Stuck in the middle: Cultural differences in Mexico’s business world

articles Business

Ilya Adler

I’ve discussed cultural differences and clarity in Mexico’s business world. But dealing with Mexican realities is not the only challenge faced by U.S. executives on Mexican assignments. Inevitably, as reported by many corporate leaders I’ve interviewed, U.S. executives in Mexico must also cope with the headquarters challenge.

Perhaps the two most repeated concerns they have about the corporate offices back home are the lack of interest in or appreciation for what they do here, and the lack of attention given them when they request assistance. Sooner or later all U.S. executives find out that the corporate base is both unaware and unappreciative of different cultural and business practices, which often leads these executives to wish for a quick end to their Mexican assignments. One U.S. executive strongly recommends encouraging management to come down and see the Mexican operation with their own eyes, as well as the efforts required in this market. “When they are here, they see that our accomplishments are the results of incredible hard work and persistence,” he says. “The first time they have to dial 20 times to complete a call they begin to appreciate what we go through!”

When it comes to explaining that different business practices make it almost impossible to adopt guidelines developed for the U.S., most executives find their complaints falling on deaf ears. For example, one U.S. director of marketing for Mexico was thoroughly frustrated with headquarters’ insistence that his sales force was not making sufficient contacts on a daily basis. “They expect our sales representative to hit on six customers every day, when in Mexico, you are lucky if you can make three,” he says. “They don’t understand how difficult it is to move in this city, and they don’t understand that you simply cannot come to your customer and act as if you were in a hurry.”

Although bottom-line goals were met, comments persisted over the low number of visits. “If only my boss would come to Mexico and try herself to pay six visits a day!” he commented in a moment of frustration.

Lack of attention is a complaint often directed at the home office’s Human Resources Department. I have met and talked with international HR managers, and surprisingly, in many companies the task of taking care of overseas assignees is given little importance and often conceptualized as an “added” responsibility. For example, one large multinational has assigned an HR manager in charge of two large U.S. regions the responsibility of acting as a liaison to its Latin American operations. “Frankly,” he says, “my U.S. responsibilities have priority, and I often find myself without the time to take care of the many requests coming from Latin America.” Unable to find the time, these HR managers often have little knowledge of Latin America. Indeed, the relatively few HR managers at headquarters who know about foreign destinations are often focused on Asia and Europe. Latin America is, for many large companies, a minor market, although its potential has always been recognized. As one savvy international HR manager stated, “We have been waiting for Latin America to emerge as a truly significant market for years. It will probably happen after I retire!”

While everyone talks about the global nature of business today, companies on the whole still operate from a “center-periphery” perspective. Headquarters is where the action is, and everyone has to fit into its style and mentality. No wonder executives spending time in Latin America often worry about whether or not headquarters will remember them if they stay too long. Out of sight, out of mind.

Published or Updated on: September 1, 1998 by Ilya Adler © 1998
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