With Nigeria now demonstrating the greatest wealth and growth potential in Africa in addition to South Africa’s global appeal, and with several more multinationals now recasting their eyes on potential investing opportunities in Africa, questions are often raised as to how multinational corporations (MNCs) less exposed to the different African cultures can best manage any opportunities deemed possible on the continent. When companies I work with consider operations in Africa they often ask me the following questions:

  1. Are western educated and trained managers better suited to navigate management in emerging markets, or is a different set of locally developed skills required?
  2. What should MNCs new to the region know about the management of people/business in the different emerging economies in Africa?

The answer to the first question is yes, and yes. Yes, western educated and trained managers can be very well suited to navigate management in emerging markets (depending on cultural awareness of course), and yes, there is another set of soft skills that need to be overlaid on western trained management. A reactive answer that developed countries produce better management is simplistic and only a direct reference to the People Capability Maturity Model, which also assumes that improved capabilities in people directly result in the better performance of a company. Western economies simply have more developed managers due to years of investment in people and their motivations, and hence they are further along the maturity ladder. However, until recently, in many emerging markets, People Capability Maturity has been very low on the investment priority list. While there is a huge opportunity to move up the ladder, one cannot go from level 1 to level 5 in one fell swoop. It is a step-by-step process which requires a more sophisticated culturally sensitive approach to human resource and leadership development.

As an example, look at the three typical issues that come up as an answer to the second question I posed above:

  • Hierarchy is paramount: In several African cultures/companies, hierarchy is so strong that it can stifle creativity and the incredible power that an open meeting in western cultures can sometimes bring to problem solving. Employees in many emerging markets do not call a boss by his or her first name, let alone dare to do anything but agree with the boss. This takes years to change and cannot be underestimated, however it is possible and progress can be made.
  • Emotional Intelligence has not been a focus: Technical skills have always been the highest priority and as mentioned previously, little investment has gone into softer management skills. As businesses have matured and geographical boundaries have loosened, the benefits are becoming clearer to see and easier to measure, and thus investment in soft skills is increasing. For an MNC, focusing on developing local talent with soft skills is a great way to get ahead of the competition.
  • One cannot be seen to fail at anything: Saving face is critical. While in some corporates in western cultures one could turn a failure into a position of power by clearly highlighting the lessons learned that can be applied to future endeavours (scars of honour), this approach is not yet widely appreciated in many emerging African cultures. One can barely admit failure in public, let alone focus on lessons learned. In the worst cases, one cannot even openly suggest that an answer is not known, even if it means more work needs to be done to find out. Independently, each of these issues are certainly not insurmountable but compounded they could be toxic. Careful manoeuvring and a sophisticated step-by-step approach are required.

On a lighter cultural note, I remember going through a training course when I first moved to Europe from the USA. Key to this training was a role play on how a “difficult” situation in a company would unfold in different cultures or countries. In the scenario, an employee was questioned by his boss on the progress of a project falling behind schedule. The countries and cultures selected were Germany, France, Italy, the UK and the USA. This was a very enlightening explanation of the working and management practices of the cultures discussed. I believed the answer in the German scenario was that there would never be such a situation, but I later learned differently when I heard about the failure of Berlin’s new Airport.

With Africa very firmly on the map now for multinationals, perhaps a documented understanding of how our different cultures would react in difficult situations would make a good next step. We would definitely see a difference in how this same situation would play out for Ghanaians, Nigerians, Kenyans and South Africans, which could make a great handbook for MNCs to understand management practices across Africa. If anyone has snippets of examples as to how these different cultures handle difficult situations in the workplace, please send them my way.

By Nnenna Ilomechina

Nnenna has over 15 years of experience managing complex operational turnaround situations at mid to large cap companies. She is currently employed as a director at AlixPartners, a leading global turnaround and restructuring advisory firm. The views and ideas shared in this article are entirely her own, and not those of her employer

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