Grooming the corporate American to get on well overseas

When Kenneth Yager moved to Romania several years ago to help start a joint venture between Control Data Corporation and the country's Ministry of Machine Building, he and his family weren't entirely sure what to expect. But they knew enough to pack ''several hundred pounds'' of canned orange juice, vegetables, and soups.

The Yager family's extra baggage was not the result of a distaste for Romanian cuisine. Rather, at a training session at the Business Council for International Understanding, conducted at American University in Washington, they had been warned about the challenge of obtaining certain food in Romania. The US canned food, along with the outside contact provided by the best shortwave radio he could buy, ''really helped us out at times,'' Mr. Yager, now product manager for Control Data Worldtech, recalls gratefully.

While tips like this did not mean that the Yagers adjusted to life in a new country overnight, the advice did ease the transition in some important ways. And increasingly, corporations are realizing that such reinforcement can make the difference between a successful foreign experience and an executive who wants a ticket home after six months.

Poor preparation of an executive going abroad can be more costly than the price of a plane ticket. Robert Kohls, director of training at the International Communications Agency in Washington, and author of ''Survival Kit for Overseas Living,'' figures bringing back an executive or family from an overseas assignment early can cost about $125,000. Some estimates push this amount higher , to as much as $355,000 for a senior executive. This includes the cost of sending a family over, settling it in, and then bringing it home. It does not include replacing the returned executive, Mr. Kohls says.

Such bottom-line evidence, as well as better information about positive effects for business of a well-trained executive being stationed overseas, is pushing more companies to encourage language and cultural training. Charles Heinle, whose Boston firm of Heinle & Heinle Publishers Inc. specializes in foreign language courses and texts, says his business is growing 50 percent each year.

''People are taking overseas business much more seriously,'' Mr. Heinle comments. ''And no matter what anyone says, (people in foreign countries) don't like it if you don't at least make an effort to communicate in their language.''

Some feel that many American businesses have simply ignored the potential for overseas operations. ''The attitude has often been, 'As long as you have profits , who needs to worry about cultures?' '' says Marcel Rocca, president of Transemantics Inc., a language and cultural training firm in Washington. ''Companies didn't listen to those who said they could do more. Now they realize they need sophisticated marketing approaches, as well as personnel who are aware of the country's business and social customs.''

Gary Lloyd, president at the Business Council for International Understanding , confirms the growing interest in cross-cultural training. The council, started 25 years ago, had a 43 percent increase in business last year. The main reason, Mr. Lloyd says, is that ''corporations simply can't afford to have people go overseas and fail.''

Training costs at the center - which instructs everyone from chief executive officers to bulldozer operators headed for Saudi Arabia, according to Mr. Lloyd - run from $2,500 to $8,000. The council, which deals with 287 major international corporations, focuses on role-playing and simulation of events an executive is likely to experience.

Glen A. Grubbs, a retired official who worked for Whittaker Corporation in Saudi Arabia for seven years, says the training may seem expensive, but it's worth it. ''You can be the finest businessman in the world, but if you don't know a country's systems and culture, you'll fail,'' he remarks.

Mr. Grubbs says he was heavily involved in negotiations between his company and the Saudis. The training left him at least somewhat prepared for the lack of precise framework in negotiations, and for the fact that bringing a lawyer to the discussions would have been offensive to his Saudi counterparts. In addition , he says, Whittaker gave cultural training to recruiters who were choosing staff for a hospital in the country. This investment, in addition to improved indoctrination and training for new staff, transformed the hospital's turnover rate from a Mideast hospital norm of as high as 100 percent to just 10 percent after a three-year period.

There are no specific dos and don'ts for personnel moving overseas, but many training specialists agree that certain American characteristics are red flags. The most commonly mentioned problem is the notion that ''time is money,'' and that to ''waste'' time, or to appear to do so from an American's point of view, is to damage potential business or cause great inconvenience.

''This is more a problem for Americans than for foreigners,'' notes David S. Hoopes, editor in chief of Intercultural Press. ''In most countries, the pace is simply much slower and more relaxed.'' This can be troubling to the person who is pushing for a decision in that country, or to a family that is frustrated by slow services, he said.

The idea is not to lose one's American outlook, or to reject native culture, these experts say. Most agree it is essential for an American living abroad to be confident of their attitudes and values, because over time, all of these values may be challenged in some way.

Rather, executives are educated about the need to suspend judgment on other cultures. ''You don't want a critical perspective,'' comments a Shell executive who spent two years in Saudi Arabia. ''It's not that we're better, or they're better. We're all just different.''

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