Spotlight on Asia

Two marketers who have swapped Britain for Asia share their experience of adjusting to a new business career

Click here to read the cover feature: Beware the culture gap on global growth trail
Click here to read Cristina Diezhandino, Diageo regional marketing and innovation director for Africa, give her take on African business culture
Click here to read about how recognising cultural differences that might seem small can make a big difference in Europe
Click here to read some insights on working with colleagues in America

James Thompson, Diageo chief marketing officer, Asia Pacific

I have been in Singapore since January 2007 as regional CMO. Every time I think I have my head around the business culture, I learn something new. In some ways this is quite humbling because you can’t just learn a culture in a couple of years, let alone a series of cultures, such as Asia Pacific. You have India, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, China – even China versus Taiwan is different. The skill is not to be the best at knowing the cultures but developing a radar where you begin to learn when you are not doing something right.

It’s the ability to build relationships that start from listening as opposed to telling. In parts of Asia I have left meetings thinking that there is agreement on what we are doing, and people are actually just being polite. And if I had left it at that, I would have gone away thinking we were moving in a particular direction. So you have to be aware that you have to open up conversations and give people a chance to disagree in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

We were discussing with some of our Thai leadership team how we wanted a business culture where people could be held to account for what they were doing. And one of them said, “In Thailand, we don’t hold each other to account.” It turned out that phrase had a particularly aggressive feel, so when I put it in a different way and explored the concept further, they then agreed that they were able to do this. It’s almost like you have to slow down to move faster.

Will Harris, Nokia marketing director, South East Asia and the Pacific

When you first get off the plane and go to the office it feels the same as working for a big corporate brand in Europe. But then with every week that was going past I realised how little I actually knew, which was really scary.

A lot of it is political – with a small p – and historical. For example, Vietnam doesn’t have the commercial background that Europe does, and has been through massive tumult over the 20th century. It’s been stable for a while but they haven’t got people who have been working in companies for 15 or 20 years like in the UK.

The cultural law in Thailand is fundamentally at odds to the norms in other parts of the world. The people are very polite, but there is an underlying steel that takes you a long time to understand. It’s a very hierarchical country and is more deferential. There is a respect for authority and if you are the director of a company then your word is often law. There is very little chance of people questioning what you do.

Singapore is different again. Singaporeans are very good at working on a task basis and taking instruction, but are less comfortable in a freeform environment. I think this is common to a lot of Chinese Asia.

Out here, you have to avoid putting someone in a position where you are seen to be losing face. And fatalism, an attitude of “what will be, will be”, is predominant and that does translate into business. It’s my responsibility to learn all these cultural reference points because I am a visitor here.

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