppliers or new markets for your company.

What advice is there for a US executive wanting to be sensitive to the culture and be successful as quickly as possible?  These notes are based on my several years representing GE in Asia.

Cultural differences vary across Asia and are important, but some comments can be made that are broadly applicable.  Traveling in Asia is a joy.  Doing business is difficult, but if you recognize that it will take some time, are persistent and committed to success, it will pay off.  There is no substitute for research and lining up some high probability contacts.  Introductions from friends who have been successful in Asia are invaluable.  Cold calling is likely to be a complete waste of time.  But above all get going. A few weeks preparation should be plenty for the first trip. 

Once you are on the road, here are my travel tips: 

Respect and take interest in the local culture, but be yourself. Trying to become culturally fluent in Japanese, Chinese or Indian on a short trip won't work.  Read a businessman’s guide book or a history book prior to the trip.  Read some current news on the country.  Long flights are good for this.  You don't need to be an expert, but general knowledge of current events, history and culture is polite. Everyone is proud of their culture and hopes you are interested.  Don't overly fret about how to hold a business card or where to sit around a conference table. Hopefully you are there for your business expertise, not local knowledge and your hosts will accommodate. 

Regarding business ethics, assume at all times that if it is illegal back home, it is illegal locally and avoid it.

Take time to see a historical site or attend a cultural event.  You are not a tourist, but taking an interest in the local culture is well advised.  Your local counterparts may be eager to show you their favorite restaurant and this is a great way to break the ice.   All Asians are eager to get to know you personally and are hoping the first contact will be the start of a long relationship. Embrace and welcome this. The first meetings will involve a certain amount of "getting to know" each other.  Don't try to get everything done on the first trip.  Assume you will be back and convey that confidence.

A trip to the see the commercial attaché at the U.S. Embassy can be great for orientation, contacts and resources and perhaps an invitation to the next embassy party. They can help you find a lawyer or accountant and give guidance on local labor laws or other issues. 

Assume language issues, even for very good English speakers.  Nuances of conditional and subjective tenses may not be understood even by a seemingly fluent speaker.  Always follow up any meeting with an email stating agreements, objectives and deadlines clearly and in present tense.   Conversely, many English-as-a-second-language professionals are reluctant to put much in an email.  Never hesitate to pick up the phone and clarify your objectives or any apparent misunderstandings.

It can be hugely helpful to recruit an administrative or sales support person on your team who is local, fluent and responsible for communications, schedules, transportation, care and feeding.   When you leave town, they can follow up and help with communications, however it is important that they not be seen as the point person for the team. That is for you or an eventual regional GM or Asian Head of Sales.  Be very cautious about deputizing agents. The sooner you can build a local team the better, even if part time.  Short of hiring full time people, an accountant, PR company or lawyer might bridge the gap.

Asian style negotiations are an entire topic unto itself, but don't take an outrageous ask as a "no". Respond with a counter that works well for you and see how it goes. In Asia, negotiating is seen as a critical part of relationship building and a failure to engage in a lively back and forth will potentially be read as lack of interest.  If an important negotiation is in the offing, try to commit some extensive time so that your departure date is not used against you. A long time Asia hand at GE would often say "I am here as long as it takes" when asked. His counterparts would relax and get to business.

Regarding business ethics, assume at all times that if it is illegal back home, it is illegal locally and avoid it. There will always be someone who says "things are done differently here".   That is just a sign that you are dealing with the wrong person. Long term, there is no advantage and significant risk to cutting corners.  On a related note, avoid late night clubbing with your hosts. If you wouldn't do it in Atlanta or New York, don't do it in Shanghai or Tokyo. If nothing else, you are draining energy that is better used the next day for business.  But Asians often believe foreigners want to party and are happy to accommodate.  Moreover, wearing you out at night is part of the standard negotiating playbook. 

A twelve hour time zone shift along with a busy travel schedule and unfamiliar food can generate a whopping case of jet lag.  Here are my tips for minimizing the hit: Listen to your body during the flight over and eat-when-hungry, drink-when-thirsty and sleep-when-sleepy, not when the airline suggests.  Plan on doing no more than two hours work on the plane, even if it is a 14 hour flight.  Upon arrival, switch over to the new time zone 100% and close your mind to your home time zone.  Again, avoid excessive partying, which definitely promotes jet lag.  My rule is to have a normal western breakfast and then glory in the local cuisine the rest of the day.  However, I don’t hesitate to request pizza and beer if I need a return to the familiar.  Try to get some exercise every day, even if it is just a brisk walk around the block.

The most important advice is to get going.  A lot of wheel spinning can occur trying to plan a trip too tightly.  Assume each trip is one of many, get as much done as you can and start planning the next trip while you are on the road.  “I’ll be back in three weeks” may be the most motivating words you can say to an Asian counterpart.


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Ted Pryor
Ted Pryor
Ted Pryor is a Managing Director with Greenwich Harbor Partners and focuses on senior level executive recruiting in Media, Technology and Business Services including general management, sales, marketing and customer service. He has over ten years of experience as a senior executive at GE Capital and over 20 years of experience in corporate finance. Prior to executive recruiting, he served as CFO and CEO of a venture backed start-up company.

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