5150 Business Strategy

Life in the Corporate Fast Lane and Still Remaining Intelligent

Bright Lights, Big City

Recognize the skyline? It is Hong Kong where I spent many weeks coordinating the annual audit and Asia software conversion. Not the first time that I became cognizant of the differing social norms between different cultures, but definitely one where the contrasts were much more apparent.

The female CFO of the firm had failed several times in getting the auditors in Hong Kong to submit the audited statements in a timely manner. These were needed to perform the consolidation up to the company level. I was tasked with a visit to meet with the external auditors and impress upon them the urgency of the deadlines.

Dutifully I wing my way over and established a meeting with the audit firm expecting that I would need to pound the table or, at the very least, exchange harsh words regarding their inability to meet deadlines. The meeting was anticlimatic since the audit manager, who was male, proceeded from the beginning of the meeting to berate the female staff accountant. Along the lines of, “You have done a great disservice to the firm and this must not happen again”. That along with profuse apologies regarding their tardiness and assurances that it would not happen again. This before I could even launch into my unhappiness about their peformance and the need to improve.

Lo and behold, the next audit was completed on time,  as was every audit done after that. A tribute to my extraordinary skills at managing the audit relationship? I wish this were the case but it was apparent to me that it was more a cultural defference to a male dominated society. While the female CFO had been ineffective in enforcing the deadlines my one visit did the trick simply because I was a male.

Maybe not politically correct here in America but not seen in the same light in Asia where I was a rock star!! I said the sky was purple, the sky was purple. When I attended meetings everyone waited for me to be seated. If there were not enough seats others remained standing until I sat down. Tea ladies were at my beck and call to insure that my coffee was always waiting and/or refilled. I had to force people to let me hold the door open for them. It was the most visible manifestation of different cultural norms that enforced levels of entitlement. Whereas here in America we mask these levels with such titles as staff, associate, senior associate, and principal.

In some firms these levels become dysfunctional as they lead to attitudes of entitlement, mostly by upper management, that it is OK to belittle staff members contributions to the overall success of the firm. The most enlightened statement I heard was made by the CEO of an engineering firm who said, “Every person in this firm will be treated the same regardless of who they are and anyone found guilty of not following that philosophy will be fired”.  Sadly, once I left this firm it became apparent how rare that philosophy is in business today. There is truth in the saying that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Side Note: If in Shanghai be sure to check out the Peace Hotel Jazz Band, a great example of the influence of American Jazz on the international music scene.

Lesson Learned: be aware of cultural norms when dealing in the international arena.

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