Today’s episode takes us to the far east with Tyler Johnson, the author of The Way of the Laowai. A kind of catchy word there, Laowai. It’s a Mandarin word meaning “foreigner” or “outsider.”
Tyler Johnson was just that, spending years working in Asia. He discusses how in today’s global economy, many companies are hiring for the wrong reasons and that choosing bright, high achievers solely based on their advanced degrees and diversity can be a significant mistake.
Tyler says we need a workforce with a deeper understanding and respect for other countries and their cultures. As a third culture kid and an immigrant myself, this chat with Tyler was so relevant and so interesting.
Tyler Johnson: From 2005 to 2015, I was based in Shanghai, in China, traveling all over the world. When you stay that long in a country, you get pretty acclimated to their culture and their way of doing things in that part of the world. When I came back to the US to relocate with my family, one of the biggest transitions that I’ve gone through has been acclimation into back into the US culture.
What I mean by that is, the culture that we live or that I thought I was living in before I left had not changed very much, and my mind had changed because I had expanded in other parts of the world. Coming back, I just saw a lot of frustration that was out there at getting things done or with a lack of knowledge that people had on other cultures and other ways of doing things. It was more of this, I guess you could say, ego inflation that a lot of these Americans had.
A lot of them hadn’t had experiences outside of the US. I think if they’d had those experiences, their mindset would be a little bit different and they would be a little bit more supportive of people in other parts of the world and how things are done.
Maybe it changed the way they do things, maybe they can do them better, maybe they can do them faster, maybe they can accept things, maybe they can understand a little bit better. My attempt at this was to try to give people a different shift of mindset and a different way of thinking.
A Global Perspective
Rae Williams: What is kind of that first step in shifting that mindset to a kind of more global understanding?
Tyler Johnson: I would say, the biggest thing is just understanding the history of the country that you’re in, that is the biggest fault that I see a lot of people. Myself included, I did the same thing when I entered into China and started living there. I thought I knew best and I quickly learned through a number of different experiences that I really don’t know much and I don’t know a whole lot. I had to learn the history of the people, the history of the culture, the history of the relationships of different countries across Asia.
As I leaned those things, I could better interact with them, better communicate with them, and it gave me more credibility because understanding their culture, understanding the people, allows you to do things a little bit differently.
“History and understanding of the people is the core of changing your mindset.”
If you understand that, then change can happen.
Rae Williams: Give us an example, what is like one story from the book that you know, listeners and your readers can act on or be challenged by?
Tyler Johnson: I try to put a couple of stories in each of the chapters for us to kind of relate back into each of the themes for those chapters. I think probably the biggest one that I learned and that I tell everybody is around patience. Chapter seven in my book is about patience and being able to wait things out, being able to wait for answers, having the long view versus the short view.
I was in the sales community there and trying to sell opportunities, one of the good stories is you know, a lot of times, Americans or Western cultures like to have things immediately, that immediate gratification. I had to learn that there’s a multiyear cycle on a lot of these sales in order to make them concrete or close them down. You had to do things this year that would impact things in the following years.
If you did those things, then you could have success.
It’s very hard to settle for that or to wait for that. I think there’s a lack of that here in Western or US culture at waiting for things. That patience is probably the biggest thing that I learned in the process.
Culture Shapes Leadership
Rae Williams: One of the chapters in your book is called, “History Shapes Culture, Culture Shapes Leadership.” I’m very interested to know more about that leadership bit and culture shaping that leadership.
Tyler Johnson: Yeah, a lot of times, the reason that I put—there’s some stories in there related to that, I changed that title a little bit around because I felt like I spoke of earlier. I think that the culture and the way that people learn leadership is different in countries all across the world.
If you don’t understand what they’ve been taught in history or how they’ve been brought up or how they’ve been taught to do business, then it’s a very difficult for you to force your values or force your leadership values on to them. A lot of times, what I’ve seen and what I went through, I made my own mistakes at trying to push leadership styles from a Western view versus the view that they have inside of the country.
Take, for example, China. China has been around for 5,000 years; they’ve been doing business for that long too. They’ve been in contracts for long periods of time—the US has only been around for what? Less than 300 years? Maybe we can learn something from them on how to negotiate, maybe we can learn something from them on how leadership works in a larger organization.
My attempt at this was to show how different countries have different values around leadership, and our values in the Western world may not be the same as those, and you have to shape them to whatever country that you’re in.
Rae Williams: Can you give us an example of someone who has kind of implemented this more global way of thinking?
