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An American in the Middle East: Context is Everything

March 21, 2016

Things are not always as they seem. One core lesson as a leader, especially a leader in a global world, is that we must question and challenge our own thought process.  We must look for our own bias and we must begin to understand what someone may be trying to say from their point of view. 

One situation that best exemplifies this was a business trip that I took to the Middle East. I was working with a bank that had gotten into serious financial troubles.  A board member of that bank had been allowed to make trades without having collateral using funds at the bank. The trades did not go well. Significant amounts of money were lost and the bank was going to shut down if it hadn’t been for the central bank of that country.  In a deal, the bank was made healthy and whole again by the central bank under certain conditions. 

First, the chairman of the bank would need to be replaced immediately.  Second, they would need a turnaround plan to ensure that this would never happen again, and three, they would need as a part of that turnaround plan a vehicle to ensure they did not have a mass exodus of their employees due to panic over the health of that bank. 

Now, some of you right now are asking yourselves, how could a bank let that happen?  Where are the checks and balances, the sign-offs, and the vehicles to ensure that everything is done on the up and up? Well, the bank had many of those things in place, but the challenge is that there are cultural aspects to certain Middle Eastern countries that emphasize relationships over standards, rules or structure.  Relationships in the Middle East are king and they trump many other factors.  

I had been working with the bank doing some work with leadership and culture and the engagement of their employees. What had started off as an effort to focus on employee engagement shifted its focus to helping the bank and another consulting firm with the turnaround plan to ensure their health moving forward. I had the results and analysis of the latest survey ready. I had spoken with several people in the bank and done interviews and the next step that had been identified was for me to sit down with the executive team and begin to work through some of the challenges they faced. 

I had never met the new chairman. He was starting shortly before I had arrived.  The first time I met him was at that meeting and he was an interesting character.  I first took real notice of him when during the meeting that I was facilitating when he started to light up a cigar with a blowtorch. Clearly he was going to be a dominant personality.  

As the meeting progressed and I started talking with the executives when the chairman became visibly agitated.  It wasn’t long before he began to attack me and berate me in front of everyone.  I tried diligently to remain calm, demonstrate respect and at the same time hold my ground firm.  I knew that in that part of the world saving face was important and gaining face was even more important.  I had to work with the chairman in a way that allowed him to save face and even gain face in front of his people, even if that was at my expense.  

Needless to say, it did not go well.  The meeting ended abruptly, we came to no conclusions and when we walked out I was a pariah.  No one wanted to talk with me or be seen with me. Someone described it as “there was blood on the table.”  That’s how badly it went.  One of my main contacts was an expat from Britain and he started freaking out. He was worried about his reputation, me and what we were going to do moving forward.  I asked him to take a deep breath and remain calm because we really didn’t know what we had seen in there. The truth is, it felt odd. Maybe I had to go back to the hotel and pack up my bags, but maybe I didn’t.  So we sought out one of my court contacts, someone from that country that knew the culture well and had been ultimately responsible for bringing me in there.  He told us to relax and wait.  While he couldn’t give us a definitive answer whether there was a real problem or not, he was able to tell us, it might not be that bad.  Things are not always as they seem, especially to us. What he meant was we were expats. We were from another country and culture. Our way of interpreting the events was probably inaccurate. 

About ten minutes later I received a phone call.  It was from the chairman of the bank asking me to come to his office.  This was it.  I would know once and for all, am I in or am I out?  Am I packing or is there more work to be done?  

When I showed up I could not tell from his demeanor where his mindset was.  He asked me if I wanted to have a cigar and offered me one from his personal stash.  These were very, very good, high quality cigars.  So I figured that was a good sign.  After lighting his with a blowtorch he asked me a question.  Do you know why you are here?  I started to answer the question relating it back to the challenges the bank had faced and he interpreted me.  He said, no, do you know why you are here? -- Emphasizing "you", specifically.  So I said obviously not. Why don’t you tell me why?  His answer was interesting.  He said, because you are an American.  He then went and clarified that he couldn’t have an Arab do this because they are too busy trying to look good.  They don’t want to be associated with problems; they won’t tell me the truth.  Europeans are great but they are not direct, they beat around the bush, especially those Brits. It takes me two to three hours to begin to even figure out what they are talking about and even then it is still blurry.  Americans are direct, brash, and that’s why you are here.  I need you to tell me how to fix this place.  

Now I knew that I was okay.  I knew that my relationship was intact, but I still didn’t know what happened in that board room and then he said it.  He said, look, I know what you were trying to do in there.  You were trying to engage the executives in a participatory effort to fix the bank.  The problem is those are the same executives that got us in this mess.  And, many of them don’t know it yet, but they probably won’t have a job moving forward.  I don’t want their opinion, but I couldn’t tell them that there because it would hurt their feelings too much, it would devastate them.  Even when I make changes many of those people will lose their jobs, so I will have to do it in a way that allows them to save face, to look good, because that’s the way we do things over here and I had to handle that meeting that way.  

He never once apologized or said he was sorry, but I knew what he meant and I knew what he was saying.  So he and I agreed to work side by side on a plan.  As the initial meeting ended we went to his private dining room.  Every day he has lunch in his private dining room with about nine other people.  People who work at the bank wait to be invited, hoping to be one of those nine to eat with him.  It’s like a little club.  So eight other executives showed up along with myself and the chairman and we had lunch. It was a great meal, we laughed, had a good time, and while we were eating most likely under the table those eight executives were texting people letting them know I was in that room; that I was not the pariah and that my relationship with the chairman was strong.  

As soon as I walked out of that dining room and walked through the halls of that bank everyone wanted to be my friend.  People wanted to talk.  I was back in the “in.”  As an American experiencing that without knowledge of that culture it would most likely be confusing, stressful and cause us to make significant mistakes that would be hard to overcome because in that part of the world it is not literal, it is not content, it is context. 

Context is everything.  It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it and where you say it. With a little knowledge, curiosity, the ability to question yourself, your thought process and bias, you can see what they may be saying from their point of view.  The ability to show humility and know when to be brash can create an interesting ride and a lot of success. 

Sometimes, if you are lucky, it’s not other people that change, it’s that your mask falls off.