Invite the Unexpected in Ghana


By Ernest Gundling, Ph.D. May 15, 2013

Successful global leaders are able to identify and respond effectively to new and unfamiliar circumstances. When doing business with people in a different location, rather than assuming that the business environment and solutions will be similar to one’s prior experience, it is essential to seek out critical differences—that is, to invite the unexpected—and be able to adjust, or to frame-shift, in a way that taps past experience to create fresh solutions.

As companies consider their strategies for future growth, many are entering new countries in Africa and expanding their existing operations on this rapidly changing continent. This means that employees from other world regions will increasingly be working with African counterparts, either side by side or on virtual teams, and will need to understand the local environment in each country where they are doing business. Ghana, for instance, is a favored place for many firms to expand because of its relatively stable government and healthy economy. However, this location, too, presents business challenges that some foreigners are likely to find surprising.

The Unexpected, Example No. 1: Land Ownership

Most companies need to buy or lease property in order to grow, especially those that want to build factories, warehouses or larger office facilities. Yet the availability and security of land itself can be a significant obstacle to setting up business operations in Ghana. With the exception of property legally acquired by government, much of the country’s land, known as stool or skin lands, is controlled by tribal chiefs (the stool is the chief’s traditional seat of power), with no official legal backing. Possession is based on ancestral lineage over many generations. This often leads to disputes regarding ownership. Multiple parties may lay claim to the same piece of land, so the firm attempting to lease or purchase it may face more than one demand for payment.

Foreign companies need to recognize that a contractual agreement with one alleged landowner may not be sufficient and that other owners may appear. There are several steps they can take to ensure that properties they rent or buy are not subject to ownership disputes. Lands that were previously acquired by the government or by properly registered developers are usually safe. There is also a Land Title Registry, which lists a property’s rightful owner, as well as a land-registration process, which legitimizes transactions. Extra attention to these matters at an early stage is important to ensure that a company’s ambitious plans for growth are not entangled from the beginning in an expensive morass of disputed claims.

The Unexpected, Example No. 2: Funerals

Business relationships in Ghana include ceremonial events that might elsewhere be regarded as more personal than professional. Indeed, funerals are a significant part of the country’s social and business fabric. Although this might seem incomprehensible to foreigners (and even to some Ghanaians), the end of life appears to be one of the most “celebrated” life events. It is expected that business colleagues will attend and/or make a donation for funerals—and not just for close associates but for their family members, too. If a client’s relative passes away, it is common to express condolences by attending the funeral and giving a donation and by joining in the celebratory activities. It is even customary to visit the family to convey one’s sympathies before the funeral, as another Ghanaian custom is that it takes longer to bury the dead (a period of four to six weeks is deemed appropriate).

Foreigners who aspire to build strong business relationships with Ghanaian colleagues should be prepared not only to attend funerals of co-workers’ relatives but also to celebrate. It is possible for weekends to include one or more funeral events that honor the deceased with feasting, photographs, loud music and dancing, with fellow celebrants ranging from next of kin to others who may not have even known the deceased directly but have come to join the party. Social status and honor for the deceased are heightened by the size of the festivities; so the more the merrier.

Anticipating the Unexpected

An initial step toward success in global markets is to invite the unexpected, cultivating the discipline of anticipating and seeking out these kinds of unexpected challenges in unfamiliar markets. The next step is frame-shifting, or adjusting behavior to address potential obstacles proactively based on new points of reference. Those who aspire to global leadership roles and practice these disciplines regularly will begin to see and hear more accounts that help to increase their knowledge, just like the couple in love who notice others in a similar state.

These leadership behaviors help to build understanding, empathy, flexibility, confidence and an effective path of entry into the local culture.

Ernest Gundling, Ph.D., is a founder of Aperian Global and acts as a senior Asia specialist, assisting clients in developing strategic global approaches to leadership, organization development, and relationships with key business partners. Aperian is a leading provider of consulting, training and Web tools for global talent development.

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