Close this search box.
Close this search box.

CEOs Need To Watch Out For Arrogance Abroad

CEOs who assign young executives the challenge of building business relationships may not be aware of how poorly their companies are being represented in Asia.

On a recent swing through China and Japan, I couldn’t help but notice the disparity between the sanctuary-like atrium style lobby of the Aman Tokyo and the young American executives strolling and lounging around in it. These young professionals looked like they were dressed for a football game. Traveling through the region in the hope of building global business relationships, they seemed ill-prepared, ill-suited and ill-mannered.

Do Not Bare Your Sole

At the $1,000 per night Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai, one young American executive was shrieking multiple “OMGs” about the view as she ate breakfast with her feet perched on the opposite chair, displaying the soles of her sneakers to the world, a cultural faux pas. The couple next to me turned on a white noise app to drown her out. The next day, a bearded male reclined on a lobby couch as if it were a frat bro living room, shoes propped on the furniture. These are some of the reasons we are called “the ugly Americans.”

American cultural arrogance blinds us to our manners and appearance. But the ugliness runs deeper than New Balance sneakers. When we travel abroad, we bring an attitude that is as obnoxious as our dress habits. CEOs who assign young executives the challenge of building business relationships may not be aware of how poorly their companies are being represented. Yet, all it takes is some good old-fashioned cultural retraining.

New Ball Game

Michael Witt, a professor of Asian business and comparative management at the INSEAD business school, is an expert in the emerging field of “Comparative Business Systems.” Witt’s work takes him into each of the major Asian economies, where he gains insights into Asian markets and applies them to a global business strategy. As he told Fortune, “Everyone is playing ball in Asia, but they’re playing a very different game.” After all, Asia now accounts for roughly 38 percent of total global GDP, according to the IMF. The quality of the teams we send as envoys should reflect this level of importance.

Rice Over Rights

The global scoreboard suggests Americans take a dose of humility before thinking about Asia. In China and Japan, longevity exceeds that of U.S. citizens. China has been building universities at the rate of one per week and has lifted more people out of poverty than any other country in human history. It isn’t just these statistics, courtesy of The New York Times bureau chief’s report about Tiananmen Square, but the fact that the Asian economies as a whole will make every Western nation save the U.S. a rounding error.

In Asia, progress is defined in industrial metrics, as in how many homes, hospitals, universities you have built or how many rice bowls per day you have added to the average diet, instead of how many protests or boycotts you have waged. These are simplified versions of two cultural traditions, but the age in which we transport our values abroad is a colonial-era meme whose time has come and gone.

The Americans I witnessed were oblivious as they pranced around in sneakers and barbarian beards in a region where there is no facial hair or casual Friday dress code. They are bringing their home game abroad, and it isn’t going to work. “Culture is not how you pick up the chopsticks,” says Witt. “It’s how you make sense of the world.” As Americans, when we travel through Asia, everything from our manners to our dress code is on display, and people are asking us if that’s how we make sense of their world. We can do better.

There are fantastic consultants more than willing to retrain young execs in the ways of the Asian world. It would behoove American CEOs to take their global teams aside to be sure they have a deep and solid understanding of Asian ways. Remind them to reserve the American centric view for football games.

Read more: The Differences Between Leadership Teams In The U.S. And Asia


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)


    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.