POINT TO PONDER
"The most important working relationships are the personal ones."
In 1980, when I graduated from college, the company that I was working for offered me an expatriate job in Manila, Philippines. I would be working for a senior expatriate who was already stationed at a subcontractor plant. The opportunity to work in a foreign country seemed exciting, and I gladly accepted.
Just before I left, I paid a courtesy visit to Mr. Dowd, the general manager of our division. I asked him if he had any words of wisdom about how to thrive in a foreign country.
He told me, "Young man, in Asia most of the business is done over a cup of tea." Then he shook my hands and wished me well.
Hmm!! That seemed very profound advice. I spent most of the plane ride trying to debug what he really meant. I even wondered, "If all that it took is a cup of tea to do business in Asia then why did I spend all these years sweating over a degree?" Young that I was, I did not grasp the key concept behind Mr. Dowd’s statement.
In the first few days I noticed that, every morning, my boss and the other expatriates spent time with Mr. Ang, proud owner of the very first subcontractor assembly facility in Asia, talking about all kinds of world affairs over their morning coffee or tea. I observed that they were not talking about 'Real Business', our company’s business, and I felt uncomfortable about it.
So in the next week, when I requested a meeting with Mr. Ang to go over my agenda and instead I got an invitation to join him for a cup of tea, I refused. I wanted a formal meeting.
I got a call back from his secretary that for the next three weeks, Mr. Ang was busy with bankers, labor unions and a visit to the Presidential palace. For a formal meeting, I would have to wait.
Three weeks? That was an eternity for one who comes from a competitive environment and wants to prove his worth to the company right away. I went and complained to my local boss and asked him what to do. Amazingly, his advice was, "Go and have a cup of tea."
I thought, "What is wrong with all these people?"
Anyway, I realized that it was the best option under the circumstances. So the next day I went for a cup of tea. The same thing happened in the following two days, a tea and world affairs. By Friday, I was getting impatient. To my surprise, Mr. Ang inquired about my plans. In a few minutes after I started describing the details, he summoned three key managers to his office and told them, "Give Mr. Shah whatever support he needs." Unconditional support? Wow! No negotiations. I had cut a good deal without much effort.
What followed was a great teamwork with his people and a huge improvement in yields and quality. The word of our accomplishments traveled across the oceans. It was evident on Mr. Dowd's face when he came for his annual visit to Asia.
SEQUEL TO THE STORY
Not long after that, we received a surprise shipment at our home. The sender was a US branch of our company. It contained appliances that my wife and I needed, but could not afford. Those appliances were of a famous brand, made by a subsidiary of our parent company.
Nervous, I called our secretary to ask if she knew anything about it since I did not order them and I did not have the savings to pay for them.
She informed me that they were from Mr. Dowd and there was a telex from him: "In Asia, most of the business is done over a cup of tea. Thanks, for your hard work and great results."
Note: This story narrates my experience in Asia. However, similar practices do exist in other parts of the world over a glass of beer or over a golf game or while enjoying a hukka.
*FR reposted from 10/2007*