Tag Archives: culture

Different Country, Same Procurement Culture?

Heading off to begin a new procurement chapter abroad? Make sure you’re prepared to accommodate, and adapt to, a new culture.

Have you ever wondered what courage it would  take to pack your bags and set off across the globe in order to start an entirely new chapter?

Juggling a new home, new job and a new life isn’t a challenge for the faint-hearted but it’s one you’re unlikely to regret and something that ISM board member, Kim Brown, knows all about!

Throughout her impressive procurement career, Kim has enjoyed roles at Reynolds and Reynolds Company, General Electric, Toys R Us and, most recently, at Dell, Inc as Vice President, Global Materials.

Kim’s lengthy career has taken her around the world so it’s unsurprising that she’s honed and developed her cultural intelligence (CQ) over the years. When we interviewed Kim, we were interested to hear about her global experiences, both what she’s learnt and how she’s adapted to different circumstances, and gain some advice on what it takes to hold a position on a board as noteworthy as ISM.

Procurement around the world

“I’ve lived in quite a few places, four or five US states and two countries,” explains Kim. ” I also did a stint as an ex-pat in Mexico city for a year and spent on year in Singapore.”

Was she able to observe distinct differences in working cultures  during her time abroad? “Very much so, particularly at the beginning of my time in Mexico, which has a very, verY different culture. I was working for General Electric at the time and accustomed to the direct and process-driven culture in the US. In Mexico, the conversations with suppliers, local people and colleagues were very family-based. They wanted to know about me, and understand what my family life was like before doing business with me.”

In Singapore, Kim faced the challenge of managing a widely dispersed and culturally diverse team. “I had team members in 26 or 27 different countries, all of which had cultural nuances.”

Pulling together a strategy for a large team is challenging at the best of times but it becomes even more so when you must be cognisant of how different cultures are motivated by different things. “Something that someone in the US would regard as a very small factor might mean a lot to someone in India, for example.

“Singapore itself was a very different culture.  It seemed at times cautious and a little shyer than in some other parts of the world. I’m the kind of person who says hello to a lot of people, and in Singapore they would look at the floor in response! However, once you get to know them and they get to know you I found the community to be friendly and outgoing.”

This, in a way, is the motto of Kim’s story. Working across cultures and borders requires patience, tolerance, compromise and understanding from both sides.

“As long as you go about making a change in the right way, it will work. When I first started in a global role I tried to supplement it with videoconferencing. I quickly found I was questioned “When are you coming, when will we see you?”  And there is no substitute for that. Employees are often very excited by and enthusiastic about a visit from the regional office – I’d arrive in Malaysia, for example, and find that the room was packed with people who wanted to see me, listen and ask lots of questions.”

What a board wants

If anyone knows the answer to the question “what does a board want?” it’s Kim Brown. As well as being treasurer for ISM, she’s held positions on two additional NFP boards, one of which had 70 board members. “When I went on [the board with 70 people], I wanted to be really involved, to be on the executive committee and be a decision maker, not just a voter. These roles are extracurricular but if you’re going to do it, do it!

“At ISM, we have very robust conversations, which is fun! I learn a lot and have the opportunity to interact with a whole bunch of new network contacts. I try to look positively upon any experience where I can learn something new.”

Kim’s top tips for procurement when presenting to the board:

  • Keep your strategy clear and concise and ensure you know how to sell it!
  • You need goals and objectives; lay out the salient points and present them in a way that makes sense
  • Get your act together! When you’re presenting, make sure it’s in an understandable manner.
  • Do your homework and always  look at alternatives and contingencies.
  • Use your  junior team members! I really like it when CEOs do this. It gives your team an opportunity to showcase the work they’re capable of doing, and allows us, as the board, to show your team that we’ve got confidence in them!

Smashing through the bamboo ceiling

You’ve heard of the glass ceiling – the male privilege which has historically prevented women from rising to the top of their organisations. Less well-known, however, is the concept of the “bamboo ceiling”.

