February 2013
Interview by Corinna Melville

“Be authentic and align expectations from the start”

Monika V. Kronbuegel is the CEO of Global DiVision, an international consulting company that focuses on organizational development and human resource development in multinational companies. A German national, Monika V. Kronbuegel has lived and worked in numerous countries including India, Japan, the United States, Latin America, and many European nations. She is currently working on her doctoral thesis, which focuses on intercultural competences in international marketing and the role of intercultural training in international organizations. tcworld magazine spoke to her about her experience with Indian clients and business partners.

Which personal experience has shaped your image of German-Indian business relationships?

In 1996, I stayed in New Delhi for nine months to establish an affiliate for my employer at that time. I had an appointment with one of our new cooperation partners for a business lunch. In preparation of this meeting and dealing with the Indian culture, I had learnt that Indian people prefer to start a business conversation with small talk – especially when combined with lunch. I had told myself to not talk about business before the meal was finished.

So I chatted away about family and other things, while – curiously enough – my conversation partner regularly tried to talk business. I gave him quick answers and then went back to small talk. After a while the atmosphere became uncomfortable; we were undoubtedly following different objectives. Even though I did not really know the person, I dared to point out the obvious – seeking clarification: “Excuse me, perhaps I am totally wrong, but I have learnt that it is impolite in the Indian culture to move straight to business topics during a lunch. Is that wrong?” My conversation partner started to laugh and explained that he had also done his homework: By moving straight on to business topics, he wanted to be particularly respectful of the German culture. As you can imagine, the ice was broken and we had a very fruitful business relationship afterwards.

What can we learn from this story?

Be brave and honest in everything you do. Apart from showing respect for the other culture, one of the most important tasks in an international context is being authentic. This never happened to me again, because today I avoid these kinds of unpleasant situations by asking to align expectations right from the start.

Is it possible that we sometimes over-adapt in order to show respect for cultural differences? How much adaption do Indians expect of us?

The Sanscrit verse “Attithi devo bhava” – meaning “A guest to your home is God” – is a value that most Indians are brought up with. Hence, in a business relationship it is very important that both parties feel comfortable with each other before any business is discussed. Indians make very good business partners if they trust you, so you need to spend time not only on business, but also discussing family and other personal things. Indians will go out of their way to make you feel comfortable, by offering to take you sightseeing and inviting you to meals. If you show interest and are open to what they offer you, the barrier can be broken and trust is built.

What makes a fruitful German/Indian business relationship? How can we best align our strengths and wisdom?

Indians like Germans are very skilled and educated in chosen lines of business. Hence, collaboration can be very fruitful. One thing that you need to consider is time management: Indians often over-commit in order to please you, and thus, might not be able to deliver on time. Make sure that both sides clearly state their expectations. A clearly outlined business objective along with timelines is a good idea for an Indo-German business relationship.

What do we need to consider when attending a conference and trade fair in India?

Indians like bright colors and stylish designs. I recommend having a booth with a counter using attractive colors. Try to give it an Indian look and feel by, for example, using Indian light lamps lit with fire or putting up a ‘welcome‘-sign in Hindi. Make it stylish, but not loud and cheap. Free gifts at the counter might attract lots of visitors. When demonstrating your products, consider that Indians like to touch, not just to see.

No other Indian city has been transformed by globalization as much as Bangalore. Have Western influences displaced the Indian business culture here?

I think that the lifestyle of metropolitan India has changed very much, however, the basic culture and values are still the same. In earlier days, you would struggle to find North Indians in Bangalore or anywhere else in South India. This has changed today. The lifestyle has changed as well. Many young families no longer live with their parents or in-laws, but have their own home. Similarly, most marriages used to be arranged. Today, many middle-class professionals choose their partners independently.

Regarding the business culture, Westernization has certainly helped to improve the work ethics, making collaboration with Indians easier. The skillset and business aptitude are very good and Indians have a good understanding of project management. Areas that might cause some issues are quality expectations and time management.