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TRINIDADIAN BOARDS MISUNDERSTAND JAMAICANS

 

By Francis Wade

Thursday, September 22, 2011.

One of the primary findings in two studies completed by my firm, Framework Consulting, is one that still appears to be true today.  Between Jamaica and Trinidad, there appears to be wildly different points of view about leadership.

Jamaicans are often shocked at the way Trinidadians freely make fun of their country’s and company’s leaders.  In both organized calypso tents and in formal conversations, there is scant regard granted to those that Jamaicans would deem to be worthy of respect, if not reverence or awe.  In the mind of Jamaicans, this “ole talk” goes too far and threatens the unspoken hierarchy that invisibly keeps things in place.

We Jamaicans have a cultural habit that Trinidadians sometimes find annoying — we like to “big up” others by granting them a privilege and tone of deference that outsiders find puzzling.  They ask, why say “Good morning, Mr. Security Guard” when a simple “Hello” would suffice?

If there is such a thing as a Jamaican tendency to unnecessarily elevate, then there certainly is a Trinidadian habit of making sure that everyone operates at the same level.  Hence the often-told stories of Prime Ministers and CEO’s wives wining with vagrants in the streets during Carnival time.  To Jamaicans, such behaviour is unthinkable.  To Trinidadians, it’s an example of what makes Trinidad - well “Trinidad.”

These two opposing cultural forces sometimes work well together, but more often they lead to miscues.

One very public example recently occurred with the resignation of the top two Jamaican executives from Lascelles de Mercado, Jamaica’s second largest company that is currently owned by the Trinidadian Government.  At this moment, the public is aware of their departure but little else.  To those inside and outside the firm, there is a profound vacuum.

This isn’t unusual in Jamaican companies that have been managed by Trinidadians.  Our research shows that Trinidadian companies that have taken over Jamaican companies since the late 1990s have been slow to make critical decisions about the joint corporate culture to be established and the newly acquired firm’s leadership.  Months and even years have passed before a clear choice is made about the nationality of the new top leader, and whether or not he/she should be an insider or outsider.

Trinidadians who have worked in Jamaica know that this is a big mistake to make, and have tried over the years to convince their owners back home that such gaps are dangerous.  The one that apparently exists at Lascelles de Mercado is no exception.

With thousands of employees, the company spans industries such as rum production, insurance, pharmaceutical distribution and motor sales.  When the company was acquired by the now disgraced CL Financial, it was clearly stated that the Managing Director would be asked to resign immediately.  Instead, he was asked to stay, and his resignation last week comes after guiding the group under three sets of different owners.  Insiders say he was frustrated, and had actually resigned once before, only to be asked to stay for a few more months.

This he did, and when he eventually left, no successor was announced.  Indeed, it appears that none had been sought.

In Jamaican corporate life there is a code-word used to describe hurt feelings that arise from ill-treatment by those in power:  “disrespect.”  That word is applied liberally in a way that confounds outsiders, and once again it’s being used to describe a Trinidadian style of corporate governance that irritates Jamaicans.  By not appointing new leadership, Jamaicans inside and outside Lascelles feel disrespected.

It’s not surprising that Trinidadians board members don’t see things this way.  To them, I gather, people get along well even (and especially) when there is no clear leader, and the best leaders take care not to stand out too much.  Trinis know how to get along when the “Big Man” (or Woman) is not around.  I have participated in Carnival bands of thousands that have no clear leadership structure, but function superbly.  This pays homage to a certain kind of egalitarianism that we Jamaicans clearly don’t appreciate.

By contrast, our own Carnival is shrinking into insignificance, now that its spiritual leader, Byron Lee, is no longer around.  It’s evidence that in Jamaica, leaders get things done in ways that are unique, and especially satisfying to their followers.

There’s a broader lesson to be learned:  corporate strengths in one country can show up as weaknesses when applied in another, and it’s easy to commit gross errors when one’s understanding of a new culture is limited.  These errors can ultimately impact the bottom line, and it’s easy to go chasing the wrong cause when a company is missing executives who can transit between cultures, and understand how to reconcile different ways of seeing the world.  We need more leaders who have the right kind of experience and insight into how both cultures work, and are willing to keep learning.

Francis Wade is a management consultant based in Kingston, Jamaica. He blogs at The 2Time Management System.

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