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'Monster' or Opportunity?

15 August 2006

Increasingly, international FM is largely conducted in English but this 'common language' hides a
wide diversity of approaches to managing facilities. Dave Wilson shares his experiences of working
for global companies in several European countries

"Here be monsters!" – the old mariners’ fear of the unknown stills infects our attitudes to working abroad. Much time and effort is given to providing advice to managers about to work outside the UK for the first time, presumably on the basis that there is something inherently peculiar ‘out there’ that we need to guard against. In this article, I want to share some of my recent experiences working in Europe for a global organisation, and consider what we can learn to make working in Europe less daunting.

Let me quickly explain what you might find to expect in Europe. In many ways it is like stepping back 10 years in the UK. Often (but not always) one encounters:

.....Large numbers of suppliers (I found up to 78 at one small site in Switzerland)
.....No service specifications or SLAs
.....Contracts made on standard supplier terms rather than customers terms
.....Automatic annual price increases
.....One year contracts with automatic annual contract renewals
.....No clear budgets
.....No concept of risk sharing
.....No service quality measurement or reporting
.....No sharing of systems and experiences between locations
.....No team working.

Usually, this reflects the position that FM is not a widely recognised term, let alone a professional discipline. The norm you will find is a Building Manager or General Services Manager rather than an FM. Usually, as in smaller UK buildings, they will have had little or no training in FM and will often misunderstand the breadth and complexity of FM. If most managers are relatively junior in their organisations, you can expect to find decisionmaking powers elsewhere – with finance or HR – so that building managers often have little responsibility for the services nominally under their control. Also you might normally expect them to be low paid by our standards, although you will also see significant anomalies in pay from place to place.

From a change management point of view, all that is a significant barrier to successful change. Nonetheless, in 12 months my team, who had never worked together before, saved 10 per cent of facilities expenditure, over £2m, by grasping the opportunities. If that is possible, why do we repeat such trepidation about working across EMEA?

Cultural barriers are the most often cited difficulty for a foreign manager. However, Ibelieve that this is an exaggerated problem. Certainly there may be cultural difference, but often these don’t really relate to work, and it may be that unfamiliarity which makes us ignorant and hence fearful. You will find most staff willing to accept you, just as you would at home. This acceptance can be improved provided you make some effort to adjust (and speaking at least one other language is de rigeur), but everyone knows that it is unreasonable to expect you to speak every language and, in any case, it is accepted that English is the business language for multinational corporations. At the same time, the supply chain almost certainly will not have fluent English, and in this case you will have to learn to delegate translation activities. Provided that you have been clear with your staff about your objectives, this should not be a problem.

Just as you cannot speak every language, so too you cannot hope to know every rule and regulation. In EU countries there are different rules, and even TUPE doesn’t get applied the same way as in the UK (in fact, I think we are out of step with an over rigid interpretation). Again, you have to rely on the ‘in country’ specialists, like architects and space planners. Key here is an ability to delegate; and also to test and challenge their assumptions without falling into the trap of saying “in the UK we do X…” at every twist and turn. Many of the rules you’ll come into contact with may be different but they are often at least as logical (or arbitrary) as the rules you are used to.

Language problems extend beyond your own skills, of course. Common problems can include simple misunderstandings where the same word or phrase means different things in each tongue.n For example, in France security relates to H&S issues as well as guarding. There are lots of similar examples and it is very important to say the same thing different ways to ensure that both sides are discussing the same issue.

We also need to recognise that part of the problem relates to us. The British have a reputation for insularity, and that may be justified. G J Reiner said that “the world is inhabited by two species of human beings: mankind and the English”. We are, generally, much less cosmopolitan than our European peers, and you will find yourself working in Europe alongside some highly educated and literate managers, as well as with local staff and suppliers who are more parochial. You have to work hard when abroad to demonstrate your knowledge and broad-mindedness, to show a willingness to listen and engage with newsituations rather than simply employ the same techniques and solutions that you would use in the UK. As I’ll discuss in a moment, this has to be carefully balanced so as not to look like uncertainty.

