The NY Times published an article about President Bill Clinton’s visit to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong-il about releasing the two imprisoned American reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee. The result was simple and surprising- they were released! I found this article particularly interesting because it describes not only the result, but the approach that was used to achieve it. The article included the approach that was used for the meeting request and the meeting itself. As I read the article, I saw many parallels with the experiences that I have had when doing business in Asia. This post contains ten tips for doing business in Asia which I gleaned from this article and my experiences, which includes successes and failures.
Doing business in Asia is critical for every industry I can think of, but doing business in Asia is different from doing it in any other part of the world. In order to be effective in your career, you need to be aware of these differences.
For a little bit of background about me, while both of my parents are from Asia, I was born and raised in western NY with American friends who come from multi-generation American families, and English is the only language I speak fluently. In college and grad school some of my friends were Asian-American and Asian. But when I started doing business in Asia I had as much to learn as anybody else. Since then, I’ve had research collaborations and business interactions in Japan, China, Singapore, Korea, and Taiwan and I’ve managed teams in Japan and China. While I bumped heads a lot at the beginning and still manage to bump heads every so often today, I have also built some of my closest working relationships there, and some of these working relationships have evolved into close friendships. But despite all this, I know I still have a lot to learn.
Back to my tips… In my mind, the biggest thing to remember is that being effective at doing business in Asia requires building credibility, building relationships, and building trust. With each interaction you can build this up or tear it down, but if you achieve trust then you will be able to accomplish more than you could ever imagine.
Without further ado, here are my top ten tips for doing business in Asia.
- Plan your meetings carefully with an insider who knows and understands the people, the relationships, and the culture.
- Do not presume that you understand the culture; there are many levels of subtlety and depth that even the most well-studied and experienced foreigner will never understand.
- Plan meetings where you match the levels of the meeting attendees as much as possible. Send the meeting request to/from a well-respected person of the appropriate level.
- Be thoughtful, polite, and respectful at all times. This should be in the tone used in a meeting request, every interaction, the meeting itself, and the follow-up. Respect the people and their situation- there’s probably a lot more going on there than you think.
- Be humble and avoid any hint of superiority or righteousness. You might be well-established in your own community, but when you are working in Asia you have to establish yourself in their community.
- Focus on building the relationship as much as achieving the goal.
- Bonus tip: If you achieve trust in your relationship, then you will succeed.
- Read the smallest gestures (e.g., a light invitation, a small comment, or a small request) and reciprocate. This is a sign that things are going well.
- Provide a way for your counterpart to offer alternatives without saying No and without losing face. Conversely, provide a way for the host to end with a good result and save face.
- Do not force him/her into a corner.
- Do not force the conversation to go into other highly substantive or controversial discussions.
- Do not force decisions to be made on the spot. He/she usually needs to consult with others to make decisions.
- Allow your counterpart to prepare for the meeting. Give him/her an opportunity to consult with others on the issue at hand before the meeting.
- Do not presume anything about anyone. The must unassuming-looking person in the room could be the most influential. You will never know.
- Accept that you may need multiple visits to achieve the desired outcome, as it will only come when you build the relationship, credibility, and trust. This may seem inefficient at first, but if you stick with it the result will be a working relationship and friendship that is stronger than you could ever imagine.
One thing I’d like to note is that while this post is called “Top ten tips for doing business in Asia”, different Asian countries have very different cultures. For example, Japan and China are as different as France and Germany. But these tips should be universal and I’ll save some of the finer details I learned for later posts.
Finally, I’d like to thank my Asian collaborators from the past and present. You have been very patient with me through my mistakes and you taught me a lot, and we are friends and collaborators for life. Thank you!
What do you think of these tips? Do you have comments fom an Asian or non-Asian perspective? Do you have tips to add?