Posted by: Geoff Wing | September 14, 2009

When those foreigners just don’t get it…

Working with overseas offices can be hard. In addition to the the usual problems of incompatible time zones, remoteness, and possible language issues, it’s too common that the foreign office just doesn’t get it. I’ve been both the source and the recipient of crazy requests when I managed the newly established Tokyo office of a Czech company. The business and cultural differences between these locales were large, making work challenging when the mutually incomprehensible issues appeared. This taught me the importance of relationship building and how to do it across cultures, so I’ll share it here.

One incomprehensible request I made was my travel expenses for train fare as I visited prospective suppliers and clients around Tokyo. The Czech accounting team requested that I stop taking trains, find a cheaper way to travel, or conduct the business by phone. In Tokyo, this request caused instant resentment because the business culture required personal relationship-building office visits, and the cheapest way to travel was by train. After several e-mails and phone calls and waiting a few days for tempers to settle, the Czech team finally agreed to allow the expenses, since they now had a greater appreciation of Tokyo’s high transportation costs and understood that taking a trip on Tokyo’s trains (used for convenient local transportation) was not the same as getting on board a Czech train (often used for cross-European holiday travel). Of course, this was just the beginning of our misunderstandings.

As I set up our operations in Tokyo, our mutually incomprehensible exchanges got even more interesting. From the Czech side there were issues of “terrible” consistency and attitude problems from our Japanese vendors, issues of “prima-donna control freak clients”, and general feelings that Japanese vendors and customers were afraid and distrustful. From the Japan side there were discussions about the nonsensical policies coming from the Czech head office, and a deep distrust that any of the Czech business expectations would work in Japan. In a way, both sides were right. Unfortunately, as the Tokyo office’s first employee, I had to resolve these issues fast.

I worked remotely with five of the Czech office’s senior directors, and had regular phone calls with each of them. I hoped that the calls would resolve our problems, but soon discovered  that our structured meetings didn’t work. Talking to the Project Management Director about project status, the Vendor Management Director about vendor status, or the Language Translation Director about translation quality did not let us get to the heart of our problems. So I told each one that we would drop the structured format and  have open-ended discussions about problems, and that I would talk about cross-departmental matters. That changed the conversation dynamic completely so we could now talk freely about the deeper issues: the foundational business culture differences that made many of the Czech practices and expectations irrelevant in Japan, and vice versa.

These open-ended discovery conversations let us learn a lot from each other. Fundamental differences in the Czech versus Japanese concepts and and execution of quality was one lesson. Basic differences in how each culture creates and maintains business relationships was another. And we learned about our organizational culture differences too: the weeks-old “do it now” Tokyo office culture versus the decades-old “do it like we’ve always done it” Czech head office culture. Of course, it was essential that I had personally met with each of the Czech managers at their head office when I first started the job, because communication about deep issues like these can only happen when managers know and trust each other.


  1. Like your ideas, this blog & your focus. Have long been seeking like minds. Pls check me out on LinkedIn. Would love to connect. I am former ESL/Spanish teacher K through Adult from North Bay. Would like very much to discuss our perspectives as we seem to have much in common. I’m very concerned about moving larger economy in this direction, have friends also concerned.

  2. Somehow I never was added to the subscription list.

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