Lessons Learned on International AssignmentsDec 27th, 2012 | By Lawrence B. Cahill | Category: Featured Articles
At the September 2012 Auditing Roundtable national meeting in Baltimore I heard Terri Morrison, author of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than Sixty Countries (Adams Media, 2006) captivate the audience for two hours on the tricks and traps of working internationally. It made me reflect on my personal experiences overseas over the past three-plus decades. Below are my top dozen experiences and the lessons I learned from each. I don’t have that great of a memory generally but these experiences left a lasting impression.
1. Midnight Arrivals
When I was in my mid-20’s and working for Exxon, I travelled to a petrochemical plant in rural France to conduct a month-long noise study. As I was finishing up, my boss sent me a cable (yes a cable) requesting that I travel to Cologne, Germany to assess the noise emissions of a new industrial furnace. I arrived at the Cologne train station at midnight expecting to be met by a fellow American who was working on a process unit startup at the plant. Sadly, I found out later that he was instructed to meet an earlier train and when I was not on it he went back to his hotel. I had no idea what to do next. My instructions read that I should go to the “hotel,” but no further information had been provided. I picked up my luggage and walked around until I saw a sign that said “hotel.” Home at last, or so I thought. It turns out that it was not the hotel where I was registered. But miracle of miracles, the lad at the front desk called around to all the other hotels until he found the one where I was registered. It was within walking distance. Seeing how loaded down I was with luggage and equipment, he asked a bus boy to load my stuff onto a hand truck and walk me over to the correct hotel. I will never forget the help I received that night and early morning.
Lesson Learned: Always have a backup plan.
2. Planes, Trains & Automobiles
Some years ago, I was asked to participate on an EHS audit at an oil production field in the Ecuadorian rain forest along the Amazon River. It turned out to be quite an adventure in travel. It began with a plane ride from Philadelphia to Miami where I boarded a second plane to Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. The next day was a flight of about 2 hours to a secondary city and then onto a boat for two hours down the Amazon. This was followed by a half-hour trip in the back of a pickup truck to the compound. As we arrived at the gate there were several guards with automatic weapons. It seems that five company employees had been kidnapped (and subsequently released) the week before by the indigenous people in the area. There was a controversy (and there still is) about who owned the oil that was being extracted and how the indigenous people should be compensated. Needless to say the audit team was a bit on edge during that evaluation.
Lessons Learned: International business travel can be more exhausting than glamorous.
3. Driving through History
In auditing several sites in South Korea, I was being driven by the client’s South Korean audit program manager. He was a great guy and to this day I consider him a friend. But during one conversation in the car I mentioned that I had recently worked with one of his company colleagues who was Japanese and I thought very competent. My friend immediately became distant for the next half day. I couldn’t figure it out until I realized that Japan had occupied Korea during World War II and that bad feelings still existed. That was over a half century before our conversation, and you might wonder why the resentment still existed. Well, we only have to look at the U.S. and realize that some still hold resentment over the outcome of the Civil War, which ended in 1865. Go figure.
Lesson Learned: Learn about the history of the country you’re visiting.
4. Bullet Holes in South Africa
At this major manufacturing site, we initially met with the plant manager in his office. He had a beautiful air-conditioned office with a wonderful view, except that he kept his blinds closed. This seemed rather odd and we asked why. He did not answer directly but took us outside the building to show us the bullet holes in the exterior wall outside his office. It seems that occasionally local bandits armed with automatic weapons would rob the payroll truck when it arrived with the cash for the salaries of the employees. Corrective action – they no longer paid the employees in cash, although the plant manager quite rationally remained skittish.
Lesson Learned: Understand and appreciate the risks surrounding you.
5. Keeping Focus at a Big Game Reserve
Without a doubt the most unique EHS training program I ever led was conducted for Colgate-Palmolive in South Africa at a big game reserve resort hotel. Extraordinary! CP brought in all their EHS coordinators from their African operations, which are substantial. The training room had one wall that was glass from floor to ceiling and looked out on the reserve. As we began the workshop, with the curtains open, all of us noticed gazelles, wildebeests, and zebras passing by. Sadly, I had to close the curtains and destroy the view. Not so much because the students were distracted but because the instructor was distracted.
One other interesting thing happened during the training week. One of the students told me that he had to take a video of his hotel room. His wife wanted to make sure that there were no strange women in his room tempting him. I’m not sure what a one-time snapshot video of a room would tell you, but it meant a lot to his wife.
Lesson Learned: Two lessons here. Enjoy the full experience but focus on the task at hand. Also, remember that your family is affected by your travel.
6. Searching for the Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid statue is a Denmark national treasure located on a river bank in Copenhagen. On one trip we decided that this was a “must see” attraction that we needed to photograph. However, when we finally found it, there were several businessmen climbing all over it to have their pictures taken in turn by their colleagues. This seemed a bit irreverent to us and did not make for a very good photograph. Doing a bit more research on the history of the statue, I discovered that it has been decapitated (and restored) at least twice. What a shame.
Lesson Learned: Respect international treasures.
