The Problem: Stunted Results
The sales managers, of the catering department of an international five-star hotel chain in a second tiered city, were flat-lining in performance. Despite their failure to deliver, they left their boss, Steve*, the Marketing Director–a charismatic fellow from Australia–in the dark. Luckily and unluckily, cash-flow exposed the situation. Having no luck in clarifying things with his staff, Steve called us.
Many managers bring with them a sizeable ego, arguably a necessity for the job. I know what I’m doing/ I’ve done it for __years/My methods have always worked/I understand the industry/Don’t question me/I don’t have time to take care of the details – that’s your job. Too often, the ego wears the mask of ability and entitlement, when in fact it is a huge blind spot, breaking up the path towards success. Managers who have succeeded in their home country do not necessarily gain automatic victory in China, a concept frequently overlooked. The idiosyncrasies of culture are everything. If you do not understand them, it becomes impossible to generate, motivate, or even supplicate a team into doing what they are supposed to.
After one hour of careful listening and observation, it was clear that Steve’s frustrations toward his staff were blocking any free flow of communication. He would tell them what to do, they would nod their heads and look busy. He would leave, they would get nothing done. When he returned to a near empty sales quota, he would ask what the problem was. They would not answer. He would curse, then give more instructions. And so the cycle continued. Steve was a good manager; it was obvious in his eagerness to build a successful team. But his frustrations had given way to bouts of anger, pointing fingers, and arrogance to cover bruised dignity. After chatting, we thought it best to set up a private meeting with his staff.
As they came in the door, what might have crossed our minds as a dull and complacent sales team was replaced by a gush of girls flitting into the room, well-tailored in their work suits. Each had a smile on her face and a nervous gleam in her eyes. We quickly assured them that this meeting was strictly confidential, and while we would have to disclose the information shared, no names would be mentioned.
If you are a potential client who wants to hold an event in a hotel ballroom, you usually go to the hotel for two reasons: 1) to scope out the appearance of the place, and 2) to find out the pricings. The meet and greet of Steve sales team was fine. But the tour of the hotel’s ballrooms was accompanied by an extremely in-depth questionnaire that would leave all potential clients in the gutter. Why do you want to hold this event? (Clientele reaction: What do you mean, why? Because I want to. Grumble.) Who is coming to the event? (Clientele reaction: What do you mean, who? Lisa, Tom, Patrick, Wang Ling . . .I dunno.Grumble. Grumble.) When the sales manager is asked why she is asking all these questions, her only answer is: Because the hotel wants to know. Immediately, she loses all credibility. This is where the problem is rooted: inability to improvise, due to lack of training in critical thinking.
The Solution: Micro-to-macro management
A great deal of the western world encourages well-roundedness, beginning in pre-school. Life is more than education alone, hence liberal arts. The latter provides a portfolio of thinking skills designed to assist in making significant (oftentimes spontaneous) decisions. If you spend the first 20 years of your life focused solely on seeking high exam scores– the keystone of the Chinese education system–nothing can prepare you for what comes after graduation. The real world is nothing like the safe haven of school. Simple survival requires a vast field of social, practical, logistical, and creative knowledge, none of which can accurately be embodied in a textbook. Because Steve had assumed his staff’s experience and common sense mirrored his expectations, he bestowed too much freedom. And because his young Chinese sales team lacked a foundation of critical thinking, what they really needed was the close guidance of their boss.
The dilemma of the ineffective sales managers was not difficult to solve. A little clarity in communication and some detailed leadership went a long way. Rather than rebuke his team for their inability to handle responses to the intrusive questionnaire, we made the following suggestions:
Micromanage until you can macromanage. Create a running list of past and possible clientele responses to the questionnaire; then create answers to those responses. The typical Chinese person does really well with memorization, so that is the tool you need to use. Lead and teach in their methods.
Critical thinking skills are a result of experience, and your team has none. Your problem is not that they refuse to follow your directions; it is that your directions are not specific enough. Once you give them a steady template of what to say and when to say it, keep close watch for a while. Don’t be overbearing, just be attentive. Make yourself accessible to your staff. Let them know they can come to you with questions and concerns. And when they don’t, make an effort to extend yourself. Humans are habitual creatures: if you are consistent enough with your guidance, you will see change. And, as your team has more practice following your template, the skill of critical response will soon become their own.
Having realized the error in his assumptions, Steve and his team are much happier, and the hotel has since seen a steady increase in catering sales.