The lion’s share of the work I do is for Fortune 500 companies, but every now and then I get asked culture related questions having to do with the issues that smaller businesses face. In the United States many small businesses employ people from Central and South America and American bosses find themselves unfamiliar with the cultures of their southern neighbors. The number one mistake someone can make when working with native Spanish speakers is to assume that they are all culturally the same, so a good starting point is to gather stories from people in the know.
On a recent trip to Peru I met with Miguel Vegas Van Oordt who manages 30 people for one of the Buenabrigo Hotels & Spas’ boutique hotels that just won the Trip Advisor 2013 Traveller’s Choice Award. His hotel has a reputation for exceptional customer service, so I asked him about the secret to his success:
“First and foremost I tell everyone that this is a family. When I took the job I went to every employee’s house and sat with their family to get to know what their lives were like. I still go and visit their houses when there is a birth or something important because I feel that it is very important to our work that I feel connected to them outside of the hotel.”
Mr. Vegas Van Oordt’s comment illustrates the findings of best-selling author and researcher Dr. Fons Trompenaars, a Dutch expert in the field of intercultural communications who was voted as one of the top 20 HR Most Influential International Thinkers in 2011 by HR magazine. Trompenaars determined that there are four types of corporate culture preferences along national boundaries. It is no coincidence that one of those work style types is called the Family Style, whereby the definition of a good leader would share the same characteristics as a good father.
“I try to be there for my staff when they need me. I also tell them that before they walk in the door in the morning that they should drink a bottle of oil. The idea is that the collaborator must not feel that when a guest is angry for anything and probably shouts or shows a bad attitude, even though it is not the resort’s fault, they should not make it personal and must always show a good attitude and smile.”
His approach seems to work. When a guest, or huesped, needs something there is always someone jumping to help. There is even a delightful camaraderie between returning guests and staff that reflects an even more extended family.
“I also tell them that if the hotel reaches it’s sales goals at the end of each month, a name will be selected by lottery and that person will win a prize like an appliance or something for their home.” The notion of family extends beyond just the management, employees and guests. By creating a motivation system that also rewards people’s families at home, Mr. Van Oordt is leveraging his knowledge of culture to create business success.
In many of the cultures where the work style is Family oriented, relationships and group membership are highly valued over the task. In the end, it is relationships that get the task done, but an American boss may not start from that assumption. Compared to their Southern neighbors, Americans are typically more driven by goals, clearly defined tasks and schedules. In the U.S. the relationship grows from the task. It is the exact opposite in 80% of the world where the task gets done through relationships. The nature of the superior/subordinate relationship is therefore completely different.
Mr. Van Oortd’s style may seem very flexible to some Americans, but on the contrary, he is very fastidious about adhering to rules. One employer of a small business with South American employees once asked about how to handle someone with a bad attitude towards management that spilled over into the attitude of her sister who also worked there. “Sometimes I have to fire people.” He replied. “I remember when I arrived, there were some people who had to go. It was a terrible day, but I had to do it to establish an understanding that work is work, the rules must be followed and management needs to be respected.”
I asked him how he handles a commonly heard story about boundaries in a more intimate work environment: when an employee asks to borrow money. He confided, “I lend my staff money, but I make sure they pay it back. That keeps the others from asking because they know that eventually they are still going to have to pay for it. When it is an emergency that may be of a higher amount, I ask for the bill and pay the account directly. That leaves no questions and establishes an environment of respect and trust.”
The lessons provided by Mr. Van Oordt’s stories can be applied to both large and small companies. Regardless of size, people still want to be led, they still thrive when properly motivated and they still need to be compensated. How to tackle such HR issues varies across cultures, but one thing is for sure – there is someone doing it well and while finding someone as successful as Mr. Van Oordt may not be easy, it is worth the search to keep trying.
And who knows, through the practice of asking, you never know what relationships you may build.
A special thanks to Mr. Van Oordt for taking the time to share his expertise.