• Breaking the Authority Barrier


    Managers used to MBO (Management by objectives), with delegated levels of responsibility, and defined budgets often have difficulty dealing with top down authority markets. This is not a question of an individual autocratic manager imposing his or her will. We are all familiar with that. It’s a situation where the system itself demands loyalty and respect and obedience to senior figures in authority. Where you encounter this in international business success demands an international approach.

    What are the problems and how do you resolve them?

    1 Show a little respect.

    In the ‘Anglo-world’, respect is generally earned by merit and we encourage a relaxed communication approach. It moves things forward more easily. In many other markets respect is institutional. It goes with the position and a higher degree of formality and respect is expected. Check the etiquette. How should you deal with greeting and leaving, business cards etc. Show warmth but curb your natural familiarity and show a bit more formal respect. It will lower barriers.

    2 Make your boss look good.

    Loyalty to the senior person is part of ‘top down’ business. Show your loyalty by putting in the hours and being available when needed, giving your boss the results he/she wants and prioritising his/her work,

    3 Loyalty matters.

    In many countries ‘loyalty’ trumps ‘competence’. This is why bosses often place relatives, family members and close long term friends in senior positions of authority. Check out the relationships before you start criticising. More important, find out where the influence lies. It may not be the deputy president. It may be the supply chain manager who comes from the same village as the president of the company. How do you find out? The company president’s secretary is often a reliable source.

    4 Get to the highest level you can.

    ‘Delegation’ managers waste months talking to the wrong guy. Why? He /she’s too low down the food chain to take a decision. At best they can be your champion. Your job, or your boss’s job, is to get as high up the food chain as possible. Fix a regular meeting with a senior manager or director to update them on progress. The meeting time may not be observed but if it’s in the diary it will always be honoured.

    5 Don’t expect initiative from junior staff.

    The authority structure means that staff initiatives may be stamped on regardless of how good they are. Expect decisions to be referred up to higher authority and expect delays. Give more time to establishing a new initiative or new ‘best practice’ than you would expect in your own country. Also be prepared to put more work in than you would expect to do in preparing briefs. Overseas staff, however technically competent, will not correct you if you are too vague or make a mistake. The cost of dealing across cultures is management time. Never forget it.

    6 Find someone who knows your system.

    It is a tremendous advantage if you find a local who is familiar with your way of working. They will explain to you how to get things done and talk to the people to move things forward. How do you do this? Cultivate anybody from the overseas company on secondment or visiting your company offices. Use the ‘Check-in’ time on conference calls to build relationships. Ask about people’s experience and learn who is likely to have the experience and influence to support you. They will become your ‘go to’ guy. But be warned. They are likely to be everyone else’s ‘go to’ guy as well. Be prepared for the fact that they may be given extra responsibilities or promoted. The first sign will be when they stop returning your calls or emails.

    7 Place a ‘go to’ guy on site.

    Some companies place someone from HQ on site in overseas branches as liaison. They understand how you work. They learn how the local office works and who to talk to and what t do in order to get things done. It’s not a cheap option but it could save millions in avoiding delays and ensuring quality standards.

    8 Get on a plane.

    Many departmental heads get on a plane whenever there is a problem. Face-to-face meetings followed up by regular email and phone contact can often resolve issues more quickly. Stay at a good hotel. Invite senior managers for an informal chat over drinks or a meal so you know how to handle the local office the following day. One manager we know invited the local managers (about 30 of them) to a lunch at the hotel. A treat for them and a great motivator.

    9 And one more thing….

    A senior Asian wine importer landed in South Africa en route to London. His supplier was too busy to come to a business meet and greet at the airport business centre. That was the last that supplier heard from the wine importer. Keeping good contact is part of showing respect. Don’t miss any opportunity to do so. Express sympathy in the face of local disaster, bring a personal gift for your most senior contact and if they are in town make every effort to meet and greet, if you can. Your respect and consideration will be recognised, appreciated and help build your ‘credit balance’ with the overseas company.

    As I said, management time is the real cost of working across different business cultures.


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