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Tales from Loire Valley

November 24, 2000
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Related Topics: Global Business Issues, Expatriate Management, Featured Article
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One of my specialties is advising executive clients about how to flourish ina foreign posting. So it was with wry amusement that I realized I was getting achance to practice what I preach in early September, as my wife and I toured theLoire Valley by automobile at the height of the French truck drivers’blockade/strike action against petroleum producers.

After all, crippling strikes are not too common in Chicago. But they’re notinfrequent in France, so coping with the truckers required a major culturaladjustment. I needed to bring to bear the qualities of curiosity, humilityand flexibility I so often counsel my clients to cultivate.

Curiosity. It wasn’t easy. We had frequent occasion forirritation, passing one petrol station after another decked in "FERME"signs from Paris to Chartres, from Tours to Le Mans and beyond as our fuelsupply dwindled.

But one reason we went to France for a vacation was to learn about theFrench, and here was an ideal opportunity to see their confrontational approachto dealing with social and economic issues first hand. It’s the same for anexecutive who wishes to participate as an equal across cultures.

Such an executive -- a transpatriate, as distinguished from the expatriatewho imposes his own cultural perspective and the inpatriate who errs inthe other direction by "going native" -- will research the countrythoroughly before ever setting foot in it. He or she will act as a culturalanthropologist, taking an active interest in the customs and pastimes of thecountry. He or she will ask plenty of questions of his new colleagues, andlisten carefully to the answers.

Humility. If you learn why others act, you might not reject whatthey do. Putting the inconvenience of not getting enough gas to one side, Irecalled how, in the best of times and the worst of times, French history hasbeen filled with mass strikes and other forms of civil disobedience, and theFrench seem to come out of these events all the stronger for them.

Instead of fulminating about how the government should call in the gendarmes,I adopted a learner’s posture. Being stuck in the countryside with nothing todo but drink vin ordinaire was also a great opportunity to talk to localpeople and discover their point of view. The transpatriate executive will takemy example to heart. Really listening to new colleagues means approaching themas if they have something to teach you. And not just about themselves: it was areal eye-opener to me to join in the local jokes about American stereotypes.

The moral: respect the customs of your host country and approach it withpersonal and cultural humility. Never assume you know it all.

The transpatriate's ability to adapt and turn on a dime, honed through experience with foreign cultures, is a survival essential.

Flexibility. There’s nothing like a vacation to teach hometruths about business. Motoring through central France, my wife and I had chosento be self-reliant. Yet we were now required to take cues from our French hostsand depend on them for advice and counsel.

A paradox indeed, yet it’s just the same in business, where the essence ofleadership consists in the flexibility to follow: to learn how those around youwant to be led. The transpatriate executive knows that foreign colleagues willprobably have different leadership expectations. Except that nobody likesa know-it-all from corporate.

The transpatriate’s comfort with paradox leads straight to one of the mostvaluable characteristics an executive can possess today, and that’s toleranceof ambiguity. In a business world moving at Internet speed, executivesconstantly have to decide before knowing all the facts.

When situations constantly change at a moment’s notice and nobody can knowwhat’s going to happen next, the transpatriate’s ability to adapt and turnon a dime, honed through experience with foreign cultures, is a survivalessential. Besides, your life will be a lot more pleasurable if you can learn toenjoy being surprised.

I returned from France wishing more than ever that I could live in one ofthose magnificent chateaux in the Loire Valley, but I take consolation from myability to treat the truckers’ action as a learning experience -- about myselfas much as the French -- instead of as a crisis.

If world leaders had done the same, the aftermath might have been moreproductive. Which just goes to underline the importance of the transpatriateapproach. Savvy companies will take my experience to heart and nurture theirtranspatriates, seeking out executives with the necessary curiosity,flexibility, and humility, orchestrating cross-cultural assignments, and linkingthem in formal and informal networks. It may be the key success factor ina global world.

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