CS: In order to understand the biases and assumptions of people from other cultures, you have to understand your own -- beginning with recognizing that you have them. Beyond the Wal-Mart example, what are the most common cultural mistakes U. companies make when they try to enter foreign markets?CS: One issue that comes up again and again is that different cultures regard time and deadlines very differently.The retailer bought up a couple of smaller German store chains, and sent over an executive who had successfully run 200 U. Wal-Mart stores from headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to manage the German operations. Wal-Mart's main mistake was blithely assuming that what worked in the U. (He turned out to be the German operations' first of 4 CEOs in 4 years.) Worse, Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) exported its U. corporate culture wholesale -- complete with a daily morning cheering session for store employees -- and trained greeters and other staffers to ask customers "How are you today? And Wal-Mart's famous ban on coworkers dating each other sparked an employee lawsuit that was a resounding defeat, and a major embarrassment, to the company. The pair run a consulting firm called RW3 ( that coaches managers at global giants like Intel (INTC, Fortune 500), HSBC (HBC), and Colgate-Palmolive (CL, Fortune 500) on how to adapt and thrive abroad. If you want to advance in a global enterprise, that cross-cultural understanding has to be part of your toolkit. Charlene Solomon: More and more of our clients are asking for help in training U. MS: It's partly due to the changeover from a manufacturing economy to a "knowledge economy".Nine years later, in July of 2006, Wal-Mart announced it would close down its German stores. These and other culture clashes made for unhappy employees, few repeat customers, and a dismal bottom line. But beyond that, what many employers are realizing is that the workforce right here in the U. In most companies, productivity is no longer measured by how many widgets you turn out. Well, Germany may look deceptively similar to the U. on the surface, but German culture is much more hierarchical.When the "product" is innovation and intellectual contribution, the only way to maximize that is to understand how to communicate in a given cultural context.In India, for example, a much better approach is to set a series of smaller, intermediary deadlines and then check in regularly to guide that employee and give her feedback on how she's doing.
With American team members, you might give them a project and a deadline and let them run with it, but that doesn't work in very hierarchical cultures.
In Spain or Saudi Arabia, for instance, meeting times and project deadlines are seen as approximate and flexible. An American manager, or a Swiss or Japanese one for that matter, will often cut short a phone call or a meeting in order to be on time for the next one, but in many parts of the world that is regarded as unforgivably rude.
So when dealing with colleagues or employees in another culture, you need to understand how they see time.
But asking for underlings' opinions tends to flummox people in more hierarchical cultures.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- In 1997, with 0 billion in annual sales and 750,000 employees in 8 countries including the U. Managers are expected to maintain their dignity and their distance from employees, not lead them in cheers.S., Wal-Mart decided to open 85 stores in Germany, a move Wall Street analysts applauded because it would pave the way for expansion into all of Europe. First of all, that Bentonville executive in charge of Germany spoke no German, requiring all his direct reports to speak English at all times. Moreover, Germans tend to reserve smiles and greetings for people they know, so shoppers found the greeters' rhetorical "How are you? Even details like who bags the goods at check-out were a mismatch: Germans prefer to do it themselves rather than having a store clerk pack their purchases. Schell, co-authors of Managing Across Cultures: The Seven Keys to Doing Business with a Global Mindset (Mc Graw-Hill, .95) say that plenty of other companies -- and not only American ones -- commit similar blunders when they try to expand into unfamiliar markets; Wal-Mart's German debacle is only one case study among many in their book. Michael Schell: Global companies need people who are trained to recognize and adjust to cultural differences. That, combined with the rise of virtual teams in recent years, where team members may be located anywhere in the world, means that you need some awareness of cross-cultural issues even if you never leave the United States.