As a leader it is always our responsibility to escape our own ethnocentricity, work to understand other people’s culture, and empathize with their context to improve their lives. As the Chairman, President & CEO of The Procter & Gamble (P&G) Company I would go into the homes of consumers all over the world, watch them use our products, and look for insights that would help me innovate new products to ease their lives. On any given day five billion people on the planet use at least one P&G product. As the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs I would visit hospitals, care centers, Veteran service organizations, and more all with the intent of learning how the Department could better serve Veterans. To do that successfully, I had to escape my own life experiences and try to understand and empathize with the context of others.
When I was traveling around the world for P&G, I was struck with how each airline had its own country in the center of its world map. I would get aboard on the long flights, especially in Asia, and thumb through each airline magazine. The route maps in the back were always instructive. While I lived in Japan, ANA and JAL always had Japan in the center of their route map. When I lived in Brussels, Sabena always had Europe in the center of their world map.
In 1996 I became the leader of P&G’s Japan operations, whose legal entity was called P&G Far East. At the time I looked at my Japan-centered world map, and I joked with the company’s CEO, who had led Japan and set up the legal entity, that the corporate headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio was my “Far East.” The leader who set up the legal entity was Dutch, so his world map had Europe at the center, and European explorers called Asia the “Far East.” Context is important. All people and all cultures want to think of themselves as the “center.”
Generally, most countries have some myth of origin that has them as central to the story. In Japan the Sun Goddess cried, and her tears made the Japanese islands. The symbol for China, a rectangle with a line vertically through its center, is described as the center of the universe. The United States historic story is one of exceptionalism. All cultures want to be at the center and all want to be exceptional.
As an expatriate leader (i.e. living in a country other than my own) in a global company for half of my career with P&G (16 of 33 years: 3 years in Canada, 4 in the Philippines, 6 years in Japan, and 3 years in Belgium), one of my greatest challenges was to teach expatriate leaders to accept, honor, and learn about the culture they were living in. One of the greatest mistakes I would see is when an expatriate manager would come to a country, not learn the language or the culture, live in a foreign enclave, and work to make the culture around their family and them like their own national culture. That didn’t work since to be successful as a leader you had to understand the consumer and employees you were trying to serve. Every culture around the world is the way it is for a reason. Our job as a leader is to understand why the culture is the way it is, and then build on that understanding to improve lives.
For example, why is the Japanese culture so respectful of hierarchy and context? You need to bow more deeply than the most senior individual. There are different ways to use honorific terms in the language. Business cards are exchanged so hierarchy is known. I don’t know the answer. But my hypothesis is that given the tremendous population density in Japan, this kind of respect was necessary to survive. Similarly it is consistent with Confucian ethic. Imagine taking half of the population of the U.S., move everyone to the State of California, and then force them to live on the ten percent of the land that borders the state. That is the population density of Japan.
So how do we as leaders escape our own ethnocentricity? First and foremost, seek out people not like you, celebrate their diversity, learn from them. Second, become a student of cultures, language, history. Assume every culture you learn about is right and good and is the way it is for a reason. Figure out why. Third, seek out opportunities to travel, immerse yourself in places where you are a minority. Fourth, have fun. The stimulation of diversity is energizing.
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As a leader it is always our responsibility to escape our own ethnocentricity, work to understand other people’s culture, and empathize with their context to improve their lives. As the Chairman, President & CEO of The Procter & Gamble (P&G) Company I would go into the homes of consumers all over the world, watch them […]