Archive for December, 2010

Black Russians

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

I met Black Russians today.

No, I don’t mean Russians of African descent. And I’m not using a euphemism for going on a bender of delicious vodka-laced drinks during this exciting trip to Moscow. Rather, I’ve just finished teaching an amazing session with a sharp group of Russian executives who I’ve been helping foster a high-engagement, high-performance culture in their company. They have been struggling with a culture that has pockets of cynical, demoralized people and they really want to do better. But it wasn’t until we dove more deeply into what was happening in the company that I stumbled onto this fundamental insight:

This young, talented group of Russians is having an experience inside the company that is remarkably similar to that of black people in U.S. corporations.

The parallels are fascinating. I’ve learned that the history of this generation of Russians is, in some ways, disheartening. First, the demographic patterns over the past couple of generations mirror the story of African Americans. Just after World War II, there was a major shortage of males in the population: there were 2.2 females for every male in the population.[1] While those numbers have evened out over the years (1.2 females for every male in 2009), the legacy of the devastation of the male population during the 20th century remains—significantly higher health vulnerabilities than women, shorter life expectancy, and higher incidences of substance abuse, especially alcoholism. 2 These are all issues that have been visible and widely discussed in the African American community, too.

Culturally, the Soviet political structure left many challenges in its wake. For example, one participant shared with me that one consequence of Russia’s late entry into a capitalist economy is that Russian professionals receive a pretty consistent message from the multinational business world: your markets are lucrative, but as skilled managers and leaders in those markets you are lacking. No matter how competent they are objectively, there is a sense that many young Russian professionals feel as though they are not perceived to be competent enough to take senior leadership positions locally in global corporations. They don’t yet see many role models in their organizations that would counter that concern. And while they acknowledge that as a group, they do have a lot to learn professionally, they also feel that some are talented, experiences, and very ready. And they are frustrated by not having that talent, experience, and potential recognized. They spoke of wanting to have more authority and responsibility and of simply wanting a fair chance to advance to the highest levels of the company, messages I continue to hear in my work with black professionals in the U.S.

So often, I hear that “diversity” is a U.S. thing that has limited relevance globally. No one denies there is tremendous diversity globally—that’s obvious. But often, executives and students I work with see the way U.S. folks deal with difference as idiosyncratic. We are obsessed with race, they say, and we are too focused on attending to differences without seeing how similar we are.

Ironically, my experience reinforces how similar we truly are all over the world. We struggle with similar inequities borne of the unique circumstances of our societies and our histories. Whether it is slavery in the U.S., or the government political system in Russia and the former Soviet Union, or the ethnic divides in Vietnam (I learned that some people from certain provinces in Vietnam tend to receive preferential treatment within the labor force), every nation and every society has a story of difference, power, and inequity. Leaders and managers do a disservice to all of their stakeholders when they deny these realities in their organizations.

Leaders and their organizations do better when we engage these issues and these differences with openness and an attitude of exploration and learning. Today, my Russian colleagues will initiate a conversation about their experience as Russian professionals with their ex-pat leaders. It’s a great start.

[1] Age structure of the Russian population as of January 1, 2009 Rosstat Retrieved on 2009-10-08.
[2] Wikipedia entry “Demographics of Russia”

Every Trip A New Beginning

Monday, December 13th, 2010

The phrase “Every Trip a New Beginning” is rattling around in my head as I sit quietly on my plane ride out of Hanoi.  I have been in Vietnam for the past seven days working with a group of brilliant young managers who had been selected from their respective companies as having outstanding potential as future leaders.  They hailed from four continents—Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America—and seven countries and my task was to help impart knowledge and insight about what it means to lead a 21st century global organization.  The classroom conversations that emerged throughout the week were stunningly illuminating.  These bright participants (they were called delegates in the program) were curious, challenging, and willing to be challenged by me and by each other.  But it wasn’t until after I witnessed their summary group presentations on the last day of the program that I was truly altered.

Being with the delegates in this program continually surprised me.  Each person I met had a story that challenged how I perceived the world.  One delegate from Norway talked to me about the ways in which the culture there was more private and that people don’t naturally congregate out in community gatherings, but rather come together in peoples’ home.  Another delegate from the Vietnam described how one’s province of birth in the country can influence how fair an opportunity that person has to be successful at work.  And yet another delegate shared the story of living an incredibly multicultural life which was stimulating and rewarding but also left one with a sense of wondering where you belong.

