I had a great day in Glasgow yesterday with a group of associates from a global law firm. I ran a general cultural awareness training programme aimed at increasing these lawyers ability to work cross-border. All law firms say they offer their global clients a seamless service across the jurisdictions but not all law firms invest in the training needed to make lawyers truly global in their outlook.
One of the discussions which created a great amount of interest was around the blurred lines between cultural expectations and ethical boundaries. In a nutshell, what one country finds ethically unacceptable is very often standard practice in another country. What constitutes a bribe under the UK Anti-Bribery and Corruption Act is merely seen as a relationship-building gift in a different part of the world.
This creates massive dilemmas for global companies. Can you have an ethics and compliance programme which is truly global without it coming across as 21st century colonialism? Does it matter if it does come across in that fashion?
This also presents difficulties for lawyers who can only give accurate legal advice when a client might be looking for more commercial, practical solutions. If an international client makes it clear they don’t want a female partner working on a matter, should the firm refuse to take on the mandate?
In the post-Brexit world, UK companies are being encouraged to look for new business in the emerging market spaces. When they do that they will be faced with lots of these ethical dilemmas and have to compete with organisations from other parts of the world who are not bound by the same ethical agenda. These clients will be looking to their lawyers for advice in these situations.
How will the lawyers and law firms respond?
Yesterday found me running a cultural awareness training programme with a group of partners from a global law firm. I spend lots of my time with lawyers and always find their insights and experiences of cross-jurisdictional working to be both fascinating and informative.
A key element of the cultural awareness training programmes I run is around getting the partners to discuss their own experiences and challenges when working in a cross-border environment. I can’t say that there is absolute uniformity around the challenges raised by partners in all sessions because a huge variety of issues are aired but one consistent discussion is around globally differing attitudes to contracts.
There seems to be an expectation in the West – from lawyers and clients alike – that a contract is an agreement between parties which binds those parties to certain activities going forward. The contract is viewed as the full-stop at the end of the negotiation sentence. However, experienced international lawyers come to recognise that this definition of a contract is far from globally applicable.
Lots of countries would view a contract from a very different perspective. Most relationship-oriented cultures tend to view a contract more as the statement of the best agreement at a certain point in time but that if circumstances were to change it would be unreasonable of reasonable people with good relationships to expect anybody to abide by the original terms of the contract. The contract is viewed less as a full-stop at the end of the sentence but rather as the capital letter. A contract is an agreement that business will be done together and little more.
Herein lies the basis of major global contractual disputes. Business people from different parts of the world enter into a contract with differing psychological views on what the obligations of that contract actually are.
As I say – very fascinating to hear experienced lawyers discussing this point during cultural awareness training programmes.
At Global Business Culture, we work with many of the world’s great law firms and have been involved at close quarters with the globalisation process that has taken place in the legal sector over the past decade or more. Many of the law firm we work with have morphed from UK-centric or US-centric firms with maybe one or two international offices into legal behemoths with operations on every continent.
Most of the cultural awareness training work we have done for law firms over the years has been with partners and associates – this is understandable as they are at the cutting edge dealing with clients, colleagues and other stakeholders across multiple jurisdictions.
However, we are increasingly being asked to run global cultural fluency training programmes for the support staff who work with the lawyers. Gone are the days when lawyers and support staff were seen as separate beasts with little in common. Progressive law firms now value their support staff as highly as they do their lawyers as they recognise the critical role they play in the effective delivery of great service to great clients.
Yesterday saw me running a programme ‘Working in a global law firm – the cultural perspective’ with a group of support staff from a variety of organisational functions at Pinsent Masons’ London office. Although there was a preponderance of BD executives in the group, we also had people from Finance, Project Management, Document Production and HR.
Why should law firms invest in cultural awareness development for support staff? Because they are very often at the sharp end when new policies and processes are being rolled out across the firm and they are usually required to be involved in those developments on a global scale.
It is always interesting to talk through the cultural dynamics of entering into a potential joint venture in Japan with a client. Joint ventures are, at any time, a mine field but when you overlay the complexities of Japanese business culture, things start to get really tricky.
I’m always sceptical about overseas joint ventures – I’ve seen too many of them go wrong and seen too many law firms make fat fees trying to unravel them to be anything but sceptical. I always ask myself if a JV is the best solution – are there other vehicles that could help both parties reach their goals more effectively? In my view cross-border JVs should be the avenue of last resort and entered into at the end of a long journey of working together through other structures.
Anyway, last week I found myself working with a client who is on the cusp of entering a JV with a major Japanese corporation and we spent several hours working through how Japanese business culture might impact on the early stages of the relationship. As always when running a Japan cultural awareness training programme, a key concern was about the slowness of Japanese decision-making. Deadlines keep getting but back, decsions are delayed, meetings are postponed – and all of this starts to raise concerns about the level of commitment the Japanese have to the process.
It is really improtant to understand the complex interplay of consensus and hierarchy at work within any Japanese company and that very often the Japanese spend a long time defining what the question is that needs to be answered before starting to look at how to answer it.
Hopefully the deep dive I had with the client has helped them redefine their approach, reasses their expectations from Japan and pointed them generally in the right direction.
Today saw me in Scotland working with a client in the aerospace and defence industry who are looking to ramp up their supply chain capabilities in China. Despite the fact that this company is a US listed entity they are still looking to move more supply chain operations into mainland China which seems a little at odds with the current aspirations of the Trump administration. This shows how a difficult it is in a democracy for a government to try to dictate economic policy to individual corporations. The forces of globalisation are too strong – supply chains will remain global for the near future at least.
