The reason most western companies consider doing business in Asian markets is because they see growth opportunities for their businesses. Perhaps others have seen it, but nobody has capitalised yet. If it takes a western company to come in and exploit that opportunity, the line of thinking is that the western company must be better than existing Asian companies in that market or they would have already seized the opportunity.
One thing that frustrates me is the “I am better than you” attitude and lack of respect I see some business people demonstrate towards their Asian based work colleagues. We could get into a long discussion on why this phenomenon happens, but I think it comes down to a lack of understanding of Asian culture and the misconceptions this creates.
The debunking of this myth was never clearer to me than when I oversaw the establishment of a greenfield steel building products business in Medan, Indonesia.
Despite it not being the norm in Indonesia, I thought it was very important to introduce a team-based culture in the new business in Medan. In our existing business in Jakarta, there was very much a hierarchy with bosses and their subordinates. It is very common in Asian culture that the boss is the king and what the king says goes. Many Asian and expat executives see their employees as beneath them, so anything an employee may be able to contribute to the betterment of the company is not always sought.
I was very conscious of the fact that Sumatra was a relatively new market for the company, and we had to position ourselves differently than we did in other parts of Indonesia. I really needed to understand from the team what was required in the Sumatran market to be successful. It was essential for me to know what products we needed to produce, how we should approach customers and what kind of selling and marketing skills to use.
We held many of our meetings and team meetings away from the site. We had existing distributors and agents in the region so we organised 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 and creating a trusting and co-operative environment. This allowed everyone to feel respected and not feel threatened which led to open and honest feedback.
I reflect on this time with great pride and the success we achieved. It would not have been possible if we did not have buy-in from our employees and our distributors. It was the respect we had for each other and the belief we were all on the same team that made the difference in achieving success.