Lesson from Angola

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:32 pm

As the United States, especially Milwaukee, continues to struggle with diversity, other countries around the world have moved on to a different level.
While working with a large consumer distribution company during a recent business trip to Angola, I was asked to observe and provide feedback on a cross-functional team meeting addressing a critical issue facing the company.
When I arrived in the rather small conference room, I found it filled with nearly 15 top-level people from departments spanning the company. Most of all, I noticed we had six countries represented in the room, with three languages and six regional adaptations of the represented languages.
Once the meeting began, it seemed to run like most other meetings. The topic and framework were introduced by the chief financial officer and the general manager.
Then things began to change when they opened the floor for discussion. Instantly, the room was transformed. Interpreters were verbally communicating the ideas of non-English-speaking individuals to English-speaking individuals and vice-versa while translators were recording the ideas on a flip chart.
The room was full of energy and a sense of creativity. However, as an American coming from a relatively mono-lingual culture, the activity was quite overwhelming to me. I thought, with three languages, add to it the differences between the Queen’s Englishâ and American English, let alone the difference between Portuguese-speaking individuals, how are we ever going to come to a consensus?
However, people at all levels of the corporation have accepted that, to be effective, they need to draw on the skills and expertise of co-workers from different national, cultural and language backgrounds.
"As a corporation, we have goals that need to be met. And to achieve those goals, we need a team of individuals who have certain skills they can contribute," the company’s general manager said. "While our ultimate goal is to promote the advancement of young Angolans, at the same time, our company needs to continue to function. It doesn’t matter if the individual is from India, America or Portugal, as long as they have the skills and expertise to get the job done."
Ghassist, an Angolan airport, regularly looks to fill gaps in skill sets by using non-Angolan consultants.
"We need to learn the best practices and the best techniques to help our company grow," said Ari Carvalho, director of finance and strategic planning for the airport. "We look to hire people with the best skills. We don’t look at nationality."
Having employed, Portuguese, Brazilians, French, South Africans and Americans, Carvalho said he does not find language or culture to be significant barriers to accomplishing a job.
"We try to mitigate the language and or cultural barrier by assigning the project to internal people, who speak the language or have traveled to that region," he said. "If that’s not possible, we bring in an interpreter/translator."
In fact, Carvalho emphasizes that for any mono-cultural or mono-lingual corporation, the biggest challenge lies within the corporate culture itself.
"Language and culture are not the biggest challenges, it’s
implementation," he said. "Dealing with employees at all levels within the corporation, you have to deal with multiple education levels and multiple backgrounds, as well as the internal corporate culture."
Becoming aware of the necessity for managers to learn particular
leadership qualities and skills to successfully develop multi-cultural staff, teams and integrated workforces may be an initial step as we become a diverse nation.
Companies must adjust to a new progressive style of management to understand and utilize abilities from a diverse spectrum of experience, varied cultural attitudes and a vibrant surge of energy and ambition.
If we, as a country or a city, can put aside our ideas about race, gender and culture to focus on our skills, we too can revolutionize our workforce for optimal performance.
KeleMarie Lyons is the founder of Pinnacle XL, a management-consulting company with offices in Milwaukee and Chicago. She can be reached via e-mail at kelemarie@pinnaclexl.com.
November 12, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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