What Owning a Business in South Africa Taught Me About Managing Diverse Groups

Years ago, at the start of my career, I worked in the fencing manufacturing and construction business. I manufactured a chain link fence and installed it myself too. That was in Durban, South Africa in the 1970s, when it was a different time and place. I just came back from a visit to South Africa — Cape Town, specifically — a few weeks ago, and things have certainly changed for the better.

Cape Town is an absolute jewel, sitting where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. It’s the site of Table Mountain, the 8th wonder of the world, and the people there are fantastic. It’s where Africa was first colonized as a nation by the British, Dutch, and French Huguenots.

It’s also where Cecil John Rhodes — he of the Rhodes Scholarship — started out as a sickly young man and eventually owned the Kimberly Diamond Mine as well as all the lands that made up Rhodesia (what is now Zimbabwe). (A bit of trivia: his home, Groote Schuur, later became a hospital, and it was where Chris Barnard performed the first ever heart transplant in 1967.)

Unfortunately, Cape Town is running out of water and they expect to be completely out of water sometime this spring or summer. A lot of that can be blamed on the government, which has failed to look ahead to solving future problems, such as building desalination plants.

Durban, South Africa. It looks a lot different from when I was there in the 1970s. It's where I learned about managing diverse groups.
Durban, South Africa. It looks a lot different now than it did when I was there in the 1970s.

Two important lessons I learned while I was living in Africa is that 1) there are numerous tribes of Africans, and 2) each tribe sees the other ones differently. Some get along and some do not. Even if they haven’t fought in decades, there’s still a historic and cultural animosity between them, and it’s important to know the cultural landscape when asking groups of people to work together.

For example, some tribal members will not work for a supervisor from another tribe because those tribes have a history of conflict. I learned this when I had my fence business in the 1970s, and it’s true in much of Africa as well as the Middle East. In fact, what I learned and experienced in Durban is a microcosm of the whole of Africa — tribal rivalries and animosities still exist, and you need to take those into account when making staffing decisions and work assignments.

We don’t have anything like that here in the United States. Sure, we have racial divides and even cultural divides — Northerner and Southerner, for example. But we can also tell people to knock it off and get back to work, something we couldn’t really do in South Africa. That’s because in this country, people are often motivated by financial and job security. We have policies and procedures in place to keep people working, and there’s always the threat of termination to keep someone from refusing to work with someone else.

But as people from other countries and cultures come to work in the United States, we need to not only be aware of what experiences and expectations they bring to the job, we also need to help them understand what’s expected of them in an American workplace.

But I don’t think we can impose an American-only management style and expect to be effective. After all, I’m from the UK, and I’ve lived and worked in South Africa, Canada, and Cleveland, and bring different cultural and management philosophies to my own work.

It’s a thin tightrope to walk, trying to be sensitive to others’ beliefs and lifelong practices, but that doesn’t mean we allow certain things to go on. For example, timeliness is rather. . . “flexible” in some cultures, and 8:00 doesn’t necessarily mean 8:00 on the dot. But in the U.S. workplace, we expect people to punch in at 8:00 a.m. or whenever their shift starts. We expect people to call in if they’re going to be sick. Other countries may be a little more relaxed about this, but a manufacturer can’t function properly if people are showing up at random times.

But we have a lot to learn from other cultures too. The Japanese management systems are some of the most productive in the world. The French and Germans have gotten more out of a four-day work week than some U.S. companies can get out of five. And in Mexico, they’re known for not separating pleasure, work, and family, something we tried to do whenever we held special events, programs, and lunches for our associates.

It all starts with having a good understanding of how to deal with people from different walks of life. My time spent on my own business in South Africa, as well as managing other businesses in Canada and the US, helped prepare me to be the president of an interesting manufacturing company in Texas a couple decades later.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: Oldeani0 (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.