The toilet, the living room, the kitchen & cultural differences

Doug McNeal (Canada) and Yael Bar-Yoav (F, Israel)  studied together at McGill; many years later they reconnected and established a successful software company  which develops and deploys cost effective software security solutions for small businesses (between 2-50 users). (Readers of this blog already know I as well  studied at McGill).

Their business grew in North America and Europe. Doug drove the Sales and Marketing and Yael drove a strong core product with sector-related applications with phenomenal time-to-market speed.

Their company is known for aggressive commitments, slips in delivery delivery dates compensated by “over delivery in quality and features” which delights its users.

The company has paid huge bucks yet they drive their staff hard. They have  a semi official motto which said “we make a religion out of our problems.” Company meetings are brutal; all the issues are on the table, communication is brusque and aggressive yet excellent relationships made this all doable; the relationships “smooth over” the immense pain caused in these meetings. (Very often there are tears and outbursts of anger in the daily meetings).

I knew Doug and Yael from McGill. Doug and I skied together while Yael and I knew each other from an Israeli association group. Ten years ago they hired me, following 5 unsuccessful attempts to break into the market in Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia.

I flew to Asia and I spoke to people with whom they had worked and I quickly learned that the company culture did not fly in APAC.

I told Yael and Doug that they need to do to adapt their corporate culture to the Asian market. Communication must be less aggressive; there must be more room for discretion in dealing with limitations and failures. “Face-management” must be factored in to the way meetings are run. They pushed back on me for more than an hour when I gave them this feedback. Then I lost my cool, and used a metaphor which was uncalled for since we were eating  at the time.

“Every home has a toilet, a living room and a kitchen. You cook in the kitchen, you watch TV and socialize in the living room, and you rid your body wastes in the toilet. The folks that I have spoken to in Asia believes that in your company, there is confusion between what goes on in the toilet and the living room. In other words, things go on in the living room that should go on in the toilet, and to make it worse, when someone goes to the toilet, the door is left open for all to hear and see. Your company has too  much public aggression, too many perceived insults and no where to hide because no one’s face is ever saved. So great local talent does not want to work with you. Thus you brought in expats who do not understand the market, and fail.”

Yael choked and said, “I got it”. Doug told me that “as usual, Allon, you are clear”.

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16 thoughts on “The toilet, the living room, the kitchen & cultural differences

  1. Having lived and worked in Asian Countries I can say you are spot on Allon. More time is wasted on “getting things done” than in establishing relationships.

  2. That great Allon, we need to understand the culture we are operating in and how to responded appropriately within such culture.

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  4. Forever memorable – this word picture says it better than any textbook diatribe. Honor, modesty, propriety — all relational concepts. Not the usual task concepts of vision, mission, and strategy that get most of the attention in the west. As they say in the sub-continent, Shabash! Zindabad!

  5. These are the stories that need to be shared more often. It is the candid discussion about real life challenges that I find most meaningful. I have been fortunate to have traveled, volunteered, and conducted major work assignments across the globe. Anyone performing in any of these capacities abroad know how much your eyes are opened. The challenge then comes in explaining this back home. The story is priceless and thanks so much for sharing!

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