These stories captured me and widened my understanding of the variety of global realities.  But the delegates’ final presentations moved me even more deeply.  Six teams presented on challenges in their organizations and on how what they had been learning in the program shapes how those challenges can be engaged.  And each team created something that wholly surprised me.  One team created a large group drawing that captured the business realities facing the company.  Another group prepared a skit that creatively demonstrated the challenge of creating value for customers.  Yet another group offered a wordless, text-less, performance piece that challenged their peers to engage in ongoing discussion and learning as the program continues.

I think the root of my surprise was in how my interactions with the delegates prompted me to understand myself differently.  I saw my nationality and my professional identity in new ways:

  • A U.S. citizen—my many conversations with people from a variety of cultures reminded me of how narrow my day-to-day experience of culture and global realities really is.  Being immersed in so many discussions about world events taking place in Asia and Europe that did not necessarily reference anything about the U.S. reminded me how obsessed I am, typically, with my U.S. perspective.  I was reminded how my habit is to let the rest of the world’s issues become virtually invisible unless they somehow affect my sense of myself in the U.S.
  • A teacher—the delegates’ presentations served as a mirror to me of how they had internalized the lessons I had hoped to communicate throughout the week.  But the way they crafted the presentations defied any expectation of how I assumed they were learning.  By using multiple modes of communication—art, theater, movement—they helped me see how people learn and integrate new ideas into their worldviews.  I can’t wait to hear about what they do to change their companies in the coming weeks, months, and years.

My experience in a new land with new people who were also living in a new land created a context in which I could see myself differently.  And it reminded me of the value of examining the habits and assumptions I hold about other cultures, about other people, and about myself.

Walking In Traffic

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Hanoi Traffic

In Hanoi, there are millions of motor scooters in the streets and not so much traffic management.  You get across the busy thoroughfare by simply walking into it.  If you wait for an opening in traffic, often you would never be able to get across the street.  So the new skill I learned is to just walk into oncoming traffic…

I’m becoming way too comfortable traveling all over the world.  I’m on an excursion that began in Hanoi, Vietnam, and sends me to Paris and then Moscow in the space of three weeks. When I first traveled overseas, I remember that difficult and exciting time when you first have global encounters and it seems as though there is something new to learn every hour of every day.  But in my recent travels and global engagements, I had been feeling increasingly confident of my ability to navigate in different cultures, to manage both the logistics of getting around in places where I don’t know the language, for example, as well as to manage the emotion of being immersed in situations that are ambiguous and sometimes scary.  I learned to just walk into oncoming traffic.  And I felt good doing it.  I felt like I had mastered a new skill and with my new ability, I could afford to relax and daydream as I walked.  I wasn’t in danger.  I was untouchable.

Then I took a walk in Hanoi, about 1 kilometer, through bustling streets.  I was on my way to find a belt from a local mall (I thought I had packed everything) and as I walked, I noticed how chilly it was.  There was a cool breeze blowing off of Westlake where I was walking and I was a little underdressed.  The streets were generally narrow, but seemed to get more constricted when scooters and cars came zooming through at me, horns blaring (beeping horns are a way of life on the Hanoi motorways.  People just drive with their hands on the horn all the time).  There were vendors and kids and chickens and roosters all along the roads I walked (rarely was there a sidewalk) and there was all kinds of wet blotches in the road.  Not sure what they all were.  The air was full of exhaust and I started coughing a little.  As I walked the sun began to set and by the time I was halfway into the walk, it was dark.  The oncoming traffic became only oncoming bright lights and I was increasingly uneasy as I walked.  It was rush hour now and there was much more traffic on the road.  Suddenly, I was dodging bright-light-scooters and weird wet spots and horns constantly blaring, nervously looking in front of me and behind to make sure I wasn’t about to be swiped.  And all I can remember is the story I had heard from another visitor of a bloody accident he saw on the way in from the airport a few days earlier.

I got to the mall, got my belt and got back to my hotel.  But I realized that I was not safe and sound and in control in Hanoi.  It was scary and dangerous and just because I learned to walk into traffic arrogantly did not mean that I would not get hit by a scooter or car.  I was just lucky up to that point.

It’s not that confidence in new cultural contexts is necessarily bad.  It’s just that it’s hard to balance that confidence with the reality that when I am out of my home country, I am in a pretty precarious position.  Always.  I live in the illusion that it will all work out, an illusion that has a particularly American quality to it borne out the pervasive comfort with which I, as a U.S. citizen, experience on a regular basis.  My problem was just that I started to believe my own hype that I had this global thing down.  I’ll never have it all down.  I’ll just keep experiencing and learning and trying to remember with clarity how challenging it is to be present in the world.