03/21/2012 04:41 pm ET Updated May 21, 2012

Wealth, Prosperity and Longevity (Part I)

A 34-year-old American keeps investing in real estate, mainly houses to renovate and rent. He gets excited when a Wall Street Journal reporter chooses to interview him about his financial strategy for success. He states that his long-term goal is to retire at 55, travel and play golf. To hedge his bets on real estate, he recently joined his mother's company to learn the business, with the idea of running that enterprise one day.

Reading about this man -- let's call him Bob -- made me think many of us seek a way to "wealth" as the end goal rather than to find a way to take control of our financial situation and live our values. As our values are challenged when we work in different geographic markets, we need to operate and succeed in other people's environments. In this month's post, I will present a cultural value framework to navigate through free markets that are emerging in non-Western cultures. How you communicate and work in a foreign culture depends on your understanding of how the individuals' values are rooted in their home cultures. Understanding how to work in different cultures, while not giving up your own belief system, will separate the mountain climbers who make it to the summit from those that are stuck at base camp -- and from those who plunge to their demise.

Long-Term Goals

I contend that Western social goals are best pursued through free governments and free markets. I believe that the growth of democracy and capitalism throughout the world in the 21st century can become the means of securing the rights to clean air, equal employment opportunity and a safe place to work for all people.

However, in order to achieve this goal, Westerners will temporarily have to accept a moral relativism and work within the values and norms of the various cultures in which business is conducted. Fortunately, this moral relativism is a well-established precept of the belief system that underlies democracy and free enterprise, both of which depend on the recognition of inherent human rights. People are born equal and that equality is recognized in rights to self-determination, exercised both politically and economically. Each and every individual is recognized as having an equal right to make his or her own political and economic choices.

Though Enlightenment philosophy is associated with the West, the moral relativism it espouses can serve as a Westerner's basis for cultural adaptation. To be successful in a global environment, business leaders must consider various factors that are key reflectors of cultural difference and embrace the people who hold different values, even as they personally adhere to their own values. Respect and adaptation is essential; subordination or self-denial is not.

The Values Framework

Gary P. Ferraro writes in his book The Cultural Dimensions of International Business: "If communication between people from different cultures is to be successful, each party must understand the cultural assumptions -- or cultural starting points -- of the other. Unfortunately, our own values, the result of cultural conditioning, are so much a part of our consciousness that we frequently fail to acknowledge their existence and consequently fail to understand that they may not be shared by people from other cultures. When that occurs, cross-cultural cues can be missed, communication becomes short-circuited, and hostilities can be generated."

To help us better understand how different cultures encourage different values, Ferraro created a framework composed of five dimensions that we can use to dissect the major themes under which a culture's values might fall. And, to understand these dimensions, Ferraro provides us with five questions, the answers to which will help us define the kinds of values embraced by particular cultures:

  1. Do people identify themselves primarily as individuals or as members of a larger collective?
  2. Do people with different levels of power and prestige treat one another equally or unequally?
  3. To what extent do different cultures emphasize combat (tough) or compromise (tender)?
  4. How do cultures differ in terms of taking risks, tolerating ambiguity and needing relatively little organizational structure?
  5. How precisely do people from different cultures deal with time?

Questions Start the Journey

Every story begins with a question. The questions are almost more important than the answers. If the reporter had asked about Bob's game plan for a fulfilling life, I doubt that his answer would have been to retire at 55 years old. He would have recognized that success with significance creates a more prosperous life, in most cultures. Next month, I will dig deeper into the implications that the answers to each of these questions conveys.