I have spent the past six weeks working in SE Asia and often start my day by going for coffee. I have learned that as I have my morning refreshment, one is to not hurry, but rather use this time to relax and reflect upon the world. So today, my thoughts revolve around, one of my proudest moments – learning how to cross the streets of Hanoi without being killed or critically injured.
For those of us from the west, this might seem a trivial thing, because we know that the pedestrians have the right of way, traffic patterns are well established, marked and enforced by local law enforcement and, sidewalks are a bastion of safety for anyone walking along the street. All of this is well embedded in us from the time we first start walking.
What, if all of those rules and social mores no longer applied?
Yes, as a westerner, I thought all of those things. But as I would venture outside the safety of my cocoon, I quickly learned that there is a very different culture here in Vietnam. People drive their motorbikes on sidewalks to shortcut traffic jams, crosswalks are more of a kill zone where you become a target of passing cars and buses, with no one of authority doing a thing to correct the ensuing dangerous confusion. To put this into greater perspective, after a recent futbol victory of Vietnam over the Philippines, 20 people died and 200 were injured in traffic accidents in just Hanoi. Can you imagine if something like this had happened in Washington DC, London, Paris or Berlin – there would be scandal, inquiries about the carnage with people losing their jobs (and possibly going to jail).
I am totally shocked by all this and ask my friend about this chaos. She simply states, “Here you just make up your own rules – it’s all about the survival of this fittest with only the strongest surviving. And, if you get hurt, you don’t go to the hospital where the cure may be worse than the original injury. So when you start across the street, don’t stop, don’t look, just walk.”
Crossing the Street in the Corporate World
To put this experience into a broader business context, in the workplace, do we know how to cross the street when the things we routinely take for granted, go into total chaos?
As a manager or employee, events like this could (and would) occur without warning. One day the world would be in perfect balance and then the next, a boss would be promoted, someone would retire (fired) or a peer would leave the company and, like a lightning bolt, everything would change in a split second.
In the reality of the corporate world, regimes change, and those people that come in, often have a completely different set of values for looking at the world. As I experienced, frequently this new leadership team doesn’t care about the old rules, and often are bullies in order to prove that they are now the newest, toughest people on the block. In these times, decorum breaks down, people get hurt and immense wealth (or revenue) can be lost over night. The corporate culture, however has a way of protecting itself, even when there is no clear path for attaining the objectives of the new leadership team.
So, as leaders, how do we have to learn to cross the street without getting run over by the proverbial bus?
As I said in my first blog, all companies have a set of core values. It is critical that employees grasp these values and actively work to put them into practice. These values must be used repetitively in order to become sustained and integrated as part of the culture.
Therefore, an organization’s values must be authentic and fully supported by its leadership team, otherwise people won’t follow. As management teams change, employees can readily see whether the new team believe in these values, simply by their actions. Workers readily know – that all of the facilities, machines and capital don’t build a single product, employees are the ones that perform the work. Consuquently, attaining business results revolve around the alignment by the individual employee and the organization with a business’s values and principals. Therefore, if the new leadership team doesn’t walk the talk, then the culture will quickly pick up on this, not support and simply check out.
So how do we cross the street without being run over by the bus?
As leaders, we must be authentic, honest and straightforward.