by Christopher C. Barron

What a tea ceremony can teach you about leadership

Mar 23, 2017
CIOIT Leadership

In the western world, the concept of “go faster, do more” has become the default for business operations. By integrating some east Asian cultural wisdom into our practices, each of us can become a more effective leader.

I recently had to the opportunity to observe an interview between an emerging cloud-based software company and a finalist for a key operational role. The company had been desperately looking for a person that could help them consolidate hundreds of application instances into a single data center. The software company had been executing numerous acquisitions of new technologies but had been unable to get them under the same roof. The role for which they were recruiting would provide them the expertise and execution knowledge to bring everything together.

Many people had put forth significant effort in getting the candidate to this final interview. The venue was somewhat unconventional for such a critical hire. Rather than a traditional onsite affair lasting many hours, the company set up a single Skype call between the hiring manager and the finalist. The goal was to cut out the majority of the hiring process in order to work towards a fast decision.

I watched as the call began and the video for both parties was established. Neither individual had ever met or spoken with the other. The candidate was in a full suit; the hiring manager in jeans and a sweater. Using the iPhone equivalent of a stopwatch, I timed the initial introduction. The whole “meet and greet” lasted a total of 42 seconds and consisted of two questions and one statement about the general weather conditions. After this introduction, the hiring manager immediately launched into a series of questions targeted to gauge the skills and competencies of the candidate against the needs of the position. As an observer, it was easy to see that neither of the two parties knew anything about the other.

Over the next 22 minutes, both people talked past each other on issue after issue. As an observer, I watched as the atmosphere became more and more tense. The interviewer became skeptical and terse, while the candidate answered questions in an increasingly robotic manner. Inwardly I cringed, because I knew that both parties were near perfect matches for each other. Yet, after only 15 minutes I could tell that the company was not going to hire the candidate, and the candidate was more apt to work for a nuclear waste depository than to accept any offer.

What could have been a perfect match became anything but – so what went wrong?

Humans are driven by culture and ritual

Watching the interview on Skype took me back to a previous decade when I first did business in Japan. At the time, I was working for a personal computer manufacturing company. I was part of a team that was charged with opening an office and distribution center in Tokyo. With this beachhead in place, our company planned to begin aggressively selling computers within the country and into continental Asia.

Prior to leaving for Japan, I was given extensive training in Asian culture. The most common theme of these lessons is summarized by this statement – “Japanese and most east Asian peoples won’t do business with someone that they do not know, or more importantly, like. Therefore, a critical component of business success relies on the establishment of strong, personal relations.”

While in Japan, I studied rituals such as the tea ceremony. Each part of the ceremony is designed to bring people together in ways that they can form personal bonds, even if the occasion has much more serious overtones. The unspoken rule of any gathering preceded by a tea ceremony is that no formal or business discussions will be held until the ritual is complete. The beauty of the whole process is that people who gather for serious purposes will not “get down to business” until a correct rapport has been established.

In the business meetings that I had in Japan, serious negotiations never began until about halfway through the scheduled time. My Asian counterparts gently, but firmly, insisted that building the right atmosphere for discussions was always as important as the actual details to be discussed. Once I fully embraced this way of doing business, I realized how much more relaxed, productive, and profitable my efforts became.

Technology increases speed but only humans control quality

As leaders of technology, many of us feel the pressure to continually focus on operational improvements.

  • How much faster can we make move this business process?
  • Can automation improve the overall speed of delivery?
  • Will this web portal increase overall knowledge sharing or heighten customer engagement?

Yet, more and more evidence (such as this book by Jim Anderson) is pointing to the importance of communication and effective engagement as the primary skills for success.

In the United States, most of us have been taught to focus on accomplishing specific goals and hitting certain milestones as a measure of success. With so much to do and so little time to do it, not much time is left over for “pleasantries”.

Looking back at the interview I discussed in the first part of this blog, we can now see the failure. The hiring manager drove right to the point of the exercise, or at least what he thought was the point. He wasted no time in assessing the candidate, who came up short. Yet, neither of the two individuals ever got to know the other, especially on a personal level. Given the 40 plus hours that it took to put the two of them together for an insignificant half hour, it would be accurate to classify the interview as an epic failure. The company missed out on a great talent that was presented at significant effort and expense while the candidate walked away with a sour taste in his mouth.

Most of us who lead in the western world understand the value and power of metrics. At the same time, most of us are ignorant when understanding the influence that human engagement has on our personal and professional success. By reflecting on the reason and purpose of the tea ceremony, we can have a basis for understanding how to incorporate an interpersonal focus in our leadership acumen.