Recently, I had the unusual (for my company at least) experience of working for an India-based, US domiciled corporation on a short term contract. It was a great learning experience in many ways, and I’d recommend that the following lessons learned are critical to success when working with cultural differences:
- Get everything (everything!) in writing -especially verbal promises – before the contract starts;
- Be prepared to reduce your fees (negotiate down) as a part of doing business (some cultures are not satisfied unless they feel they are getting everything at a bargain price);
- Keep track of all names and their role – and ask for correct spelling of all names, their position, their company (multiple connected companies with strict legal dividing lines is common), their role on the contract, work and mobile phone numbers and their personal (individual rather than collective) email address;
- Realize that a single gender team is typical (you may work with an all male group by design) depending on the culture;
- Don’t ignore your intuition – it is culturally independent (usually) and is your best ally;
- Know that gender and ethnicity biases do and will occur – just be aware and watch for these on both sides. Be slow to react to anything that might appear strange to you at first glance. Silence is golden in many cultures (as opposed to we, North Americans, who need to fill silence gaps with words);
- Not everyone will be as receptive as you to a diversity of team members – even here in the “melting pot” of the USA.
- General rules of US business are not necessarily followed by foreign-run companies domiciled in the US;
- Obtain an advance for expenses and other fixed costs (or you may wait 45 days or more for reimbursement of your sunk expense costs).
Lesson #1. I was retained as a subcontractor to perform measurement consulting for an India-based company associated with a large US-based prime contractor. Because I had completed successful engagements previously for the US corporation, I neglected to perform due diligence with the new company. This led to lesson #1 above – “always get everything in writing!”
The client for the India-based organization SYSSYS wanted to set up a sustainable software measurement program that would meet the needs of their CIO and use six sigma to do so. The assignment was allocated a total of 10 onsite person days of consulting to start.
Lesson #2. The first cultural difference happened right away when the SYSSYS contracting officer insisted that the client would need a fee reduction to my billable rates. While this also happens in the US when a volume of work is involved or the consulting budget is really tight, I now know from research and colleagues that it is part of the Indian way of doing business. The line “this is an outstanding opportunity for future business” was a standard one issued verbally to imply a volume of work to come. Lesson #2 – “Be prepared to reduce your price.”
Lesson #3 and Lesson #4. The next culture shock came once the work commenced. Meeting after meeting (all by conference call) was held before I ever saw a contract (a full billable day was spent) – all involving more foreign names from multiple companies who would be involved in this two week onsite project. I was the lone North American and the only female out of approximately 10 persons who got involved including subcontract administrators, managers, my Indian teammate (from CA), the onsite consultant, and various others who I never learned their role. Here it was a US based client for a US consulting project and I was the sole North American. My instincts told me that the US based client in the upper Northeast might not know (or care?) about this imbalance. I wrote down most of the names and email addresses, but it was not easy to follow who was always involved in the phone meetings. Lesson #3 – “Keep track of all names and numbers,” and Lesson #4 – “All male teams are not uncommon”.
Lesson #5. When we first met with the client (by conference call) in advance of the onsite work, the client team manager laid out a set of expectations for the work. My intuition kicked in full gear as I realized that the timeline and 10 days of onsite work was far too ambitious to succeed. I overrode my instincts based on assurances from the contracting organization that my fears were unfounded. My Indian colleague (a six sigma black belt) would set the scene and do the first two days of onsite six-sigma training, and then leave me to complete the work and deliver the results. Again, I supressed my intuition that told me this was a risky project with lots of potential for miscommunication. I still had no written contract – just a verbal commitment to pay me for 8 billable days plus expenses in an expedited manner, and I booked and paid for my flights to the client site on verbal assurances and the reputation of the US parent company. Lesson #5 – “Listen to your intuition.”
Lesson #6 and Lesson #7. The two days of onsite training were stuffed full of content and case studies, but syncopated by frequent attendee questions of “what did he say?” whenever the Indian pronunciation of a word left listeners with puzzled looks. The client frustration with the culture, language barrier, and communication escalated and by the end of the third day, the contract was abruptly terminated. While this is rare, it does happen whenever the client expectations are unrealistic or if there is a mismatch of understanding and needs. Off the record, one of the client managers confessed that the language issue, the mismatch of the case studies to their needs, and the lack of more North Americans on the contract were contributors to the termination. Lesson #6 – “Gender and cultural biases can and do occur” and #7 – “Not everyone will appreciate foreigners”.
Lesson #8. At this point, I had just received and signed the subcontract agreement (after the work commenced) and it had issues that I had not foreseen: the committed 8 billable days had been changed to client approved and signed off days. By this time it was too late to change the contract. I sent in the first invoice immediately to recover the sunk expenses and work done to date, but was told by one of the SYSSYS managers that the client would not be invoiced – implying that I might not be paid. Lesson #8 – “Rules of business in the US are not necessarily endorsed by foreign companies domiciled in the US.”
More Lesson #1. Thirty days following my invoice, another company official called to tell me that I needed to complete forms to claim both expenses and fees for work performed and that they needed to be approved before I could submit the invoice that was now 30 days old. Lesson #1 – “Get EVERYTHING in writing before the contract starts”.
Lesson #9. Since the onsite visit in August, I’ve submitted five invoices and a set of forms (previous copies all got “lost” in email in-baskets) – and it is over 75 days since the work was done. A glimmer of hope came this week when the subcontract manager emailed me asking for my mailing address (it is on every invoice) so they could MAIL OUT the checks. Lesson #9 – “Get an advance to cover expenses”.
Conclusion. I love to experience different cultures and have spoken in 25 countries (including India), but a few precautions must be taken to protect oneself when contracting with other cultures. I hope these lessons learned can save you some headaches and allow you to enjoy the diversity of working and learning from other cultures here in the USA.