Many years ago while working for DuPont, I was presented with a “stretch” promotion. First the assignment was in Mexico City, and I had never lived abroad. The position was Marketing Manager of “Artes Graficas,” and I had never managed people. And my Spanish fluency was limited to basic survival phrases such as “dos cervezas por favor.”
But there were also many opportunities. It had long been a dream of mine (and my husband) to live overseas, and Mexico was one of our favorite places on the globe. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) was just getting traction, making it an exciting time to be part of a North American team combining Canada, United States and Mexico.
Looking back on this Cinco de Mayo, I share a few of the lessons I learned with this experience:
Hire based on skills… But also desire. While HQ in the US wanted to place an American in this position in order to tie together the disparate sales/marketing groups, I first had to be approved by the Mexican business leader. So I flew down for an official job interview. My prospective boss looked at me with understandable doubt. Here he was a young gringa with rudimentary Spanish who was supposed to help his business dig out of a big hole (left by a former distributor who ran off leaving lots of debts, and messy inventories). He decided to first test what I was made of by conducting the position interview entirely in Spanish (and he spoke impeccable English). Despite my horrific butchering of the language, the fact that I tried so hard, that I clearly wanted this position, and that I had needed marketing and technology experience persuaded him to take a big risk on me. My first day on the job, he instructed the entire team – “no inglés.” It was incredibly painful but I was able to get over that language hurdle faster than I would have ever imagined.
Set high goals… Then empower with resources. After moving to Mexico and being introduced to the group, my manager switched to English so I would be very clear on his meaning. He presented me with a sheet of several aggressive goals (clean up US$2 million in inventories, set up a demo lab, create a customer service function, and increase sales, to name a few). And I needed to accomplish all these goals within 9 months so we could decide what staff would be retained, versus let go, under Mexican labor laws. Gulp! He then followed with, “Your job is to tell me the staff and budget you need to make this happen.” My fear of failure was completely replaced by a sense of empowerment.
Set up metrics or road posts to keep the team moving forward. My own team was made up of five smart, hard working, eager individuals, who had received virtually no direction or reward for the past few years. Their priorities had been dictated by the crisis of the moment. To start fresh, we met as a team and broke down our clear end goals into a plan with milestones and measures, along with a meeting schedule. This allowed everyone to start working on smaller, reasonable chunks, and gave me plenty of lead time to know when we were heading in the wrong direction.
Sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves… The most nagging problem was our inventory situation. I was constantly bombarded by client complaints, yet our systems claimed we were overstocked. After a few months, there was virtually no progress. Fortunately one of our most successful distributors took me under his wing with some great advice. The systems were inaccurate for many reasons, I needed to go to the warehouse and roll up my sleeves. Those few visits made all the difference. Not that I personally shipped out more orders, but my presence demonstrated to the warehouse workers that this was important – and a critical problem. Working side by side we got to know each other and work as a team.
But take time out for small fiestas. Another mini-project was the expansion of our office space. When the construction was done (coinciding with Mexican Independence Day in September), I donned my traditional Mexican dress and brought in lunch from a local place. The sales and marketing team sat on bare carpet listening to music and gorging ourselves on tamales with rajas, chorizo and mole. The funny thing was that it was this small event that my staff recounted even a year later. It brought us together as a team and gave us the time to celebrate our hard work. I also learned in Mexico that job titles and employers change with the times, but trust and friendships are enduring.
There is an expression in Mexico: “La Reconquista,” referring to the fact that the original conquistadores arrived to conquer the land, but ended up conquered themselves by the beauty, the food and the warmth of the people. This certainly happened in my case. I was sent as an “expert” in marketing and emerging technologies, but ended up being the one to learn and grow more than any other time before or since.
A company that wants to be healthy must be smart & must be healthy. Leaders in healthy organizations learn from one another and identify critical issues and recover quickly from mistakes. They cycle through identifying problems and rally around providing solutions.
An unhealthy organization has behavioral misalignment and inconsistency = dysfunction and confusion.
Result: Decreased productivity with increase in employee turnover, and increase in losses and customer attrition.
A great example of an unhealthy organization is when an employee puts their own needs of department or careers ahead of needs of company, and they can be perceived as misaligned and confused and are inconsistent about what is truly important for the company. They create anguish for others and anguish for themselves. An employee may then see work as a drudgery which leads to lower self-esteem.
A healthy organization has discipline, common sense and consistency in following systems with accountability. They also know that financial cost = wasted resources and time.
A great example of a healthy organization is when employees are aligned with the company’s vision, mission and core values and puts the needs of others first and understands when they make a mistake, takes ownership for the mistake and makes every effort to not make the mistake again. They embrace change and have acceptance of others for input and ideas.
Going from an unhealthy to a healthy organization creates massive competitive advantage in your industry and improves the bottom line.
If all team members are not behaviorally unified, there is no chance to become healthy.
Example: In golf, each player plays on their own, then each of them come together at end and sums up scores. Not a good example of a healthy organization. BUT, in basketball all team members play together, simultaneously in an interactive mutually dependent and often in an interchangeable way that requires an intentional decision on the part of its members. It is a choice – a strategic one.
A solid team is a small group of people who are collectively responsible for achieving a common objective for their organization. If more than 8-9 people at a time, it can be difficult to have great communication and you may need to divide up into smaller teams.
Effective teams must communicate: advocacy (stating your case and making a point) AND inquiry (asking questions to seek clarity).
Behavior – Building Trust – Most people have the wrong idea and look at trust as “If they say they will do it, then I know they will do it.”
Vulnerability Based Trust is adapted in a healthy organization.
Everyone is comfortable being transparent, honest with one another where they say and genuinely mean things like – “I screwed up.” OR “I need help.” OR “Your idea is better than mine.” OR “I wish I could learn to do that as well as you do.” OR “I’m sorry.”
No one hides weaknesses or mistakes and the team develops a deep and uncommon sense of trust. This creates a bond that exceeds what many people experience: An abandonment of pride and fear to sacrifice egos for collective good of team. This may at first be threatening and uncomfortable to team members that are more prideful or afraid to have others around them that look better or may feel they are smarter BUT if done right this can become liberating for people who are tired of spending time and energy overthinking their actions.
When members on a team are willing to acknowledge their weaknesses to one another, they give their peers tacit permission to call them on those weaknesses. This also serves to validate their strengths.