Monday, September 10, 2007

Culture Clash

I have been doing a lot of recruiting and business development work since joining 3Di; essentially because I knew that there were things that needed to be done, and wouldn't get done if I didn't do it myself. For the most part this was looking among my friends and new acquaintances for people who were interested in virtual worlds, and ask them if they wanted to help us somehow -- very simple stuff.

My CEO and CTO, to their credit, noticed my work, and probably looking to take advantage of my native English ability as much as anything else, asked me to continue this work; and perhaps give me a promotion to a managerial/executive role some time in the future. I was flattered, and intentionally threw myself even more into a role that up until then I had merely wandered in to.

The problem is that I finally got a chance to do business development with my CTO on the trip that I took recently to San Francisco, and thus work directly with him for the first time in this capacity.

I was lead to believe that we would be meeting all the CEOs of our potential competitors and partners for the first time, for the purpose of developing our initial strategy for dealing with them -- the sort of stuff that sets the tone for the entire future of our company; which is why I had to face the choice between going on the trip, or staying behind to wait for L. with M. I made the wrong choice.

Firstly, the recurring problem of incomplete or unclear communication reared its head in the form of how many of the CEOs we'd actually get to meet. For me it turns out none. The trip was planned, but not overly official, since all the people we had arranged to me eventually had to cancel the meeting, or delegate it to an underling. The lack of certainty was never made clear to me, perhaps intentionally, so I was unable to add that into my decision making.

However, most importantly, in reality we were not actually on a tour of our own, but we were piggy backing on the tour of a much larger company called HPH, that our parent company has invested in. Even worse, we weren't really invited on that trip as a separate company, so the question arose as to how we manage our conflict of interest. Are we investors in HPH, or are we developers of our own competing product? The CTO of our company is personal friends with the CEO of HPH, a director of the parent company who invested in HPH, and president of the future HPH Japan division. If that sounds confusing to you, don't worry it is confusing. And a conflict of interest. And bad news any way you slice it.

The problem here was we wanted to sell our own custom platform to people, but we were only able to meet with these CEOs because our parent company was an investor in one of our competitors. So how we explain this to the companies we meet so they don't think we are sneaky and underhanded, and how to we sell ourselves without pissing off HPH, using their largess in inviting us against them? Thankfully this was communicated beforehand, but my solution, picking compromise approach and being totally upfront about it, was essentially ignored, in favor of the CTO running things by his gut without any sort of plan. (Insert Marge Simpson's concerned groan.)

The first meeting we had, was with MOU, which the CTO had met with in Singapore. HPH was supposed to meet with MOU, but it would appear that my CTO had asked MOU to cancel their meeting with HPH and only meet with us. Our CTO then lied to HPH about what we were doing.

We went in to the meeting without any sort of plan. For our readers not familiar with eastern business practices, this is not really that uncommon a "strategy" when considering new partnerships -- just head down, have some fun, become buddies, let little people worry about the details later. However, for westerners, its a pretty big sign of not being serious.

I knew this, but my CTO didn't really communicate with me about what he wanted and expected out of things. Basically, I just showed up and watch MOU lose interest in hearing us speak, the more they realized we had nothing to say. I was able to salvage the situation by explaining things to both sides, that it was just a little cultural error, and that we could get to some actual business eventually. Unfortunately I was unable to do this without offending my CTO by embarrassing him in front of the clients. He tried to realize that I was doing what was in the best interest of the company, but wounded pride is a tricky thing. Later in the evening he told me to do something in an offensive way. I told him he needed to speak more politely when ordering people around. Hrm, things not going well.

The next communication issue was that HPH is a Chinese company, and my CTO is Chinese. Therefore, with the exception of the actual meetings with clients, all conversation was done totally in Chinese. Despite being in the heart of an English speaking city, I felt hugely left out of the discussions, and largely by myself. Everyone on the trip had lots of interesting discussions on the industry, strategy, even just socialization. I stared out the window. Even if I was an employee of my CTO's company, charged with helping him doing business development, we never once had any real discussion about business direction, or planning for meetings, or strategy. I was a spare wheel. For me it was a huge waste of time.

The only other people we met was a graphics hardware maker. No one told me why we were meeting them. It turns out that unlike our company, HPH has an actual strategy (a pretty smart one at that), and was there to do real strategy. However I was a bit sleepy and just assumed it was more random wandering about speaking with people because you can. No one disabused me of this assumption.

When we arrived, everyone from HPH gave out their cards to the hardware maker's people. However, when I reached for mine, my CTO warned me in Japanese not to give it out. Hrm, I don't like this. The Hardware guys looked concerned and suspicious at this move. I knew it was a bad idea and a breach of protocol to walk into a confidential meeting without telling anyone who you are, and it made me nervous.

The two above things caused me to speak during the meeting, something vague an innocuous about open standards, just to lay a card out on the table to help show that we weren't hiding anything. But given that, although I didn't know it at the time, this was a real meeting where the HPH CEO was discussing real high level strategy, my words were a pretty serious breach of protocol, especially to eastern people who look pretty down on speaking out of turn.

So by then the lack of effective communication had come to a head, and I tried to explain to my CTO that he needed to give me more information than he was giving, if I had any hope of doing my job. He countered by saying that I should spend less time thinking of things to do and say, and more time studying the situation quietly so I can develop an intuition about things, including what he was thinking, and then I wouldn't need to be told. I was also told that I was naive for being so quick to tell people what I was thinking and doing all the time. This lead into a discussion of east-west culture, which I tried my best to follow. However in the end I just could not agree that more communication was not necessary, or that direct honesty, in absence of a compelling and justified reason to be dishonest, was not the best strategy in the long term.

By the end of the trip, I had lost a lot of motivation, and even some respect for my CTO as a business man and leader. I had also lost some of the clarity of purpose that I had beforehand. When you start doing unclear things, or have people doing unclear things around you, you start to lose interest, and just basically want to leave the work for something that makes more sense to you. Therefore, when I made my trip report to my CTO and CEO, I said almost as much, and asked to return to concentrating on programming. Maybe there is no VP promotion in it for me in the future, but this way there is more purpose, less travel, and more time to be with L. and M.

1 comment:

Sean said...

Very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

I can relate to what you're saying. I would also presume that things would turn out as you expected (managerial promotions, easy as pie), too, instead of having some egotistical battle.

Good luck!