Where we don’t know much about a country we all naturally tend to deploy stereotypes, and these generalities are no more helpful when applied to, say, the Italians than they are when applied to Yorkshiremen. It is not that stereotypes have no basis in fact (although they might be simple prejudice), it is more that they cannot be blindly applied to every individual you meet, so they have no value for managers of people. We share lots of common cultural features with our neighbours – democracy, secular values, liberal educations, capitalist economics among them. It is odd, therefore, that the British seem so different in our working habits. Many Europeans find us very peculiar. Generally,● we are much less serious about our work and more self-deprecating – we get embarrassed by people who are very serious all the time

.....we complain a lot, but put up with a lot too
.....we find discussing money distasteful
.....we mistrust professionalism and prefer intuition
.....we use understatement a lot – which is a particular problem when someone else is having to understand us in a second language where (unless they are very fluent) they will tend to translate literally
.....we employ humour much more in the workplace than is the norm in Europe.

All this makes interpreting our words and actions difficult. Thus, a common mistake is simple miscommunication. Staff relationships in Europe tend to be more hierarchical, and staff usually want clear direction, whereas the UK management style is highly consensual. When I started working in France and Switzerland, I gave my team clear objectives but, in trying to allow them the space to use their local knowledge and show their initiative, I failed to give them step-by-step instructions on how to achieve this. The resulting situation was that they froze. They didn’t know how to proceed, but were not used to being allowed to challenge their line manager. It wasn’t until I came back to check progress that it became clear that they needed much more direction and control than Iwas used to providing. That, I think, is quite a normal position for people working as site facility managers in Europe, and is an obvious distinction from the UK.

What other barriers exist? As a manager, I think a key trap to avoid is making assumptions about the existing situation or about what is realistically achievable. One of the issues which surprised me was how unwilling our ‘customers’ (the people in our buildings) were to embrace change. Hierarchical position and organisational status are often still much more dependent on things like desk positions or having a cellular office. As with the supply chain and your staff’s education, it is often like stepping back 10 years in time. Of course, this varies considerably. Some organisations have very strong international cultures which don’t tolerate such local variation, but many will allow local managers to set local standards.

So, how can we negotiate this minefield of cultural difference? My experience suggests some key success factors:

.....don’t lose sight of your objectives – be clear about them, repeat them endlessly, and make sure you have a robust plan to deliver them
.....Involve your supply chain, and be sure that the solutions you want are solutions that they will find benefit them in working with other multi-national clients, confident – you will find some staff embrace change and some don’t, and thatn rejection is more likely to be about them than about you. Remember that de Gaulle, in despair, once said: “What can be done with a country that produces 246 cheeses?” – you will be in good company if you find the going tough sometimes!
.....don’t blame culture for your problems – the challenge you face is a management problem, not a social engineering problem. If your organisation wants change, you are the catalyst and it is the whole team’s function to deliver that change. Culture, in this context, is an excuse some people use for failing to change, and your aim is to succeed open-minded but not uncertain. This is a particularly fine line to tread and you need all your instincts and skills to walk it well
.....above all, use all your management tools. Introducing effective FM into a new region is a change management task. You need to listen, to build rapport, to set and manage objectives, to multi-task, and to do all this in situations where communication is key to success. I found working in Europe immensely enjoyable. It is hard work but, if you are prepared to listen and learn it can be rewarding too. You can meet great people, have your own assumptions tested, get some personal growth, and find out a lot about new cities, all at the same time. Opportunities, not monsters, are what lie out beyond the map’s edge.

.....Dave Wilson is a Director at Macro. He has worked internationally as a consultant and on secondment for various clients including Reuters, Cable & Wireless and WPOP Group. He is President of IFMA UK and the EuroFM board member responsible for Practice Network Group.

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