Anyway, we had a good China cultural awareness training programme during where we mapped out the potential cultural challenges which were likely to be encountered when working with China and worked through possible solutions to these challenges.
One specific issue I had to take full-on was that of accents. Apparently the Chinese have quite strong local accents that can make they difficult to understand when they are speaking in English. I had to point out to the Scots in the room that their accents were equally challenging – I was struggling to understand everything that was being said to me despite being a native speaker and in the same room!
Accents are a problem and I speak as somebody who has a Manchester accent. If you have an accent, you have an accent. All you can really do is slow down when you are speaking to make sure each individual word is pronounced separately and follow things up in writing to ensure that any misunderstanding can be picked up on quickly.
A pretty big event happened in the UK today with the coronation of Boris Johnson by the conservative party members as the country’s next Prime Minister. I’m sure he is delighted and we all wish him well – but it’s not really a job many would take on at this time, is it?
He is faced with the Herculean task of trying to find a plausible solution to the Brexit impasse. All he has to do is negotiate with twenty-seven different cultures and countries who all have differing negotiation styles, expectations and requirements. I think he might need some cultural awareness training – but I’m equally sure he will not take any.
Why do so many senior people go into key negotiations with little or no understanding of the cultural perameters of the situation will encounter?
We run cultural awareness training programmes across a whole range of sectors from Aerospace, through to Legal but we have never been asked to do any developmental work with politicians or civile servants. The people who most need high levels of cultural fluency are the people most likely to develop it.
I always say that delegates who attend cultural awareness training sessions are a self-selecting group – they already uknow it is an important topic. It is the people who would never dream of coming to a cultural session who are the people who really need it!
The summer months are often somewhat quiet on the training front but this year seems to have bucked the trend as we have a whole series of cultural awareness training programmes in the diary in July and August across a wide variety of sectors.
We will be running:
Renewables, legal, aerospace & defence and banking – quite a varied mix of interests and need which should test my own knowledge and flexibility over the next few weeks.
I always enjoy the one-to-one mentoring I do with executives and today saw me spend some time with a senior leader in the insurance sector who specialises in the fast growing aviation sector. (This dovetails nicely with the cultural awareness training work I have done over many years with aviation lawyers.)
Today’s client has recently taken on a new role which sees him leading a team of underwriters across seven European countries – which is obviously a new challenge as all of his previous roles have been exclusively UK-focused. The client was keen to look at three specific areas:
I was pleased that this mentoring session had been scheduled in early in his tenure in the new position. All too often clients approach us at a much later stage where issues that are merely cultural differences have escalated into full-blown inter-personal battles. I always mentor clients that one of the key questions they need to ask and be able to answer when faced with challenges when working cross-border is ‘which issues are cultural in origin and which ones are basic commercial problems?’ This is a key question but, in order to answer it effectively, people need to understand the cultural environment they are working in.
Hopefully, today’s focused session will help this particular client to navgate the cultural minefield much more successfully.
I think that these days the announcement of the Chinese annual growth fugures qualifies to appear in an ‘events’ section!
This year the growth rate has come in at 6.2% and, although the headlines are that this is the slowest annual growth since 1992 when the economic ‘miracle’ really kicked off, this represents a significant achievement against the backdrop of declining global growth and all the skirmishes in the on-off trade war with the USA. I am sure that there will be a great deal of Western commentary which classifies these figures as potentially disasterous but this would be a massive misrepresentation of the reality on the ground in Asia.
On the many China cultural awareness training programmes that we run at Global Business Culture, we always stress the long-term thinking that permeates China at both a macro and corporate level. (Belt and Road is the visible manifestation of this embedded long-term strategising.) The Chinese play the long game – they always have done – and these slightly lower growth figures will not elicit the same alarm in China as will be generated in the Western media.
The whole of Asia is on an unstoppable economic upward trajectory and China is at the fulcrum of this trend. A virtuous economic cylcle of cause and effect leaves China helping drive economic development throughout the Asia region and the growth of the region as a whole helps further lock-in continuing Chinese success.
The increase in demand for China cultural awareness training that we have seen at Global Business Culture over the past few years is an infinitessimal bi-product of the increasing importance of China to the world economy – a slight drop in the annual GDP growth numbers will not change the direction of the march of history.
One of the highlights of my year is working on the four Management Academy II programmes run by DLA Piper for senior associates and legal directors each year. These are run in various global locations and the June iteration always takes place in Hong Kong – on this occasion a very wet Hong Kong!
I am heavily involved in the first three days of this programme with the first day spent looking at key aspects of law firm marketing and how lawyers can build effective netowrks by thinking the whole process through more strategically. These sessions are a great mix of high level marketing concepts and more nitty-gritty, practical advice on how to develop a relationship network which will bring results.
Days two and three focus on simulating a client pitch – running from how to structure a client scoping meeting right though to eventually delivering a winning pitch. The scenario we have developed is very realistic and although it isn’t ‘real life’, it is as near to ‘real life’ as can be produced within a training format. I know this because the delegates always say how stressful and exhilirating the whole process can be.
This is a great learning experince for lawyers at this stage of their development – it gives them the opportunity to try out new things in an environement which is realistic but not real. We are always amazed at how much work and effort the lawyers put into the development of their pitches – often working together into the small hours.
On Wednesday we always go for a meal at the fabulous Hutong restaurant where this photo was taken.