June 20

World Cup 2010 – bridging cultural divides

I was coaching a client last week in the midst of world cup fever and we were discussing the impact of Bafana Bafana losing to Uruguay the previous day.  His perspective was that this will have a hugely damaging effect on our national psyche and will result in industrial action unleashed.  I disagreed wholeheartedly… I believe that the world cup in South Africa has caused a shift in mindset and has provided the foundation for great things to come.  More succinctly, the world cup has kick-started the process of bridging cultural divides.

Having lived and worked in different continents, and having placed people in a variety of political landscapes, territories, markets and cultures during my years as a (now ex) headhunter, I know that cultural divides impact in very dynamic ways. Here in SA at a localised level, we have rapidly emerging talent suspended uncomfortably between where they have come from and established, often unfamiliar cultural norms.  Extend this scenario onto a broad international platform and we have very real issues in creating the barest of common ground.

People buy people on an emotional level.  I believe our executives and leaders of the future need to experience and have empathy and appreciation for a wide variety of political, social and cultural environments and norms – to equip them with the ability to relate and to create common ground.  When engaging with others in business and in life, we are intuitively looking for ways to connect, understand and find ways of getting on with one another.  If our frames of reference are narrow, shallow and/or uncommon, we stand little chance of creating the impact we need.

We need to experience what we are aiming for

Creating situations that allow us to experience this first hand and to shift our mindset is the only sustainable way of implementing real change.  I personally would like to take every high-potential South African executive on a world tour.  Not just for the ride, but with a very clear purpose in mind.  That of creating an empathic understanding of others and to find common frames of reference.  Fortunately the world cup has brought an abundance of diverse cultures and social norms right to our door.

The majority of South Africans are understandably insular.  Only the privileged few have had the opportunity to experience life beyond their villages, towns and cities.  And we have so many ingrained attitudes and mindsets that only alternative experiences can shift…

The best example of this is to be found in the service sector.  In restaurants and bars and coffee shops – the living breathing day-to-day reflection of our society. I am often amazed by the lack of social etiquette, can do attitude and a willingness to learn.  Most of it is just common sense.  Clearing peoples’ plates at the table when others are still eating is deeply uncomfortable for the person with half a meal still in front of them.  I mentioned this to a restaurant manager last week and he said, “This is way we do things in South Africa”.  If he worked for me, I would have replaced him with someone who wanted to learn and wanted to be in the service industry.

A couple of days ago I was with friends at a hotel in Melrose Arch.  They ordered Kalua Coffee’s, I ordered an Irish Coffee.  Mine arrived looking like mud – clearly something was wrong.  I pointed this out to the waiter and asked him to replace it.  Minutes later the manager appeared and told me that this is what an Irish Coffee should look like as it had whipped milk on top and not whipped cream.  The man has clearly never been to Ireland (understandable), has not read a cocktail recipe book (not good enough), and more importantly, does not know what service means (unforgivable).

Which leads us to the question; can you teach attitude?  Most would argue not.  But where does the fault lie?  It can only rest with the culture of the organisation, which starts at the top, and their hiring policies. We can teach skills and educate people, but if you are hiring in the service industry, surely your first port of call should be an attitude of customer service?  And surely your culture should be a pride in satisfying customers.  Afterall this is where your repeat revenue comes from.  People vote with their feet and in the case of the two establishments I have mentioned, mine will not be returning.

Flip this on it’s head and take these two managers to Starbucks on Madison in New York and have them observe for an hour or two.  The speed, smooth operation, friendliness, teamwork and overall attitude would be enlightening.  And get them behind the counter for a day.  The act of experiencing what we are aiming for has a great impact on our mindsets.

Right now I have a very strong sense of Carpe Diem.  We need to seize the day and extract as much as we can from this extraordinary feeling the world cup is delivering.  For the first time in my life, on the 11th June, the day the world cup started I had a real palpable sense of unity. I was stuck in traffic for an hour and a half and it was a pleasure.  Every car was rocking with fans, the sound of vuvuzela’s, people singing, flags flying… In homes and streets and suburbs around South Africa, we all experienced a common feeling.  In essence, we created a common frame of reference and it was joyous.

Happiness is having a scratch for every itch

So how can we learn from this in our businesses, large and small?  We need to focus on culture, common frames of reference and creating experiences that allow people to shift their mindsets one step at a time.

Fortunately, human nature drives us to seek meaning in life and to realise our greater purpose and intentions.  I have met thousands of people in business and in life who are seeking something more.  Curious people, questioning people, some would say demanding people and I count myself amongst them.  I have realised that the ability to ask the right questions, and more importantly, to keep on asking is the most valuable asset we possess.

I have often been asked to describe my typical client – what is their job title, what sector do they work in, what level of education do they have, what gender are they?  These questions provoked me to do the usual analysis.  However, it did not produce the usual answers.  I have come to realise that my clients are not a demographic – they are a mindset.

They are achievers in corporate life, as entrepreneurs and in the public eye. They all have something special in common: a strong intention, drive or greater purpose to be and to build something beyond the norm. And they all recognise they need a powerful impact to do this.

This mindset is conscious of a little nugget that drives us on – the knowledge that in order to change the outside world, we need to start with ourselves.  We are the cause and if we look around us, what we are experiencing is the effect.  We need the self-knowledge and self-determination to ‘cause the effect’.

I sometimes think of this mindset as a constant itch, disturbing, even annoying at times – but as good friend and celebrated photographer Samar Jodha explains, “Happiness is having a scratch for every itch.”


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