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Secrets for winning in international markets

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Februrary 15, 2012

Secrets for winning in international markets

If you’re thinking of expanding your business globally, your best tools may be adaptability, listening skills and patience.

And a good dose of modesty can’t hurt.

That’s the advice of more than two dozen top executives of Quebec-based and European multinational firms, including Hugo Boss, Bombardier and SNC-Lavalin.

Their tips come in a new 72-page report by Montreal business consultant Dominic Deneault, who conducted interviews with the CEOs and other senior executives.

“The vast majority of Canadian businesses, even the smallest ones, feel the effects of globalization,” Deneault says. “But most don’t do anything about it, such as expanding into the global marketplace.”

Have the right state of mind

The key, he says, is realizing that “globalization is a state of mind.” And step one is having the right state of mind. “The globalization game is being played on a field less than 15 centimetres wide—namely the grey matter between your ears,” says Deneault, who founded the consulting firm Trebora Conseil.

He says successful executives share certain traits that are crucial for doing well in international business. Without these skills, he says, many entrepreneurs spend two or three years trying to expand globally without success and give up.

Pick up on cultural cues

The good news, he says, is you can learn the traits with a little effort.

Among the most important is adaptability to other cultures and being able to pick up on cultural cues.

Deneault tells the story of how Canadian Denis Hébert was chosen to head a large U.S. unit of $4-billion Swedish lock maker ASSA ABLOY. Before the Swedes settled on Hébert, they had rejected several U.S. candidates who, Hébert says, “wanted to impose their vision of the world, which was a turnoff for the Swedes.”

Hébert won them over with his lower-key approach. “I quickly developed affinities with the Swedes,” he told Deneault, whose study was sponsored by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the province’s giant pension-fund manager. “Listening to others and adapting to different cultures come naturally to me.”

Those traits also helped Hébert expand sales sevenfold in the past decade, with most of the new business coming from outside the U.S.

Here are some other vital traits for global entrepreneurs:

  • Modesty: Rein in your pride, and be aware of your weaknesses.
  • International negotiating skills: It’s important to be able to manage conflicts and misunderstandings.
  • Cultural awareness: Respect cultural and individual differences. Avoid stereotyping.
  • Open-mindedness: Be curious about new things, and take a deep interest in others.

Also important, Deneault says, is learning about the formalities of a host country’s culture. These include appropriate greetings and dress code; rules about personal space (How close do people stand? Do they shake hands and how?); gestures (Are there any that are vulgar or rude?); dining etiquette (What are good table manners? Who should sit next to whom? Who should be invited?); and gifts (Are gifts usual? Are some inappropriate?).

How do you learn all this and acquire the traits for international success? Deneault offers these tips:

  • Make an effort to learn the local language;
  • Read the history of the countries you are doing business in;
  • Travel (both for business and pleasure);
  • Visit other entrepreneurs in the host country and learn from local partners;
  • Hire local consultants and agents help you learn as quickly as possible;
  • Use the expertise and services of Canadian embassies, consulates and trade missions.

In short, if you’re open to the world, there’s a good chance it will be open to you.

Deneault’s report is titled The Transnational Corporation: Developing the DNA of a Global Player. Copies can be downloaded from the Caisse's website.

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