Into Africa: 4 Business Strategies For Global Companies Seeking Economic Growth & Social Impact

By: Erika Amoako-Agyei

In today’s global economy, conducting business internationally requires having a workforce with a global mindset. Yet, many executives, volunteers, and expatriates are often sent into foreign markets with little or no understanding of their host culture. While it is true that travel builds bridges, the only way to effectively communicate across cultural boundaries is by gaining an awareness of the values and behavioral norms of the cultures entered. What may be considered outrageous conduct in one society may be considered normal or even praised in another.

Having a workforce that is fluent in the ways of the world is no longer a luxury. It’s a competitive necessity. As a culture and management consultant, I have worked extensively with many global firms expanding into the sub-region of Africa. International assignments, however, do not come cheap. On average, expatriates cost two to three times what they would in the same position in their home country. So, if not managed well, many companies get little returns on their expat investments.

For the Western executive, there are few destinations on earth that present more cultural differences than sub-Saharan Africa. What might be acceptable in Europe or North America may be frowned upon in Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana or Nigeria. Many of the goals may be the same, but the business styles and ways of communication may differ greatly.

So what are some strategies that global companies can use to overcome these differences and improve on their track record overseas?

1. Assign overseas positions to executives whose technical skills are matched or exceeded by their cross-cultural skills.  Global companies with the most effective expats do not assume that people who have succeeded at home will repeat that success abroad. They deploy individuals who not only have the necessary technical skills but also have indicated that they would like to live in different cultures.

2. Invest in training: For Western operations to succeed in Africa, global managers must embrace cross-cultural management skills as part of a broad strategic focus. This is important for any global strategic plan. The Chinese say, “If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.” To globalize successfully into the African marketplace, Western business leaders must understand what is culturally expected of them.

A Harvard Business study found that between 10% and 20% of all U.S. managers sent abroad returned early because of job dissatisfaction or difficulties in adjusting to a foreign country. Of those who completed their assignment, nearly one-third did not meet expectations. The question is: if getting the most out of your global managers is so important, why do so many companies get it so wrong? The fact is, that many companies assume that the rules of good business practices are the same all over. Therefore, they don’t believe that they need to—or should have to—invest in any special training or pre-departure preparation for their expats.

Of course, there are some companies who do invest in serious efforts upfront to make foreign assignments successful for both the employees and the company. But these companies often leave the responsibility of choosing expats, their training and support to the human resources department. The problem is few HR managers—only 11%, according to research by MIT—have ever worked abroad themselves; most have little understanding of a global assignment’s unique personal and professional challenges. As a result, they often get caught up in the administrative duties of international assignments instead of the real issues that cannot always be seen.

3. Before you go, know! Do your research. Global companies must arm their expats with regional and country-specific knowledge. For example, it is of critical importance to note that there is no “one” African culture or society. Africa is vast, comprising 54 independent nations, over 1 billion people, and 3,000 ethnic groups speaking more than 1,000 indigenous languages—in addition to the six European languages (English, French, Portuguese, German, Spanish, and Italian) carried over from prior colonization. Always spend time upfront reading about your host country and its unique qualities. One of the best topics a foreigner can initiate is a positive impression of the host country and how pleased you are to be in the country. People in many African nations are often very sensitive about an outsider’s impressions of their home country. So be prepared when people ask: “How do you like our country?” Think up an all-purpose, positive answer as soon as you can. The people are very friendly; the landscape is beautiful; the food is delicious – something you can say with conviction.

4. Focus on transferring skills, knowledge creation and global leadership development.  Companies that manage the international assignment process well give foreign posts for two reasons:

  1. to generate and transfer knowledge and practical skills to local employees or the, otherwise, unemployed citizens of their host countries, which has a major social impact and
  2. to develop their global leadership skills.

Most global managers know that negotiation tactics vary from one culture to another. However, many do not believe, that the difference varies enough to warrant the expense of training programs designed to prepare candidates for international assignments.

Take the negotiation process. The Western need to produce quick and tangible results, for example, can clash head on with the African slower pace and longer-term outlook. Consider the case of my former colleague, a Western-trained software executive from the US who was brought in to present a business proposal to a team of West African executives. Following his presentation, a representative of the African team responded, “Thank you. We will study the proposal.” Finding the answer too vague, my colleague decided to press for something more specific: “How much time do you think you’ll need? When do you think you can get back to me? In one or two weeks? In a month?” This only made the African team uneasy as they hated to be pressed to act in a way that seemed premature. The lack of patience on my colleague’s side began to undermine his negotiation efforts and created anxiety and distrust among the African team. By ignoring how culture impacts local business practices, my colleague inadvertently lengthened the consideration stage of the proposal and, at one point, even risked losing the interest of the other side altogether.

The fact is, many North Americans focus on product presentation from the moment they arrive. Their interest lies in closing the deal as quickly as possible. In the time-driven cultures of North America and many parts of Europe, people pride themselves on conducting business at lightning speed and favor a quick and individual approach to decision-making. Conversely, many African firms strongly believe in tapping into the collective wisdom of the entire team, even though there is a great degree of hierarchy. The African approach to decision-making does not mean that local business people are unable to take quick decisions or get things done individually. Rather, it represents the cultural significance of consensus and consultation, which tends to guide the decision-making process in Africa’s group-oriented cultures. Because the two organizations operate so differently, North Americans may feel anxious if they don’t have a specific deadline.

When expats negotiate with foreigners, the potential for conflict is much higher than it is when they are dealing on their home turf. Different cultures can hold radically different expectations about the way negotiations should be conducted. Thus, a collaborative negotiation style becomes absolutely critical abroad. In dealing with a typical African organization, it is important to remember that many more people may have to consider the proposal than would be true of a North American company. So the Westerner who resorts to the ‘hard sell’, by applying pressure to influence decision-making, will not only risk breaking the lines of communication, but could potentially cause irreparable damage and costly mistakes.

Erika Amoako-Agyei ( is based in Ghana at the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (Seed). As a business coach to companies in West Africa, Erika supports high-potential entrepreneurs in multiple countries to scale their business, create new jobs and open new markets. Seed is an initiative of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

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