What Work in the Mideast Taught Me About Building Business Relationships

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“I heard you had a tough time getting back to the airport after the HR Leaders Conference in Lagos.”

That was followed by at least a half-hour of further discussion concerning our recent travels. There was no rush to get to the “meat” of the meeting or what it was about.

The next time we got together, the discussion centered around housing and where to live in Dubai, which was followed by a conversation about tuition payments and our past experience working together on an HR panel.

It took a half-hour to actually get to get to the crux of this meeting.

Relax — it’s just a meeting

Doing business in the Middle East is so much different — and relaxing. Meetings are designed for people to get to know each other, especially the initial ones. You come out and feel you really know the person that you just spent time with. You discuss family, what has gone on since you last met, and more importantly, building your relationship.

As I was walking out of one meeting, I was told that this is why I wanted you to come out to my office because you can’t have this type of discussion over the phone.

As I drove away to my next engagement, I thought to myself that, yes, she was correct. It would not have been the same over the phone. We got so much accomplished and we really got to know each other.

In New York, my meetings were structured so much differently. It was walk in, and after a few “fake” pleasantries, we got right down to business.

I like my new meeting model so much better. I get to know the real person and a real connection is made.

Sit back and smell the coffee

These days, with our technology-obsessed culture, it feels good to me to do business this way. I’m new to this city (Dubai) and I want to connect and show value with my product. That is done by connecting with a person. You look them in the eye, talk randomly on issues, and NOBODY is in a rush.

In Europe, as well as in the Middle East, lots of coffee shops do not have disposable cups to allow you to get coffee as a takeout. Instead, you get your coffee and then sit down to enjoy it. There’s no styrofoam allowed. It seems that time stands still, and it is more of an old world kind of feel.

Recently, I made one call to a potential client as I was running late. His response? It was no big deal, and, “I am here when you get here.” So my traffic story, including getting late out of other meeting, became useless.

I ask again, how did things get so far? I love the fact that things out here in the Middle East move at a much slower pace, and I must admit that it took some getting used to.

Meeting in the park

In my prior roles, we did some innovative things to have our meetings. At times, instead of going to one of the conference rooms, we “commandeered” a park bench nearby.

In New York, my office was located across from Bryant Park, which is a beautiful park in midtown Manhattan. This was our Friday wrap meeting location.

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We would scout out some space, meet there, and my entire team would sit and talk about the week [weather permitting]. We would also save time to talk about our plans for the weekend. Sometimes, for one-on-one meetings, we would take a walk around the block.

There were numerous reasons for doing this. For one, I was setting the example that business can be fun. This was no fake brainstorming session.

But my most important reason for doing it was that it showed my gifted team that this was the way that they should run their business once they “arrive.” You need to make it fun; it does not have to be all wrapped up in formality. And being that it all happened on a Friday, everyone was already synched up for the weekend.

During the summer we had “early Fridays,” which meant that they company allowed everyone to leave at 1 pm. So, our meetings were scheduled at 11 am and ran until 1 pm.

Attendance was 100 percent, enthusiasm was 100 percent, and connectivity was off the charts.

Everything is on the table

The old stuffed shirt business meeting that just goes on and on and on is the reason no one wants to attend. The new generation of worker is going to force all these mainstays of business to be “rethought.”

I much prefer a more relaxed business environment where everyone is at ease, and, where the mission of the meeting is not lost. Let’s all relax and really talk to each other and get to know each other.  If we successfully handle this right, we will be” partners” in the end.

That is why we build the foundation first. When we do, the business will take care of itself.

There is an old saying that you build the well before you need the water. That especially hold true for business today.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.