From Unconscious to Conscious Incompetence
Contributed by Tamerlaine Beasley, Managing Director of Beasley Intercultural
As Australian businesses continue to take advantage of the commercial opportunities the Asian century is providing, some executives may not realise they are causing offence to the very people they want to impress and build a business relationship with. This is called unconscious incompetence and is the blissful state of not knowing what you don’t know.
For example, when Australian business people are engaging with potential Chinese investors, they may not realise the rules around the appropriate hospitality, and that a focus on relationship-building is vital, not knowing this can result in a lack of engagement or business progress.
From a Chinese business context, you need to know the people you invest with, not just understand their balance sheet and have a good legal document.
However, if the Australian business person is unconsciously incompetent, they may blithely focus on the figures, when really the potential investor is looking at the bigger picture of who the person is and if they can trust them.
When working with people from other cultures, the journey from unconscious to conscious incompetence can be transformative. While it may sound unappealing to know your ‘blind spots’, being aware of your cultural position enables development and the building of capability, which ultimately leads to results.
Just as when we embark upon a physical fitness regime, we begin by benchmarking to measure weight, BMI and cardio fitness. When embarking upon a new intercultural business venture, we need to develop awareness of our starting position.
Australia’s business culture
Like a fish out of water, we often don’t realise we even have a culture until we are out of it. In Australia, some of our biggest cultural challenges come from the way we communicate, our lack of formality and how we treat those who are senior to us.
It’s easy to remain unaware of how different our culture is. Due to the impact of globalisation, it’s now possible to travel on a preferred airline, stay in our usual hotel chain, and remain connected to our preferred news and communication sources, regardless of geography. This means we are not immersed in a countries’ culture, even when we are there.
This ‘bubble’ can keep us disconnected from the realities of the local cultural context. For Australian senior executives in positions of authority when working in Asia or with Asian colleagues, it is also highly unlikely local staff will provide feedback on areas of incompetence or lack of awareness due to issues of face and hierarchy.
How to become competent
The journey from unconscious to conscious incompetence is a necessary one if you are committed to building capability and being able to work effectively with people from a different culture to your own.
You can start this process by gaining feedback from a business colleague with experience in the region you are targeting, or by participating in an intercultural coaching or training program which can assist with raising awareness, and transitioning to ‘conscious incompetence’.
The good news is that ‘conscious incompetence’ precedes ‘conscious competence’ – the highly rewarding state of knowing what you are doing, and demonstrating intercultural capability.
Such capability means: knowing how to progress the deal, demonstrating the appropriate business process and protocols to gain confidence of potential investors, and navigating cultural issues to get successful business results.
Beasley Intercultural works with organisations in Australia and across the Asia-Pacific region to build global workforce capability for the Asian century. We are the largest provider of Asia capable workforce solutions in Australia. We provide clients with the knowledge and capability to navigate the complexities of diverse and global workplace to get the results they need.
Business Chief Legend: Ho Ching, CEO of Temasek
Ask Singaporeans who Ho Ching is, and the majority will answer the ‘wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’. And that’s certainly true. However, she’s also the CEO of Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, and one of the world’s largest investment companies.
Well, she is until October 1, 2021, as she recently announced she would be retiring following 16 years as CEO of the investment giant.
Since taking the reins in 2004, two years after joining Temasek as Executive Director, Ho has gradually transformed what was an investment firm wholly owned by Singapore’s Government into an active investor worldwide, splashing out on sectors like life sciences and tech, expanding its physical footprint with 11 offices worldwide (from London to Mumbai to San Francisco) and delivering growth of US$120 billion between 2010-2020.
Described by Temasek chairman Lim Boon Heng as having taken “bold steps to open new pathways in finding the character of the organisations”, Ho is credited with building Temasek’s international portfolio, with China recently surpassing Singapore for the first time.
As global a footprint as Ho may have however, she has her feet firmly planted on Singapore soil and is committed to this tiny city-state where she was not only educated (excluding a year at Stanford) but has remained throughout her long and illustrious career – first as an engineer at the Ministry of Defence in 1976, where she met her husband, and most notably as CEO of Singapore Technologies, where she spent a decade, and where she is credited with repositioning and growing the group into the largest listed defence engineering company in Asia.
It’s little wonder Ho has featured on Forbes’ annual World’s Most Powerful Women list for the past 16 years, in 2007 as the third most powerful woman in business outside the US, and in 2020 at #30 worldwide.
But it’s not all business. Ho has a strong track record in Singapore public service, serving as chairman of the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research and as deputy chairman of the Economic Development Board; and is a committed philanthropist with a focus on learning difficulties and healthcare.
As the pandemic kicked off, she not only led active investments in technology and life sciences, with German COVID-19 vaccine developer BioNTech among the most recent additions to Temasek’s portfolio, but through the Temasek Foundation – the firm’s philanthropic arm which supports vulnerable groups close to Ho’s heart, handed out hand sanitiser and face masks.
So, you would be forgiven for thinking that at age 68, Ho might simply relax. But in March 2021, just as she announced her retirement from Temasek, Ho joined the Board of Directors of Wellcome Leap, a US-based non-profit organisation that’s dedicated to accelerating innovations in global health. Not ready to put her firmly grounded feet up yet it seems.