Bamboo ceilingIt refers to the processes and barriers that serve to exclude Asians or people of Asian descent from executive positions in Western-run organisations. The term was coined by Jane Hyun in her book focusing on Asians in American workplaces, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians.

We’ve recently witnessed a cultural shift in our most progressive organisations wherein gender equality in the workplace is now firmly on the agenda. There are a host of agencies such as Catalyst and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency that are working to address the imbalance, although there is a long way to go.

The difference between the glass and bamboo ceilings, however, lies in the fact that while a company may admit to historic gender bias and pro-actively work to address the problem, racial bias remains in the shadows. Cultural diversity quotas and programs do exist, but the statistics at the executive level are particularly damning. In the US, for example, Asian-Americans hold only 1% of board seats. Australia shares this problem: a recent report by Diversity Council Australia revealed that while 9.3% of the Australian labour force is Asian-born, only 4.9% make it to the senior executive level. Similarly, only 1.9% of ASX 200 senior executives are Asian born, despite 84% of surveyed Asian talent saying they plan to advance to very senior roles. There’s a huge disconnect here – if you are Asian in Australia, chances are very slim that you will make it to the top, no matter how ambitious you are.

The consequences are alarming. 30% of Asian talent have said they were likely, or very likely, to leave their organisation within the next year. For one in four, negative cultural diversity factors significantly influenced their decision.

Tony Megally, General Manager of specialist procurement recruitment and search firm The Source, says that while Australian organisations are hiring more Asian-born talent than ever before, there are still significant cultural barriers to overcome.

“We’re seeing a trend where talented Asian professionals feel they have to change, or Westernise, their names in order to make sure their resumes aren’t passed over”, Megally says. “This shows that there’s still significant cultural bias in Australian organisations, although no recruiter would be willing to admit they passed over a candidate due to a hard-to-pronounce name.”

Bias holding back Asians in business – even in Asia
Even more alarming is the existence of the bamboo ceiling in Asia itself. According to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal, locals rise only so far at Western firms, with multinationals still relying on ex-pats to fill top jobs decades after expanding into the region. Tellingly, 40% more Westerners are placed in CEO-type roles in the region compared with other roles.

Dr Tom Verghese, author and founder of Cultural Synergies, says there’s a real lack of Asian leaders in the top echelons of business. “I’ve been working on developing Asian leaders in the market for 12 years”, says Verghese, “but multinationals do have some understandable reasons for using expatriates in Asia. All global companies inevitably have their organisational culture rooted to their country of origin. There is something in having a person familiar with your language and culture as that link with head office. A very human tendency that we need to be conscious of is our sense of comfort – or bias – that ‘same is safe, and different is dangerous’. Companies want one of their own ‘guarding the store’, and there can be advantages to having an outsider in the top job because they can make changes that an insider would hesitate to make.”

Bad for business
Having less diversity at the top can be bad for business. Companies need to reign in their use of ex-pats, in part because they are expensive hires, and having white-majority executives means a lack of understanding of consumer needs, trends, purchasing power and brand positioning. In short, organisations are excluding the very people who know Asia best.

Multinational organisations in Asia need to focus on the following ways to shatter the bamboo ceiling:

  • phasing out the reliance on expatriates for top roles
  • actively developing and grooming local talent for leadership positions
  • training local talent to fill perceived capability gaps rather than looking elsewhere
  • seeking out talent that knows the local market and understands cultural hierarchies
  • setting quotas for local representation in executive teams
  • understanding the difference in what a good leader looks like across different cultures.

“Multinationals need to embrace cultural intelligence and develop a much broader context around what global leadership looks like”, says Verghese. “A facilitative leadership style may be effective in Australia, for example, but a directive style works better in Asia”.

The Faculty Asia Roundtable hosts quarterly meetings in Singapore, where CPOs from the region’s leading organisation meet to share learnings and best-practice. Please contact belinda.toohey@thefaculty.com.au for more information.