Let's say you're the president or CEO of a company that has not yet figured out how to play the international game. Here are the essential lessons I would offer as starting points:
- You as CEO have to be personally involved. It's not enough just to hire a vice president of international sales. The reason is that the decisions that are necessary to be successful can only be made by the CEO. If it's going to cost money to customize a product for the finicky Japanese market, that's a top-level decision. If it's going to take two to three years to become successful, only a CEO can take the heat and make that decision.
- Go international from a position of strength, not weakness. If you're too eager to make sales, you'll get taken to the cleaner. You need to spend time to develop relationships and learn the culture. Perhaps take a trip with the family just to get your feet wet. Give yourself a couple of years to learn the ropes.
- Consider bringing in non-American expertise to your board of directors, if you have one, and start incorporating non-Americans into your management ranks. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are about the global game. Yet don't rely on any one single person to make the big judgments. Create a stew and sip only the best parts.
- Realize that creating a successful international company means transforming your whole company. If you are going to operate in even a handful of markets in Europe and Asia, every department and every unit has to understand that it is a priority. People have to be willing to take phone calls at home at 7 a.m. from Europe and make calls to Asia at 9 p.m. at night. If there are people who aren't willing to go along for the ride, you need to move them out. The whole culture of your company has to be pro-global.