Balancing Local and Company Culture

Phil Humphreys has worked in consumer goods for 23 years covering commercial and latterly general manager and leadership roles at Nestle, Diageo and Coca-Cola. He has worked in over 60 countries and has a wealth of international experience including global customer negotiation, M&A and route to market expertise. 

Originally from a sales and marketing background, Phil has extensive experience in operations around the world, but particularly in Europe and emerging markets across Asia and Africa.

We met with Phil to discuss the importance of balancing local and company culture. 

HOW DOES A GLOBAL ORGANISATION ENSURE ITS ORGANISATIONAL CULTURE REMAINS INTACT, WHILE ALSO BEING FLEXIBLE AND UPHOLDING LOCAL CUSTOMS / BEHAVIOURS? 

It’s all about balance. When you work for a big global business, you need a sense of being part of something and connection to that. 

Coca-Cola was a great example. There was huge diversity around the business, but the ‘Coke way’ also always shined through. Whether I was visiting my team in Ethiopia or Vietnam, they were all equally passionate about the company and the company values, and I think that’s really important. 

However, it is essential to be sensitive to local cultures. So, how the ‘Coke way’ was brought to life often varied across markets, sometimes even within the same country. For example, ‘celebration’ and ‘celebrating life’ was a key part of the brand, but in Vietnam, celebration to someone in Ho Chi Minh (a thriving, bustling, international city) versus Hanoi (a simpler, quieter, humbler city) was actually quite different. 

The most successful people have been able to talk the company way, yet also connect to the local community. If you can’t do that, you will fail, and I have seen it happen. 

WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE KEYS TO BALANCING LOCAL AND COMPANY CULTURE? 

1 - Develop an appreciation of the local consumer and the local team. Leaders who take time to understand the consumer and the team will have far more success than ones who do not. This is true in any market.

I remember an instance where one of my former CEO’s came to Sri Lanka, and before he met with any of my team, he spent two days living with a family on the west coast of Sri Lanka. He became very appreciative of how they lived, and when he addressed all the team, it was amazing. 

2 - Think about how you communicate. First, if you simply use one form of communication (eg, written/email), you won’t get far. Spending time somewhere in person is essential in order to really connect with local teams.  

Also, the leaders who have the most success are great storytellers. They can communicate in a way that people can easily relate to by talking about their different experiences. They also talk to everyone the same way, no matter the level in the organisation. 

Finally, try to speak some local language, even if it was just a simple greeting like “hello”. It automatically breaks down barriers by showing one understands and appreciates local differences. 

3 - Surround yourself with a great team. If you want to establish your company in an emerging market, it is really key to hire the right people, which can be hard to do. At the end of the day, you are putting someone in position that needs to be able to deep dive into a local culture, and you need someone who can appreciate that. 

I always interviewed potential candidates in restaurants, outside of the office. The whole concept was to see how they treat the waiter/waitress. You can see more about their values than by sitting in an office. On paper, a candidate might seem like the perfect person, but you need to understand how he/she will interact and set the example for a team of 1,000. 

4 - Be open to learning. The best leaders are the ones who are open to being taught. A leader might know everything about P&L, but they might not know that in one country, you shouldn’t say a certain thing, dress in a certain way, etc. I remember going to a beach in Vietnam once with a colleague. We didn’t realise that no one goes to the beach there between 1-5pm in the afternoon, the time of day with the highest sun exposure. You see, having a sun tan isn’t considered a good thing there. 

Also, learning really shapes your experience in a local culture. The leaders I have known who enjoyed being an expat the most, were the ones who immersed themselves in the local culture. When I lived in Dubai, I didn’t spend time (as a tourist might) in the Grand mosque, but rather having a coffee and shisha in friend’s home. 

YOU MENTIONED SPEAKING THE LOCAL LANGUAGE, HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS TO SUCCESS? 

The point here is really more of a figurative one. If you don’t speak a local language, that doesn’t inhibit you as a leader. But, if you have a lack of appreciation for the local culture, that can be detrimental. 

For example, I used to write down about ten phrases in the local language that I learned from my local team. It might have been as simple as “how are you” to things that were comical, but they were phrases that resonated, the local team could relate to, and it showed I could “speak their language”, figuratively. 

IN RUNNING SUCH DIVERSE REGIONS, YOU MUST HAVE HAD PRETTY DIVERSE TEAMS. HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT TEAM FORMING? 

Indeed, my teams were all quite diverse. When I was COO of Coca-Cola Sabco, we had eight people, with eight different nationalities, all very different! There were a couple key things I used to do:

1 - First, I made sure we connected as a team, in person. We had bi-monthly meetings, so we would always try go to one of team members’ countries in person to have that meeting. Some might question the cost to get all eight people to one place. But, the purpose and benefits far out-weighted the cost, which was to have people understand the culture and that environment of that individual and to build a stronger team. 

2 - Second, I spent a time supporting my team and coaching them on how they were managing their teams as well. If you go to a country, 9/10 people will ask about performance and sales. The first thing I did was talk about people, and the conversations they were having. 

3 - Third, we were hard on results, but soft on hearts. We were soft when connecting with people, but it didn’t mean we weren’t ruthless when we missed numbers. For example, we made sure we celebrated each other in a culturally significant way. Taking time to appreciate someone’s effort relating to his/her culture was massively powerful. The best leaders and teams are able to oscillate between different cultures and appreciate people in a local way that matters. 

WHAT WOULD BE YOUR ADVICE FOR BUILDING TRUST WITH LOCAL TEAMS? 

I believe building trust with different nationalities is all about leadership. As a manager or CEO, you have to lead by example, and you have to have respect for local cultures. 

If you can initiate respect from your team by doing these things, you are 90% there. They might not always like you, but they will respect you. The culture of any organisation always goes back to leadership. 

As an example, one of our CEO’s came to Nepal on a trip. He was a very busy guy, but while there he took the time to visit to the children’s home we had set up. To see him interacting with the street kids who had been saved and hearing their stories, was amazing for the team. But, it was not just in a way that ticked the box. There was no TV crew, no PR team involved, it was just him, there, caring and interacting. It was not at all related to our gross profit margin or share price, but no doubt it indirectly impacted it, as it went miles in building trust and connecting culturally with the team and people. 

DID YOU EVER MAKE ANY CULTURAL MISTAKES?

Sure! I remember going to India the very first time and I couldn’t understand why things didn’t happen by when I was told they would happen. We would have a discussion, and the team would nod their head. I quickly learned that nodding in India means no, so completely the other way around. 

Everyone makes mistakes, and they are good lessons to remind you why understanding local communication and culture is so important to success.