When I was a young manager at HP my team partnered with Samsung to develop a workstation to offer to the global market. The idea at the time was that the two companies could come up with better design than either company could alone. The key engineer on the project was an older gentleman who had developed a good repore with the Korean team. Hugh was big, tall, older, and he commanded attention. But I was his boss. So, when we met with the Korean team I had to establish my position in order to get my job done. High heels and shoulder pads on my dark-colored jacket would not suffice. We put a little play act together for the first meeting. Hugh deferred to me on just about everything. He only spoke when I asked him a question. He let me enter the room first and carefully introduced me to the participants. I even think he slumped his shoulders a little to appear smaller. That still didn’t prevent the awkward situation of having a couple of the engineers refuse to shake my hand. I was just a woman and it was not comfortable for them.
I’ve traveled extensively in asia since those days and have spent countless hours on airplanes crossing the ocean. During those long flights I’ve reflected on the differences between the western cultures and the asian cultures. Yes, there are multiple cultures in each part of the world but there are some common themes that seem consistent. The topic of working successfully in the far east is not new. Many books have been written. My perspective is from a woman’s point of view. Different? You decide.
1. Value the presentation – In Japan, food is usually presented with great artistic flare. The small portions are positioned carefully on a beautiful small plate with touches of color and spice. Even in countries where sameness is part of the corporate drill, artistic flair is appreciated. Perhaps this is an advantage for a woman. Color and style are valued. Bring that Gucci handbag. Wear the red pumps. Remember the operative words: touches, tasteful, flair
2. Time is relationship – Time is not money if it sacrifices the relationship. This is where a female has an edge if approached correctly. The skill of getting to know someone beyond the job title and work tasks helps get the eventual job done. Ask questions. Listen. Be curious. Open up about your own life. Do this over drinks if possible but watch what you drink. Whisper to the waiter that you would like water in your sake glass. Pour quickly for others…drink slowly yourself.
3. Failure is not ok – When a young person takes their university exam in Japan they have one chance on one day at one time. Sickness doesn’t get them out of it. If they fail, they fail. There are no “re-dos”. Surely that scars a person. Even if you do well, you are trained to really be ready for something and iterations are not the norm. This translates into a “Yes, and” mode of communication. Yes, I agree with what you are saying AND I would like to add my points in addition. Save face. Confirm and build. Agree with as much as you can and if you can’t agree at least acknowledge.
4. Women are an underutilized HUGE asset to tap – If you find an asian woman in business make the connection. Because they are not as common in high places, when they get to higher levels they are very special. If you are a woman, they will want to make a connection because it is unusual for them to find a peer. Much can be learned and shared.
5. Play your position – Be a leader. Be someone to look up to. Be confident in your expertise and direct as appropriate. If you step up you will be followed. Title is taken seriously but if you don’t act the part you will be ignored.