Tyler Johnson: I would probably say, maybe 10, 15% of the companies around the world get it. The companies that do get it and the characteristics of those companies are organizations that have put people in place that have had unique experiences in those either leadership roles or very strategic roles.
I’ll give you a great example: I always laugh because you come back to the US and you go in to a company to talk to them for whatever reason, and you’re talking to a person that their title is “global head of marketing” or “global head of sales” or something like that. But when you start digging into it, they’ve never lived outside of the United States.
I always found it odd that you could be successful in a global role without having experiences outside of the borders of one country.
Companies that do this well are able to put people in place that have had those experiences. Lenovo’s a great example; their leadership team is from all over the world. They’ve had experiences and have lived abroad, they’ve lived in different countries, they mix it up, they’re all from different nationalities, different walks of life. Very unique leadership, which has done them quite well.
You look at companies like Siemens or companies like Volkswagen, same way, they’ve all had experiences in leaderships, teams that have had experiences in other parts of the world.
You don’t see that a lot. I think with many of the US companies, that’s where they struggle.
Rae Williams: How do we begin to do this?
Tyler Johnson: Well, I believe it starts from the leadership, right? It’s got to be an initiative from the leaders of companies, whether it be a CEO, a president, a division leader, a chief marketing officer, chief people officer. The initiatives have to start from the top in order to go down.
They’ve got to reshape who they’re looking at and in terms of people, who they’re looking at in terms of experience, and it’s got to shift away from just this, what is the color of your skin, what gender are you. It’s got to be different than that. It’s not just what degree do you have, it’s got to be different than those.
It’s got to be more life experience—do they have the experience that would allow them to have a different perspective on the people that they’re leading or the team that they’re trying to establish? I think that goes a long way at making a company great or expanding hat company into something much bigger.
Narrow Views Hold Us Back
Rae Williams: What happens when people don’t do this? What are some of those key points that they’re missing or failures they’ll have?
Tyler Johnson: Some companies can be successful, I believe, at focusing on a single market or a single country maybe. There may be companies here in the US, that’s all they want to do, they only want to represent the US and sell into the US market.
I think in today’s world where it’s global, and the communication has opened up. You’ve got all these forms and ways to hear about news over there and over here and travel.
People are traveling all over the place. Opportunity is everywhere, and if you don’t have people that have these experiences, it’s going to be very hard for them to be able to expand outside of their borders.
What does that impact? That impacts their ability to innovate new products in some way. Maybe there’s a country in other parts of the world that is doing something that is similar or better.
“If you don’t have people that have experience at doing business abroad, you’ll never know what that looks like.”
A great example is emerging markets versus developed markets. If you’re only focused on developed markets, it’s a different selling model and a different way of doing business, but if you are looking to go into an emerging market that doesn’t have infrastructure, doesn’t have banking systems, doesn’t have proper health care, doesn’t have the things that you normally would see in developed countries, it’s a much different way of doing business.
Having people that have those experiences in the emerging markets or in different parts of the world, it allows you to be much more creative.
It allows you to be much more innovative at your approach, at your product, what you talk about and your credibility and your sales and how you grow your business. I think that is very, very important. It takes time, but I believe the right approach is to have that.
Rae Williams: What were some of the biggest business culture shocks that you had?
Tyler Johnson: You know I get asked these questions all the time, and I still get asked them. What’s it like to do business in China, what is it like to be there, what is it like to live there? And then you tell them how long that you were there, right? Being there a decade is a long, long time. People don’t realize how much impact that has on your psyche and how much impact that has on the things you do and your priorities.
I’d say the biggest shock to me that came front and center, right out of the gate, was the amount of corruption in the way that business was done. I always was taught growing up in the business world and taking on different roles, which was mostly US based early on in my career ,that there was only one certain way to do business and we had the right way to do business and everybody else followed that way. But dropping yourself into a country that has been around for such a long time and has such different practices and different culture, the ways that they do it, the bribes, the corruption, the relationships and the guanxi and all of those things come into play—you have to be aware of all of them.
You are not going to avoid them, right? But over time you’ll learn how to manage them and you’ll learn how to deal in business terms in a different way. That would be the first thing.
“The biggest shocker for me was the amount of symbolism that they have.”
So I will give you a great example. How you are seated in a room in a business meeting makes all the difference to the people that are in there. So they line them up in order: the boss always sits in the middle and the two people by its side are the lieutenants and then the further along you go along the table, the lower in rank they are. That symbolism just in that tells you who the boss is, who is making the decision, who you need to speak with.
