At a business lunch in Korea, Irene Dec's hosts were watching, waiting for her to begin eating first, as politeness requires. The lunch was in plastic bento boxes, with numerous individual compartments holding different kinds of food.
Dec, who doesn't count Asian food among the highlights of her overseas experiences, looked for something familiar. Spotting what appeared to be a pile of large shrimp tempura, she quickly picked one up and popped it into her mouth so the others could begin their meal.
After she swallowed, Dec recalls, one of her Korean companions pointed to the remaining shrimp in the bento box and quietly told her, "We usually cut that off," indicating what turned out to be the shrimps' intact heads. "I had eaten the eyes, the brains everything," she says.
Dec would say that munching shrimp eyeballs was a small price to pay for building relationships over lunch in the Asian business world, where everything is about relationships.
Dec has gained lots of experience in that world in the 18 months since she became vice president for international investments at Prudential Financial and began to travel far from her base in Newark, N.J.
Her responsibility for global program and technology management has taken her to Korea and Japan as well as Central America, the U.K. and Scandinavia, where she has gained many insights into what it takes for IT women to succeed in the global environment.
Global business experience is becoming a prerequisite for advancement to top-level management at many US businesses. IBM ranks it among the top five essentials for successful executives, and General Electric Co. Chairman Jack Welch has said, "The Jack Welch of the future cannot look like me; I spent my entire career in the United States."
Global experience teaches people to see business challenges from different perspectives, value alternative approaches to problems, gain insight into others and appreciate the strength that diversity brings. It also increases flexibility, breakthrough thinking and self-awareness, and helps prevent interpersonal blunders and tunnel vision, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit, New York-based research organization working to advance women in business.
However, women are frequently denied the opportunity to work abroad because their managers fear they won't be accepted in foreign business cultures. But although this may happen in a handful of places, a recent Catalyst survey of people who served in Asia and the Pacific Rim, Europe and Central and South America found that most women who were assigned overseas reported that their gender wasn't an issue or that it actually helped them in doing business.
Only 17 percent of those surveyed said they found it difficult to build business relationships in their host countries, compared with 10 percent of men. Moreover, 91 percent of women (and 92 percent of men) said they would accept their assignments again.
Dec, who earned a national reputation as head of Prudential's Y2k project, says she was thrilled to get an opportunity to work in the global environment. As a single woman, she didn't have to deal with the family obligations that make travel-intensive jobs difficult for many people. She knew that Asian culture would be different and acknowledges that she felt a little anxiety when she learned that less than 5 percent of Japanese technologists are women.
Dec prepared for her first trip to Asia by collecting insights from books, magazines and other business travelers.
Once there, she was relieved to find that Asians assume that American women are competent and wouldn't have been sent abroad otherwise.
"They watched me," Dec says. "In a way, I was being tested, but you're tested anywhere you go. As soon as they saw I had the knowledge, they immediately respected that. If you have the knowledge, doors are open to you."
That insight supports the findings of studies by Catalyst and other researchers, in which global businesswomen reported that they are seen as American first and female second and are therefore usually unaffected by cultural biases against women.
"I wouldn't want to be a German woman working in a German bank," said one survey respondent. "But as an American woman doing business in Germany, it is different. I am coming with an expertise, and they respect that."
Once competence is confirmed, the other key to doing business in Asia is respect, Dec says.
In Asia, business introductions and meetings are very formal. There's a courtesy with business cards called meishi: Two people stand straight, hold their card with both hands and look each other in the eyes. He bows, you bow and you hand him your business card. He reads it and then hands you his card, and you do the same. You don't just shove the card in your pocket. When you sit down for the meeting, you put the card in front of you. That individual has given you a part of him, and you must show it respect.
In order to build relationships slowly and carefully in the Japanese manner, Dec took a less assertive posture than she would in the US Her manner was reserved and respectful; she spent most of her time listening and spoke only when she was sure she could add value to the discussion.
"There would be a roomful of men and myself," Dec says. "If it was not an English-speaking group, they always had a translator. Business meetings in Asia are never confrontational, and there's a lot of quiet time. About 25 percent of the time, people are thinking about what was just said. At first it was awkward Why isn't anyone talking? But now I think it would be a good idea for us sometimes."
Dec took her lead from the nonconfrontational tone of Japanese business meetings and was careful to never cause any of her associates to lose face.
"I didn't want to position anyone in an awkward way by making him feel I was challenging him, so where I had concerns with what was said, I dealt with each person [later], on an individual basis," she explains.
Dec found that Asians love to share their culture, particularly by sharing meals. Since they often worked until 9 or 10 p.m., there were plenty of opportunities to build relationships over lunch and dinner.
"As we walked into a restaurant, we took our shoes off and put on slippers. I just followed along," Dec says. "I noticed short tables with pillows to sit on. I had a short dress on, but I managed to sit sideways and enjoyed my first restaurant experience. Next time, I wore something longer."
Dec has occasionally had to apply some pressure to make deadlines in Japan, but she has found that building good relationships has made that nearly painless.
"I had to get a little assertive and make things happen. But I had developed respect because I listened to them," she explains. "I didn't just say, 'We're doing it this way.' I said, 'This is an issue; what do you think?' I put confidence in them, and they appreciated that."
Outside the workplace, Dec found that getting around was complicated. Not only are there no signs in English; Japanese Kanji also has thousands of characters, so you can't use a dictionary. She asked someone at her hotel to write her destinations on a piece of paper and carried that with her for cab drivers.
"There are very few outside people in Tokyo, but people were very accepting of me as an American and as a woman," Dec says. "Sometimes I traveled alone. People would acknowledge me and nod. If I ever had a question, I'd find young people [who often spoke English], and they were so receptive. They would even walk me to where I needed to go."
Dec says she feels that IT women make great candidates for global positions, especially in Asia. "You don't want to send the people on a power play to an Asian business, because that style is not going to work," she explains. "You need people who can collaborate, build relationships, understand behavior, and women tend to be more in that play."
But along with soft skills, hard expertise is required. "I would encourage executives to offer those opportunities to sharp technologists," she says. "Don't send them out if they don't have value they can present. It comes down to the knowledge base."
And the willingness to munch an occasional shrimp brain.