Establishing a business in a foreign country is a challenge. There are different social and business cultures that you need to understand and adapt to. One of these challenges is recruiting and motivating local staff.

When we set up our building products business in Medan, Indonesia we created the concept of “Team Medan” culture from Day One.

With the recruitment of staff we had to start from the ground up and with the exception of a few salespeople who had been working out of our sales branch in Medan. Everyone we were hiring was new from the production staff to administration and even security people.

We set up reporting lines, position descriptions and performance management procedures with the organisation structure of the company. We hired our production staff from local villages. Our staff had some good skillsets, but not enough for them to do their jobs effectively as we required it. We also wanted them to become multi-skilled in all areas of the operations; they would learn to operate not just one production machine but all machines as well as also learning how to run the dispatch area. This was quite unique because generally in manufacturing businesses in Indonesia, production operators learn to operate the one machine and keep up with the production schedule.

With regard to the sales team, we introduced team-based activities and did a great deal of sales and marketing planning. It was important to have everyone involved in our planning, regardless of their role. I told the sales team, “Look, I want you to tell me what we need to do. I am not here to tell you what to do. I want you to help determine what we need to do as a team to achieve our sales targets”.

We held many of our meetings and team get-together away from the site. We had existing distributors and agents in the region so we organized a conference with them and said, “This is our plan going forward and these are our new products. This is how we want to work with you, but we need your feedback.” It was very much about getting everyone involved, getting their ideas and making them feel like they could contribute. Creating a trusting and co-operative environment where they didn’t feel threatened was key to open and honest feedback.

I also wanted our staff to not just understand what was going on in the local market, but understand how the entire company worked internationally. I wanted the staff to understand about western culture and business practices. This was because it was very important for our local staff to understand why we made certain decisions from a strategic point of view. In addition we were receiving regular visits from our parent company’s board of directors and senior management from Australia. Our employees needed to understand the Australian customs and way of thinking so they felt comfortable with interacting with visitors from Australia.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Conveniently, there was a university from Australia that had already helped set-up an English language business in Medan. I engaged them to help us create a custom made program for our staff. Along with helping the staff learn about the Australian culture and ways of doing business, one of the most important components of this program was teaching English language skills.

Only a few of our staff had what I would term basic English skills. We needed to raise the skill level significantly. This training was a real winner because all of our staff were motivated to improve their English skills and they saw it as a great incentive to coming to work for us. The program would take place during work hours, usually once a week for two or three hours. The program took about two months for each employee to complete and it was an outstanding success.

I strongly believe the lessons learned from establishing “Team Medan” apply to all operations no matter what country you are setting up a business in Asia.