I recall a turning point in my career in Mexico in late 1996 when I decided to search for ways to “connect” with my team. You see, I was the typical expatriate. I knew what I was doing. I represented the corporate headquarters in Montreal, Canada. It was “our” product that we were moving to a manufacturing facility in Mexico. I had all the answers. After all, I was brought in to teach them how to succeed in manufacturing our products faster, better and less costly. I had to have all the answers, right? Well, this turning point is when I learned an important lesson about what
things the team needed to do to succeed versus how
to go about doing them. It all started with a discussion with a trusted colleague of mine, Hector Guerra.
I asked Hector what it would take the do a better job of getting the employees on my team to do what I wanted them to do. I just wasn’t sure if they were getting it. I also wasn’t sure that some of them were trying to get it. It seemed as if they were waiting me out until the next boss came along. Sure I was moving fast because that’s always been in my nature to operate this way. But something was missing and I wasn’t sure what it was. Hector smiled at my questions and responded, “Throw a party at your place for the team and their spouses”. “That’s ridiculous”, I said. “How’s a party going to help gain the trust of the team?” “Trust me” was all he said, with the sly smile that he’s known for.
It was Wednesday and I decided to call a party at my place for Friday to put his idea to the test. I actually liked the idea to get away from work, have some fun with the still-new team and get to know them better, but I didn’t think in any way this would make much of a difference.
At the time, there were fifty employees on my team. I figured that given the late notice, we’d plan for food for about half of the team and their spouses. Surely many of them already had more important things to do, right? I should have known when one of the employees came to me three different times to say he was sorry for not being able to attend. He was in a wedding so he couldn’t make it to my party. In my own naïve way, I just thought he was a really respectful guy.
98 people showed up that night, sending my wife and me into a frenzy buying more food and drinks. We made it through the night, which lasted until about 4:00 AM. And I can honestly say that a good time was had by all. I instituted the “no shop talk” rule at the party so that we could disconnect from the workplace and just have some fun.
Why is this so different than what we’re used to in the US? To me, the answer came quickly. Work in Mexico is a not just an end in itself. It is a means to a relationship with peers. It is a way to build unity or even a family in the workplace. It is part of the journey that makes life there so special. It is in their culture to be close to one another at work. I learned through this experience that everyone believed in what
I was trying to do all along, but that would only get me so far. Once I chose to get to know the team on a different level and change how
I did things, the results were incredible.
The transition to getting closer to the people was an easy one for me because it’s in my nature anyway, being a sports enthusiast. But that’s not what they teach you stateside in Business School. As a US leader, should you find yourself struggling to get the results you want in Mexico, find someone that seems to be close to the “pulse” of the organization and ask then for ways to better connect with the team. Doing so will surely give you the results you seek.
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