Technology and innovation creates a more accessible world. And greater connecton and accessibility means your perfect business partnercould be across the world. But in order to create and enjoy a harmonious business relationship, you must be willilng to step out of your comfort zone. Experiencing how other cultures conduct businessand do life bridges gaps and differences, and builds trust.
Over the last two decades, I’ve explored the topic of how to develop winning business relationshipsacross borders, and worlds away from my homebase in Houston. I had first met the CEO of a Chinese manufacturer at Canton Fair—the largest import-export trade fair in the world. My initial interaction with the manufacturerhad been enough to pique my interest. But it was the tour of the factory and the business dinner with the CEO that really sealed the deal. And it was during those uncustomary moments that my comfort levels were challenged, forcing me to make decisions that had the potential to make or break thispotentialpartnership.
Following is a story of the unique dinner experience with my prospective manufacturers, shared in my forthcoming book on business ethics.
“During dinner with my Chinese host and prospective manufacturer, there“were several dishes that were questionable as to what exactly they were. I asked the sales manager, who consulted his online translator. He replied, “Stewed chicken in duck blood sauce.” I blanched and pointed to another dish. “Braised ear in chili oil,” he replied. I didn’t dare ask what animal the ears had come from.
I knew that sharing a meal was an important part of building a strong relationship. Every culture is proud of its food, and a good host naturally wants to share the best of his culture with his guests. I had come this far in finding a potential partner, so decided to tread carefully, and not disrespect their food. I smiled in spite of my feelings, and thanked my hosts for ordering these lovely local specialties. This was simply par for the course. Doing business internationally requires you to step out of your comfort zone to build trust and establish the first steps for a successful relationship…
Sitting with these businessmen, I was far removed from the four cultures I knew intimately in India, Africa, Europe and America. And I could clearly see that, despite the way the rest of the world viewed the country and their politics, the individual, boots-on-the-ground people were genuine and eager to work harmoniously.”
Throughout the evening, we talked about the similar fighting spirit of both Tortoise and Equator, and indulged in another new business dinner custom.
“I would later learn that one of the main goals of these dinners was to get guests inebriated. This tradition falls under the principle of “wu wei,” which means that you must know the true intention of those you deal with in order to build trust. When drunk, you speak the truth — and the hosts can ask you carefully planned questions to determine your intent. Needless to say, I imbibed more than a little during these first meetings with Tortoise, and each time strengthened our bond and mutual trust. Before returning home to Houston, we entered into a technical collaboration agreement.”
If I hadn’t been willing to partake in the food and drink customs ofChina, I don’t know where Equator would be today. Learning and sharing another culture is vital to finding common ground and building a business relationship that will help you and your partners define and meet your goals.
Taking the time to identify commonalities paves the way for trust to take root and grow. The unknown, regardless of what is is (new language, food or culture), presents new opportunities. So when you face something new, outside your comfort zone, focus on finding common ground to build trust.
The collaboration with my new manufacturer was just one of many experiences that reinforced in me the value of conducting business ethically and honestly. These experiences, lessons and more can be found in my forthcoming book.