Learning sensitivities to work with different cultures
The International Study Visit (ISV), at first, was honestly just an elective that I needed to take to finish my Henley Executive MBA studies. I’d travelled to China several times earlier in my career, although it had been 10 years since I’d last been there. And since I come from India, the country’s dynamic business environment is not entirely new to me.
Still, the ISV brought me a much deeper understanding of the country today and the intricacies of working there. And it gave me a great opportunity to learn more about working with different cultures – and with Henley study peers from Denmark, the UK and South Africa.
What I’d like to share is my learnings and advice to future students from the three phases of this journey to Shanghai: the pre-trip, the week-long trip itself and the post-trip.
Each team member receives information on the case they’ll be working on about two months in advance. Make sure to read the case. Your team consists of 6 to 8 individuals from different nationalities who have never met each other before. I strongly recommend creating a group charter for how you want to work together, including your expectations. Clarify if this trip is an academic trip or an exercise in having fun, knowing a new culture and contributing to the overall experience. That will help in adapting the approach to the exercise.
Then elect a spokesperson for your team and assign roles to each person, including one to take ownership for the presentation. What’s essential for good team dynamics is to understand the limitations of people. What can be your best contribution? And keep an open mind. China is a fast-paced country, and your entire case could have changed before you even get there, so it is critical to be prepared and ready to be surprised. In our cohort, seven Henley teams worked on five cases, ranging from a video games company to a healthcare behemoth looking to change the way healthcare is delivered in China. Most cases involve a mix of strategy, international business and organisational structure.
Once in Shanghai, we began bonding with our team members. The first exercise was a city tour, during which we located prominent monuments and captured pictures along the way. Extra points were awarded to teams that managed to get photos with the local people.
After an interesting perspective into the Alibaba journey by the former COO, we had a chance to meet the different companies. Each company was given approximately two hours – one hour to present the case and one hour for follow-up questions. We met our client for whom we’d be consulting on Wednesday. Our team’s case was for WeDoctor, an interesting technology and healthcare company that provides services to remote rural areas in China.
We had to remember to be careful of sensitivities and that many things get lost in translation when interacting with our client. You need to be prepared for long days dedicated to working on your case.
It’s important to rehearse your presentation, making sure it has been built to tell a story and answering the question, “So what?”. Every team member is involved in the presentation to the client, so the roles again play an important part to make sure the transitions are smooth. And be prepared to allocate time for translation – language barriers and cultural differences may create challenges along the way.
It’s critical to understand that the client doesn’t care which model you use. You need to provide a solution to the challenge. Preferably alternatives with outcomes – and insights. Remember to be humble. You can’t tell your client what to do as you can’t fully understand their situation and cultural environment.
After the trip, a 2,000-word assignment for the module needs to be completed. The best way is to do this on the flight home, when memories are still fresh.
It’s an advantage to have a good team spirit and positive dynamics in the group. The study trip is a chance to get to know others that you would never otherwise have the opportunity to meet necessarily in your life.
I would recommend the ISV to every current and potential Henley Executive MBA student. It’s a great experience to learn what it takes to be a consultant in a different culture. You need to respect your host country’s sensitivities and norms as well as take the sensitivities of your team mates into consideration. And always remember – the best tourist is an invisible one!