Is It Really Difficult To Do Business Abroad?

An entrepreneur must understand that working in a foreign land is the essence of working outside of one's comfort zone

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"When in Rome, do as the Romans do' goes a popular adage. This one innocuous line says a lot about how one could develop a winning mindset while working in a foreign country. With advancement in technology, the world has indeed gotten smaller and international boundaries have become easier to cross, however, globalization should not be misunderstood as a dilution of patriotic sentiments!

On the contrary, people across the world are now becoming more and more conscious on how to conduct themselves better in order to give off a positive impression about their nation, culture and way of life and people who do international business realize that apart from being entrepreneurs they are also ambassadors of their countries.

Successful multi-national business houses have understood that mere economics is no longer enough to incentivize a foreign workforce, it's really about winning hearts. Frankly, it's not much different than how it is back home. Any successful HR desk shall admit that a motivated and inspired workforce is the Holy Grail towards achieving business success. It's the same whether you work in your own country or abroad. However, it is easy to motivate a work-force when you understand them. If you are a foreigner and doing business abroad, the techniques that you use back at home may not work in a foreign land on account of differences in mindset. Herein lie the complications!

Successful International entrepreneurs will agree that one of the things that have helped them in their international ventures was the fact that they were able to alter their business styles while working in different countries in order to suit the mindset of the local population and government. Therefore, flexibility and adaptability are crucial while working abroad.

The question here is, how to understand the mindset of a foreign population in a short span of time?
Well, there are several tools which can be studied and employed. Four such time-tested theories are explained below:
(1) Know the History; Decipher the Mind-Set:

The history of a nation says a lot about how the mindset of that population has developed!
Countries like Russia, for example, have a remote history. These nations have never been successfully conquered and colonized by foreign powers (at least not in recent recorded history). Napoleon Bonaparte tried to conquer Russia and failed. Adolf Hitler tried the same, which was perhaps the greatest mistake of the Nazi regime eventually leading to their downfall as this one action by Hitler united the USSR with the Allies.
Such history shows that the population of such nations give a high priority to feelings of nationalism and patriotism. This knowledge can be used by Entrepreneurs to adjust their approach while working in such countries and dealing with the local population.

Countries such as India have a rich history steeped in philosophy and ancient learnings. Hence Indians tend to place a high value on religious sentiments and international entrepreneurs who visit India or work in India realize this well and adapt their approach accordingly.

The United States of America is a very different work culture and mindset altogether. Being a young country, there is hardly any history and being such a melting pot of nationalities from across the world, there is no one culture that can be attributed to the US. Hence "Economics' is the culture, the religion and the history here and successful multi-nationals understand this very well.

The United Kingdom, on the other hand, again has a different mindset. Being conquerors themselves and still having the monarchy as an integral part of their society, the British are a proud population. Even while facing insurmountable odds and imminent invasion during the Second World War, the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill refused to even participate in peace talks with Nazi Germany! These facts display that the British have always been a patriotic population. Adding to such feelings is the over-powering fact that the business language across the world today is English!

Then again, countries such as Germany have become extremely image conscious. This could be attributable to the fact that they were defeated and humiliated twice, in 2 world wars. Their work style and mindset has, therefore, become cautious, alert and fairly formal. Their attention to detail, focus on quality and processes has today made Germany the powerhouse of Europe and one of the strongest and most respected economies in the world.

Now, Japan on the other hand also suffered defeat and humiliation at the hands of the allies during WW-II. Like Germany, this has made them highly image and protocol conscious, but at the same time on account of their history and traditions, they have maintained a rather unique style of conducting business where traditions form an integral and indispensable part of day to day business in Japanese companies.

One can thus surmise that the history of a nation says a lot about how the mindset of that country's population has developed and this is a very effective tool that entrepreneurs can employ while working abroad.

(2) To Know, Understand and Follow the local Laws:

This is perhaps the single most important point that anyone doing a successful (and legit) business in a foreign country will admit to. An entrepreneur must understand that working in a foreign land is the essence of working outside of one's comfort zone. In such circumstances in order to ensure sustainability, it is vital to know, understand and strictly follow the letter and spirit of the local legislation at all costs. Especially in overly law conscious countries (Such as Saudi Arabia), understanding and following the local laws will not only ensure the stability of the venture but also earn the respect of the local government and workforce.

(3) Discriminate at your own Peril:

While working abroad, Entrepreneurs must understand that they are dependent on the foreign workforce. Many businessmen bring in their own culture while working in a foreign land and try to impose their values on the local workforce. This style of conducting business inevitably leads to stagnation and/or failure of the foreign entity. Successful multi-nationals, therefore, make it a point to imbibe and adopt the values and culture of the country where they operate in. Favouritism of any sort towards a certain nationality, caste or religion must be avoided and strongly discouraged.

(4) Be Dispassionate But not impassionate:

This is a safe and time-tested mantra which is, in fact, as applicable at home as abroad still the repercussions of not practising this while working abroad may be more adverse than while working in one's homeland.

A foreign management may be unable to understand local values. That may be acceptable as long as the entity or its management does not disregard or disrespect the local values. One must realize that while operating any business whether at home or abroad, emotional indifferences have to be kept aside and professionalism be allowed to take centre stage. This should be done for the sake of economic prosperity regardless of what one's personal feelings may be.

Such an attitude is even more important and useful while working abroad and this can be cultivated when one remains dispassionate but not impassionate. For example, picture an Indian company working in Pakistan, or a South Korean company working in North Korea! Now, this can become a rather sensitive situation and if not handled well, it may challenge the sustainability and integrity of the organization.

Here, the management of the company must understand clearly the agenda and their reason for being in a foreign country. Entrepreneurs must be mature and disciplined enough to keep a clear line of division between their emotional sentiments and professionalism. Hence, a "dispassionate' approach should be taken towards anything and everything controversial but at the same time, the management should be careful not to become "impassionate' (or indifferent) towards emotional values and culture of the foreign land where they work in.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to mindset and maturity. Clarity in priorities and clarity in thought process is essential while conducting any economic venture, especially while working in different countries. One may be able to get away with certain mistakes in their home turf but when it comes to doing business abroad, it's a whole different ball game and an innocuous mistake may well lead to systemic failure of the enterprise.

It is, of course, desirable to bring in advanced technology and systems from one's home country for the sake of business but imposing one's own value systems and culture in a foreign land and on a foreign workforce is tantamount to a colonial approach and we have all seen how colonial empires have fallen! Multi-National business houses would do well to understand this.