During my project management career, I have experienced many culture shocks. But the one that changed my life happened when I joined a global corporation in Mexico in the mid-1980s.
I was a recent graduate and had just finished my internship with this organization when I got a job offer. During immersion training, all the new hires visited the boardroom, lined with awards and honors that the Mexican branch had won in the past. Most impressive was the mahogany table, where many major deals went down. It was cared for like a museum piece.
After several months, I adjusted to the corporate world with the help of a great manager and mentor. Soon enough, prep work started for the quarterly review meeting, when executives visited our office from the company’s U.S. headquarters. To my surprise, my manager included me in the prep team, which meant I would be a presenter.
When the big day came, I arrived at the boardroom a few minutes beforehand to ensure everything was in order for my first presentation to senior executives.
There, I found one of the visiting top executives — with both feet up on the mahogany table. When the meeting began, we commenced introductions. The visiting executives threw their business cards across the table as a casino croupier would, while my Mexican colleagues and I handed our business cards to them.
The meeting progressed, and when the time came for one of the visiting executives to present, he tossed a copy of a handout not only to me, but also to the general manager of the Mexican branch.
I was in total shock. I wondered, how could this be happening? They were high-level executives, and their lack of good manners — by my standards — took me by surprise. I also felt frustrated. This was not interaction I had hoped for with headquarter executives.
It took me some time to digest the experience. But by the next quarterly review, I was ready to take action. I tossed my business card at each of the U.S. executives during the introductions. Before my presentation, I slid handouts across the table at them but handed them to my Mexican colleagues. My actions raised a few eyebrows among the latter.
By the end of the meeting, the executive I saw with his feet up on the table months prior asked me to stay in the room. I expected to be reprimanded, or even fired. But he said: “Thanks, Conrado. Your actions during the meeting made me realize that business behaviors need to be adjusted according to location. What may be okay in my country may not be okay in yours. You taught me a great lesson. Employees like you make this a great company.”
That was the “wow” moment that had an impact on the rest of my professional life. I’m not recommending such drastic actions, but I felt strongly enough about my experience to take the risk. The moral of my story: Culture shock does not have to be a negative or incapacitating. I used my experience as a source of motivation, introspection and change.
It led me to a lifetime of researching organizational and national cultures and sharing my experiences of working with multicultural and multigenerational teams.
As a project manager, how have you recovered from culture shock and turned it an opportunity for professional growth?