So those mannerisms and symbolisms—what you wear, what you say, how you talk, those were very evident that they were different than the Western business world that I was used to. You pick some of those up over time and you learn to use them to your advantage, but I think those two things were probably the biggest things that were shocking to me that I had to change my style.
Rae Williams: What’s something that we can learn from and apply here to the US to revolutionize corporate culture in the States?
Tyler Johnson: Yeah, I mean corporate culture is a big word, right? There is a lot of stuff that flows into it. Do I think that we can learn stuff—that US companies and or Western companies can learn a lot from other parts of the world? Absolutely. There is always going to be a need for learning or doing something different.
I guess the funny story that I can bring up is I always used to get quota numbers for how we actually hire people meaning you have to hire a certain number of this or a certain number of that, or you need to diversify of change the shape of your team to a certain direction. I always laughed because I would get dictated these things from a US culture view where it was primarily a majority of one.
“When I was managing my team, I was the actual minority in that organization.”
So I would laugh every time that we got these quotas because I was like, “Dude, so does that mean that I count in this bucket here over in this area because I am a minority? But you don’t think I’m a minority.” So it clearly shows the unawareness of organizations and or teams around what that looks like across the world. You would only know that if you lived in other countries. You would only know that if you’ve worked in other countries.
I think that actually would go a long way at increasing people’s awareness on what that means and it would make it fun. It would make the culture fun within companies. I think you can have a fun culture as long as you’re always teaching people the right things or allowing them to learn in some way.
Rae Williams: Coming back to the US, what was the one thing that you had to get used to again?
Tyler Johnson: Oh I had to get used to so much stuff, so many things. You know the things that you think are important after you move away, you go into a foreign country and you always think that you have to—there’s must-have’s right? Where is my coffee, where is my food, easy access to ATMs and money. The choice that you have in supermarkets, things like that. The 500 cereal choices that you have in American grocery stores and stuff like that.
Well, you leave that and you go into a culture or go into a country that doesn’t have those things, you immediately reprioritize what’s important, what you actually need and what you actually want. So going there is one thing, then coming back, the same thing happens. You come back and you almost get frustrated at the level of—I don’t know, to me they were almost petty things that people would get upset about.
“I came back with a lot more patience.”
So you would see people get upset when the ATM machine didn’t work or the lines were too long or they didn’t have the right—they didn’t make their latte the way that they wanted them to make it. You know it was too sweet or too strong or whatever. All of these things were like, you just laugh at them because you’re like, “Yeah they really don’t mean anything.” They’re all nice to have and stuff, but the reality is, most of the world doesn’t live that way.
Getting outside of that and being able to view it from the outside and then coming back into the country actually puts you in a view that, “Hey, I don’t really need this. It’s a want, and what’s really important?” and you get to focus.
You get to quickly narrow down on what is important and what is not.
A Challenge from Tyler Johnson
Rae Williams: If you had to issue a challenge to our listeners and your readers right now, what would that be?
Tyler Johnson: The biggest thing is I would encourage and I would push people to go beyond their comfort zones. A lot of people are hesitant to live outside of their bubble, and if you don’t live outside of you bubble, you don’t learn anything. So if that bubble is one city and you need to learn more just by moving to another city in the US, that’s fine.
I would take it a step further and challenge people to say, “Hey, you should go travel and live in another country or live in a couple different countries so that you have a different perspective of the world.”
You have a different way of viewing the world. I would challenge everybody to not only just travel, but go live abroad. Go live in other countries that maybe aren’t as fortunate as some of the areas of the US. Go live deep into countries that are foreign to you that maybe you don’t know anybody. But you will learn to know people. You will learn the culture, you will learn the language.
“It will dramatically change your outlook on life.”
It will change the way that you think. It will change the way that you talk. It will change your world for the better.
I’ll leave you with this example. My children were very young when I moved overseas. So I had two, and I came back with three. My son was born in China. My two eldest daughters, they both speak Mandarin. They moved to China when they were, I don’t know, three years old and 19 months old. They’ve come back, and to see them interact with their friends and to see them interact with their community here in the US, I loved to watch it all the time because their experiences that they had provide them a way of not being judgmental. Of viewing in a global view, in a worldly view.
The way that they approach things is much different than somebody who has only been in one particular area or stuck only in their bubble.
So I would challenge everybody to move out, explore the world, live in other places. Even if it’s hard, go do it. It will change the way that you live.
Rae Williams: How can our listeners contact you?
Tyler Johnson: The listeners can contact me via Gmail, firstname.lastname@example.org.