The Midpoint of Our Bolivian Journey

Last Friday, I entered my client meeting as I usually do, with a suit and tie on. “You can’t be overdressed,” I always tell myself. I couldn’t be more wrong. When my client asked us to stand up and join him in a dance, I found out the hard way that I had not dressed appropriately for the occasion. However, I wasn’t going to refuse them. I had no choice but to swiftly throw my suit down on the table, pull out my tie, and get dancing.  Fortunately, as most Zoom businesspeople are doing, my attire was slightly more casual in my lower half. I cannot imagine how tough my situation would have been if I had worn suit pants to the meeting. From there on, the meeting was rather enjoyable, albeit difficult, as some of the dance moves were rather complex and I was simply unprepared to be doing physical activity at that point in time. I certainly did have to rush downstairs for some water after the meeting was over.

For most of the team, there is a language barrier with the clients. Fortunately, this has not been a problem for me, as I am a native Spanish speaker, and I have really been able to leverage my skills to help the team throughout this project. During our first client meeting, I started by introducing myself in Spanish, and this was a great success, as the first words of Ronald, the leader of CEOLI, were “Wow.” I can see a few reasons why he might have said that. For one, he had been speaking Spanish with Jean Carla and the other CEOLI members up to that point, so it was probably not in his mind that I had been understanding their conversations. Secondly, my last name “Hung” is not of Hispanic origin (rather, it is Chinese), so it is not immediately apparent by name that I speak Spanish. But perhaps more importantly, it must be relieving to know that someone you are working with can communicate in the same way that you do. It makes everyone’s job a lot easier. From there on, I took the lead and started doing most of the speaking. I am grateful to my team for allowing me this opportunity and realizing that this could be helpful to build the relationship with our client. It was also fortunate that our team had been very organized in keeping all of our questions and notes on a shared document, so I had a relatively easy time in knowing what to say. The client felt a lot more comfortable being able to speak directly to me, I felt more comfortable having full control over what the client was hearing. Furthermore, as the clients answered the questions, I also had the opportunity to take notes before Jean Carla Costas translated their responses. Anything that I missed I could then fill in as she translated the responses. This resulted in more detailed notes and therefore a more productive meeting.

For our second client meeting, I suggested an approach that would be particularly helpful to our Bolivian clients. Our German counterparts had opted for a very formal approach to their meeting, having sent detailed notes to their client beforehand in anticipation of their meeting, but this was clearly not an approach that would work for our Bolivian clients. Bolivia’s culture, like other Latin American cultures, is high context. Indeed, this is the same as my native Venezuelan culture, but my brand of business is more reflective of the style that I have learned in the United States. I am much more direct and task based. As such, I cannot say that the process of adapting to this new style is entirely trivial to me, but I have had a much smoother time being exposed to this style in the past. There were some parts that I did find easier than my regular style. Fortunately, we didn’t need to send notes in advance (that would likely freak them out) of client meetings. However, I figured that it was rather important that we introduce ourselves, which is something we didn’t do in our first meeting. That would put names to faces. Megan and Claire went the extra mile and did their introductions in Spanish, but I happily offered my translation services to any teammates that desired to do their introductions in English. We also incorporated other ideas tailored towards building a personal relationship. For example, Lauren mentioned one of her mother’s friends who was from Cochabamba. That was a story that put a smile on the clients’ faces and reassured them that we are doing our part in establishing their presence in the United States.

As we continue the project, it will be important to continue to build the relationship in this way. As Victor Cheng says in his video series, being correct is not the only matter of importance to a consultant, but rather, you must be correct in the right way. In other words, you must deliver your work in a way that the client understands and can enjoy it. Otherwise, they may not be eager to use your work and may not hire you in the future. This is especially important for us, because our project is a multi-year project, and we owe the courtesy to our future students to hand them a well-established relationship, as previous groups have done for us.

During this project, I have made significant strides in the way I approach global business. I think the most obvious aspect of global business that we have experienced is the increased use of virtual communication. Due to our current environment, this has been one of the easier adaptations that we have been prepared for, but it is certainly not how one traditionally envisions a business meeting taking place. This year in particular, we will not be able to meet our clients in person at all, so it is really important that we can build a relationship exclusively through virtual means. The basics of this includes always keeping our video cameras on and always muting our mics when we are not speaking. I do think this manner of communication has some advantages. For example, I can very easily take notes and read transcripts on my second monitor as I speak with my clients. It is also possible for me to communicate with my team members in secret during the meeting, which has been helpful once or twice. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that we won’t be able to ever shake hands with our clients or directly see the students who we are working for, but alas, we have to adapt to our reality.

One of the challenges of doing international business is that it can be hard to gather information, particularly because information may be needed from multiple sources. Over the course of this project, we have required the input of each other, our supervisors, previous teams, Amizade, and CEOLI. With so many parties involved, we have had to spend some time sending emails in multiple directions. This takes time, and we must be patient in waiting for responses. It is also important to know when to stop gathering information and start doing work. As the famous business saying goes, “let’s not boil the ocean to find the temperature at which water evaporates.” This can simply slow down the process and waste too many resources for the deliverables we need to complete. Sometimes, a consultant has to work with limited information.

It must be said, in any case, that the similarities that exist between our clients and us far outnumber the differences, and while differences are important, we can’t focus on them to the point where we lose sight of our shared values. They are people, just like us, and at the end of the day they face the issues that many businesses face, in Bolivia, in the US, or anywhere else in the world. The pandemic has greatly affected the way they operate, just like how the pandemic has affected the way we operate. They want to expand their presence, like many businesses seek to expand their presence. They need help, like any person or organization often does at various stages in their development. In these similarities is where we tap into our empathy, and I think at the end of the day, the biggest pride we will achieve from this project is the knowledge that we will have made an impact on the lives of disabled children and young adults. In that regard, our mission is exactly the same as CEOLI’s, like any client-consultant relationship should be.