7. Time Management in Argentina
We were at a chemical plant in Mercedes, Argentina, which is located about 100km west of Buenos Aires. During the week-long visit we noticed that no work could get done from before 12 noon to just after 2:00pm as the employees and management went home for lunch. This frustrated the Americans who were used to either a 30 minute lunch or a working lunch. Yet, Friday was the biggest surprise. The site butchered an entire cow for their guests and we had the longest and most carnivorous lunch I have ever experienced. They brought out each part of the barbequed cow, in order of its considered worth, from tongue, to organ meats, to the filet. Anthony Bourdain would have been in heaven; I was considering becoming a vegan.
Lesson Learned: If in Argentina, be ready to have a significant amount of downtime midday and be ready to eat beef.
8. Family Visits in Japan
On a trip to Japan, our local client host invited us to his family home for dinner one evening. As we entered the modest but beautiful home with hardwood floors throughout I noticed that there was a step up from the entry area to the living area. We were asked by the mother to remove our shoes before entering the living area, which seemed very civilized to me. So I placed my shoe on the step so that I could untie my shoelaces. I thought the poor mother was going to have a coronary on the spot. You see, even placing the sole of my shoe on the living area to remove it was considered blasphemy. Fortunately, after a sincere apology on my part, all was well. I’m sure I’ll never forget the incident and I suspect that the mother will never forget me.
Lesson Learned: Pay attention to the local customs.
9. Religious Customs in Malaysia
I was leading an EHS auditor training class at a manufacturing plant located in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The class consisted of about 15 students and we trained for two and a half days and conducted a practice site audit for two and a half days. During the audit I noticed something special that I have only observed once in my career. Most of the class was Muslim and five times a day the Muslim auditors would get out their prayer rugs, face Mecca, and pray. It put things in perspective for me; some things are more important than work.
Lesson Learned: Don’t just tolerate religious rituals, appreciate and enjoy them.
10. Dinner Party in Johannesburg
When one visits plant sites thousands of miles away from home I find that the locals are often very gracious towards their guests. One way they use to welcome visitors is to have a dinner party in their honor. This is indeed what happened on one trip to Johannesburg, South Africa. During the party an Afrikaner woman mentioned that she had recently been on holiday in New York City. With all the amazing features of the City the one that most impressed her was that her hotel housekeeping staff actually consisted of men and women who were not black. This was a very different experience for her. And I should mention that she did not say this with any malice. To her it was just something unique and worthy of note.
Lesson Learned: There are times when you just simply have to bite your lip.
11. What’s for Dinner?
Some years ago I was at yet another dinner party at a local restaurant in Shenzhen, China. As our group entered the restaurant I noticed a corral at the left front, which contained live chickens, a live ostrich, and various other creatures. Down the main aisle of the restaurant were rows of aquariums containing live fish and other sea creatures. I learned very quickly that this stock of living things was our menu. And moreover, since I was their honored guest, I was to select what was to be cooked and eaten, at least for that evening. Thankfully the restaurant staff had not named any of the individual creatures, which would have truly have made me feel like an executioner. Oh, and by the way I did give the ostrich and any animals with legs a reprieve.
Lesson Learned: As a guest, be ready for surprises.
12. The Night Shift
When doing community noise surveys at large petrochemical plants it is important to distinguish the noise contribution of the plant from the community background noise. One way to do that is to do a fenceline survey in the middle of the night when there is no traffic noise, in particular. That was what I was doing by myself one time in Notre Dame de Gravenchon, a French city with a population of ~10,000, 35km inland from Le Havre. As I took my readings I was interrupted and annoyed by the noise of police sirens. It turned out the gendarmes were actually looking for me. Someone in the community had called the police to complain that there was a strange guy walking around the neighborhood. My conversation with the officers was more sign language than anything else; I spoke only a very little French and they spoke no English. I managed to say “Esso” and then pulled out my noise meter and yelled the word “bruit”, the word for noise in French, at it and they watched the needle jump. I think they finally understood what I was doing. Nonetheless, I was escorted back to the rooming house where I was staying. My days of 2:00 a.m. noise surveys in rural France were over.
Lesson Learned: Don’t be alone and where you shouldn’t be at 2:00 a.m.
Overall Lesson Learned
With all my mishaps and near arrest in France, what I have learned that is most precious to me is that generally people at the grass-roots level around the world are pretty gracious towards their guests. I’ve felt welcome everywhere I’ve been. And that’s a critically important lesson when all we seem to hear on the news is how badly we treat each other!
About the Author
Lawrence B. Cahill, CPEA (Master Certification), is a Technical Director at Environmental Resources Management in Exton, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. He has more than 30 years of professional EHS experience with industry and consulting. He is the editor and principal author of the widely used text Environmental, Health and Safety Audits, which is published by Government Institutes, Inc. and is now in its ninth edition. He has published more than 60 articles and has been quoted in numerous publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Cahill has worked in more than 25 countries during his career. He holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Northeastern University, an M.S. in Environmental Health Engineering from Northwestern University, and an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Photographs: Mermaid Sculpture in Copenhagen Harbor by John Nyberg, Copenhagen, Denmark. Other photographs courtesy of Wikipedia.