Art Landro | Crain's Silicon Valley

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Art Landro

Background:  

Redwood City, California-based Sencha Inc offers a platform that allows organizations to design, develop and test cross-platform web applications. The company was founded in 2007.

The Mistake:

My mistake was a massive lack of situational awareness.

I had been working for a company called General DataComm for about eight years. I was living in Connecticut, and [an] opportunity to take a two-year assignment to Hong Kong, to run their Asia Pacific operations [came up].

I was so excited about the opportunity. I had been out to Hong Kong. I knew I could do a good job out there. I knew I could grow the business out there. 

Having been there on business trips, I had the stupidity and arrogance to think I could handle that transformation and the cultural differences quite easily. So, I go out there in October of ’94, and one day, I had to go to the bank. It’s monsoon season. It’s pouring down rain. I’m soaking wet. It’s Friday afternoon. The bank is just absolutely packed. It’s got one of those snaking lines where you just go back and forth, and back and forth.

And every once in a while, I feel a poke in my back. I turn around and it’s a young businessman who has an umbrella and he’s poking me in the back with it. And I look at him, and then I look forward and I saw the line had moved two steps forward and I hadn’t.

So I just moved forward, without thinking about it, [but then] I feel another poke in my back.

I’m from New Jersey and my New Jersey brain kind of went crazy and I deliberately did not move forward.  I turned around, looked him dead in the eye and made a statement to him. Let’s just say this was the kind of statement that would have been appropriate in New Jersey. I go New Jersey on him, and the level of my voice started to rise and rise and rise. There were 100 to 150 people in line and bank tellers and bank executives, and they’re all looking at me.

There was dead silence. I think even the rain stopped.

The worst thing you can do in the Asian culture—is to make anybody lose face in a public environment.

I had just become the one person that I didn’t ever, ever want to be, which was the ugly American overseas.

I said to myself, I either have to go home, or I have to change.

The Lesson:

I realized that I was the odd man out and that I was living in an environment that was different from what I knew. I went home and I was just miserable over what I had done. I said to myself, I either have to go home, or I have to change.

And from that point on I became much more observant of other cultures. I became much more polite. I took a massive step backwards and tried to understand the different cultures in the region. I realized I had to take the time to understand what living in a foreign country was like.

I’ve used this story with senior executives that came out to the region. I tell them if you don’t speak the language, you’ll never be an expert in any culture, because culture is language.

Just be careful, spend more time listening than talking and be aware.

Follow Sencha on Twitter at @sencha.

Photo courtesy of Art Landro.