As the downturn in the UK prompts more of us to look for work further afield, working overseas presents a wholenew set of challenges. Charles Rich on to how to tackle them through cross-cultural training

With the construction market stagnant in the UK, construction companies and consultants have shown admirable get up and go in seeking extensive overseas contracts. They have not always done it sensitively, however, sometimes with expensive results. Too often the commercial attaches in our embassies complain that companies show-up having not even done rudimentary research in to the local market.

Diana Leon from the British Embassy in Mexico City, along with her colleagues from South Africa, Russia, Saudi Arabia and UAE, emphasised this at a recent UK Trade and Investment briefing in London. She said that British firms have to understand that to do business in Mexico you have to develop relationships and have a good personal and business relationship with a local partner. All the attaches described the different ways of doing business in each of their regions, but all pointed to the need for knowing the local marketplace.

When companies work overseas or come to UK there can be green fees to pay, because they are not familiar with the local market, customs and cultures. Problems regarding how the teams from different nationalities work best together might be as simple as a conflict of working hours. For example, there’s no point in a continental partner calling a meeting at six if the British team expects to clock off then! So here are some handy tips for doing business in foreign climes…


My years of experience of living and working overseashas taught me that the familiar rules of engagement in business back home simply do not apply overseas, nor can they be imposed. This can makes negotiating and winning foreign projects very difficult.

But once that’s achieved, delivering the projects and getting paid can be even harder. Barry Tomalin of International House, says: “The fact is that many British construction companies and consultants in search of foreign contracts are often far too insular in their approach and ignore the crucial operational issues which then makes their lives much harder.”

When working overseas it is very common to work with local partners in a joint-venture or other collaborative arrangement, or even buy the company: in fact in some markets it is the only way to have a presence. This is another thorny area as firms entering foreign markets through a partnership or merger/acquisition are often surprised when it comes to drawing up heads of terms and they find their partners, agents and clients follow their own rules.

It can also be difficult where two people seconded at the same grade from the respective companies, sitting alongside each other, are on totally different remuneration packages.


Cross-cultural training can help deal with all these issues. The technique begins by assessing your clients’ and partners’ business expectations, communication patterns, organisation, leadership and decision making and social etiquette. It then aims to optimise international business operations, keep projects on schedule, build international teams by providing a structured forum for exchange of views and importantly teaches the ropes for getting paid. It compares the company’s business style with that of its partners and clients and suggests how it can adapt to get greater success.

It is a different kind of training, involving learning how to be more subtle in your approach, learning how to be sensitive in how you deal with people and learning more about the expectations and working methods of those you deal with, to make it easier for them to fulfil project requirements.

Tomalin says cross-cultural training “can advise firms on how best to precede, both at contractual and operational levels. Knowing what questions to ask and dealing with the likely issues before you have to deal with them won’t necessarily lead to that ‘no surprises’ culture we all dream of, but will mean a more restful sleep at night!”

In my experience, both as a contractor and with an international architectural practice, I know that the local markets are very keen on the expertise that UK based firms have to offer, but it needs the local knowledge to adapt to local markets: this often leads to collaborations, in one form or another, with local companies and practices.  The choice of collaborator must be made with care and the authority they have clearly defined, especially if the UK firm does not have any people resident in the area, because the people on the ground have day-to-day dealings with the Clients and local marketplace. So, if you do not do the groundwork, the chances of success are severely diminished.

Charles Rich, director, Charles Rich Consultancy which provides cross-cultural training in collaboration with International House.