When driving breakthrough initiatives in an organization, culture change has to be built into the strategy. While culture is considered a soft skill, it is one to the most difficult initiatives to orchestrate. As a rule, people tend to hold on to old ways. To gain deeper insight into this issue, I used international travel to simulate culture change.
From 1996-1999, I lived in 8 Latin American countries – Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and El Salvador. During my travels, I experienced change in every sense. My stay in each country ranged 2 days to 20 months. I lived in the jungle and the city. And I encounteredat least 5 different languages – English, Spanish, Mopan, Quiche and an indigenous language of Costa Rica.
When I left the US, I spoke one language – English. When I returned, I was fluent in Spanish and proficient in Portuguese. I also learned a few sentences in Mopan Mayan.
In addition to learning languages, I learned to embrace change. My journey started in Belize. I spent nearly 2 months with Mayan Indians in a village with 330 people, no electricity or running water. If you can imagine, I woke up everyday to a beautiful jungle in a village built on top of unexcavated ruins. I stayed with a family and worked with the father and son. In 1996, the Mayans were an agrarian society with no machines for farming.
I arrived in Belize after living in Washington, DC for 15 years. Before that, I was a Jersey boy with tremendous exposure to New York City. Yet, in Belize, I found myself in a world that had no similarities to my past experiences. When I worked with them, I helped cut down 100 acres of jungle with a machete in order to plant crops. After cutting down the jungle, we used a stick to make a hole in the ground and dropped 7 seeds of corn. When you harvest that corn, the jungle will have grown back. Therefore, it is necessary to chop your way through the jungle to pick an ear of corn.
As you can imagine, I had never encountered this experience in DC, NJ or NY. Many people would think this experience made me see how lucky I was to be born in the US. I had another perspective. I saw it as an opportunity to become more of the person I have never been. In a sense, it required me to let go of almost everything I knew. I had to learn more efficient ways to function in a new environment. I learned to appreciate other people’s ways, instead of trying to change them.
As I adapted to their ways, I found them beneficial. For example, there were tremendous health benefits. You can’t imagine how youthful you become when you live in a clean environment. In addition, I developed a new value for community. It was amazing to see how the people depended on one another for survival. Therefore, cooperation, instead of competition, was essential. More importantly, the experience gave me a new perspective on hard work and resourceful ways to accomplish tasks. As smart as I thought I was, I really didn’t have all the answers. I relied on the expertise of the Mayan Indians.
Furthermore, as I continued my journey to other countries, everywhere I went, there I was with all of my USA upbringing. However, it was apparent that what I learned in each country helped me make a seamless transition to the next country or city. At some point, regardless of the country I was in, the people thought I was a native of that country.
Now, imagine an organization designed to adjust to change regardless of the competitive or economic environment. When change initiatives are led effectively, the company may be positioned to be a market leader. To do that, change has to be built in to the culture. It would be done in the same way my travels fostered change as a pleasant part of the journey. The company that desires a strong competitive edge will be able to provide employees with experiential tools that empower them to constantly navigate through new environments.
What do you think? I’m open to ideas. Or if you want to write me about a specific topic, let me know.