Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Adapting to Survive in a Changing World

Regardless of profession, all of us have faced daunting tasks. Those who have succeeded in an international arena have learned that success is not only about doing business your way but figuring out how to adapt to a culture that has different motives and incentives from your own. The Chinese, for instance, rely heavily on Guanxi which involves parties cooperating together to support one another’s goals in the form of having access to each other’s business networks. The mentality is very much one of “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” It takes time to determine if there will be a mutual benefit by adding someone to your network, and appreciation for this concept is imperative for business success in China.
Likewise, success in Iraq requires an appreciation for the dynamics of an evolving democracy. As my operations officer and I prepared for our assignment in Iraq, we realized that we had far more resources at our disposal than we originally thought. Our approach to training made it very easy for the rest of the team to operate in manner that was consistent, predictable and effective with the Iraqis. A few approaches that the team took in order to create a common frame of reference to the history of the Middle East, was to read books on the American Revolution. We also dined at an Iraqi restaurant to become familiar with the types of food we may encounter in the region. The Godfather trilogy, episodes of the Sopranos, and Lawrence of Arabia were viewed and followed up with discussions with linguists and cultural advisors as part of training on cultural biases and encouragement to be open to the new environment.
Our role consisted of training, mentoring and advising approximately 750 Iraqi police and customs agents. Corruption was rampant at our site, and in order to influence the Iraqi’s, we needed to quickly learn to play by a different set of rules. Though there was an infinite amount of training opportunities, we only had a few months to get ready so we needed to prioritize. Our training focus became language and culture. We figured that no matter where we ended up or what we did, an appreciation of the culture and rudimentary Arabic skills would open doors for us. As it turns out, this effort went a long way in building a rapport in the region.
During the two-week turnover process of the Marine Corps team exiting the region, I asked my team of Marines to be receptive to the previous team’s recommendations and lessons-learned.. My approach was to give these methods an honest try, and then we could modify our own actions as required. One of the first and most important tasks was to assign roles to the team members. We were required to bring eleven specific skill-sets to the job; Myers Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI) were utilized to match the individual personalities to the mission. For example, the Port Police and Customs Police required a dominant personality (Extraversion, Intuition, Thinking, Judgment - ENTJ) due to the paramilitary structure of their organizations. The Passport Office and Civil Customs Offices required more administrative and legally-savvy-members (Extraversion, Sensing, Feeling, Perception - ESFP).
As time went on, we realized that it was the right decision to emphasize a personality fit for the job versus simply the right technical fit. We decided that an expert could be brought onto the team in the case of the need for a specific skill set.
Each day, meetings and relationship building took place between the Iraqi officials and individuals on my team. Relationship building was particularly important because in the Iraqi culture, building trust is far more important a trait and desirable in a working environment than simply how a person looks on paper.
Now that the right people were in place, the team had to learn the value of patience. In the absence of guidance, Americans tend to push forward and try to make things happen quickly. In the Middle East, patience is highly regarded and impatience is often viewed as “western.” This said, injecting our culture into a society that is not in a hurry to change is a real challenge in the region. We found the key to success in this mission was to be truly devoted to understanding what motivates decisions and actions in this culture.
Despite being a civil venture, profitability was the key motivator for the Iraqi port officials; this included both legitimate and illegitimate means. Our mission was to train, mentor and advise the Iraqis to become competent in the legitimate process of cross-border commerce and immigration. The facilities were abysmal and the illegitimate means of income was rampant, but we were not in a position to fault the society, just appreciate that it was different from ours. Our presence was a good opportunity for the Iraqi people to learn the benefits of capital generation (specifically through cargo tax). In order to put these legitimate and profitable processes in place, we had to develop a solution that satisfied both party’s needs. Concurrently the cultural nuances had to be embraced so we had the opportunity for real success.
Socializing, drinking chai tea and discussing non-work related items were the foundation of trust building. Those who talked business before establishing relationships were not as effective as those who built friendships first and then worked the business angle. In order to resist the temptation to push our agenda when it was convenient for us, we learned to understand the importance of waiting until the discussion or decision would be well received by our Iraqi counterparts. Through this change of mindset, we developed a mantra - “It’s all about timing and leverage.” We learned to be disciplined and to wait until a decisive opportunity presented itself. The natural inclination of pushing through a set of problems would not have netted us the results we desired.
The more informal chai social events we attended, the more chances we had to increase our friendship and business credibility. Once the trust was established we were able to conduct a few “just business” meetings and get down to the decision-making process. Long-term success in the Middle East requires careful cultivation of friendships before any meaningful work can be addressed. Once established, a person must make time to nurture associations with partners. One such example involves a local Sheik, a prominent businessman from Al Anbar province. We quickly realized he was the ONE person who all Iraqis strive to meet with -- friend or foe, we needed to be on his “quick-dial” list. Countless times he invited me and members of the team to join him for dinner. Many times we were his guests, but several other times we served as symbols of his own strength in alliances in front of those he was hosting from Baghdad or Ramadi. By increasing his own credibility, indirectly, the Sheik was more willing to work with us. We served an important role for each other’s successes.
Overall, international ventures require detailed adaptation to a given environment’s cultural nuances. This mission in Iraq shows how a small transition team of Marines was able to make an immediate impact on their Iraqi counterparts by understanding and respecting a culture that was not its own. The success of this team was largely due to resisting the temptation to rush into its usual processes, and instead, to realize quickly that a “one size fits all” approach could have been the demise of this important mission.

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