Sunday, June 26

Business in Greece Vol 1: PLAN...for the Unexpected

When doing business in Greece, plan for the unexpected and you’ll still be surprised.

The culture shock is significant, like the experience I had trying to work with a Greek Ministry.

I had patiently ( and somewhat cleverly, I thought) made good contacts with a senior person in this Ministry, and over the course of 2 month’s work we had finally arranged a presentation to the key people I would need to get to for a decision.

I was thoroughly prepared, I knew who I was meeting, how many I was meeting and presenting too, I knew I could use a laptop for the presentation, and I knew we had 45 minutes together.

I planned for the unexpected, so left early for the meeting and when I got delayed 35 minutes in the Athens traffic, I still arrived at reception only 5 minutes late. Unfortunately, the receptionists weren’t expecting me, so there was another delay whilst my contact was tracked down. 20 minutes later we met outside the meeting room.

As I was beginning to apologies for my lateness, she greeted with the welcome ‘You’re early!’

‘No…. I think I’m late’ I said.
No, You’re early, she explained over a coffee in the empty meeting room. No one’s here yet, because they expect you to be late, and to be on time is a sign of weakness, or of desperation, or of attaching too much importance to these people.
(But these people are important, I was thinking, and okay although I’m not quite desperate, I did need these persons approval).

She explained that being early is Desperate. Being On Time is Very Bad. 30 minutes late for an Athens meeting is still Very Bad, because everyone is expected to be late with the Athens traffic, so 30 minutes late means you meant to arrive on time, and so is still Very Bad. Over an hour late suggests you don’t Care, and so they won’t care in return. The trick is to balance the arrival between 30-60 minutes, between desperation and not giving a damn, and looking totally relaxed about it. And, that if the audience is civil service, always err towards the 60 minutes.

Got it?

So some 20 minutes later I began my presentation, as planned, to my planned audience of 3 people. Only, it wasn’t 3 people as planned. It was 14. And 2 of the original 3 weren’t turning up, so 12 of the names and faces were new to me.

I hadn’t enough copies of my presentation for 14 people, and try to imagine controlling an audience of 14 people who started crowding around my laptop screen to peer over my shoulder as I began.
Extra copies were the obvious answer, so I asked if we could do this before continuing. This was an instant signal for a natural break, as my audience collectively broke away, either leaving the room or starting to talk into mobiles.

Of course, I could take extra photocopies, I was told. But, it turned out, there wasn’t a photocopy machine just outside the meeting room. Nor, one in a nearby office. Nor, one on the same floor. Nor, one even the same building. But there was one, outside on the street, about a block away.

Now my dilemma was Do I go for the copies and lose the chance of re-gathering my audience? And, if I do, do I have to be quick, or deliberately turn up late again? And, how late, not to look too desperate or too not giving a damn?

Okay, we’ll run without extra copies. It’s more cosy this way, anyway.

We re-started after a few minutes delay as everyone regrouped. Excluding the 6 people that now had disappeared entirely. Now I was down to 8, which greatly helped the comfort of everyone craning over my shoulder at my laptop.

No proper Greek ever turns a mobile off. And, never in a meeting. You have to learn to talk through the constant ringing in, or those around you sometimes making outgoing calls. And nobody leaves the room to have the conversation. They talk over you, whilst still standing behind your neck looking over your shoulder at the laptop. They raise their voice to be heard, you raise yours to be heard, they raise their’s louder, and so you continue in an ever-increasing cycle of loudness. Your plan for a calm, carefully controlled presentation, disintegrates into near chaos.

And still the unexpected can happen.

I had noticed one man not at my shoulder. Instead he sat at the end of table, looking totally disinterested, making the odd call, and writing in his diary. I decided I would make a point of talking with him when I had finished presenting, and I was nearly there, about to make the final pitch, and about to summarise everything into a conclusion they would bound to say a yes too.

And as I talked, a man walked into the room with a battery-powered drill in his hand. And promptly knelt to the skirting board and started drilling into the wall.

‘Shall I stop?’ I shouted to everyone behind me and through the dust he was creating. No, you shouldn’t they said. ‘Can you hear me?’ I mouthed to them. No, but it didn’t matter, they mouthed back.

Now I was beyond desperate, but I ploughed on determinedly. Until a few seconds later when the lights went out with a ‘pop’ and my laptop dropped to battery.

Imagine this. Your audience crowded around you shoulder, many probably unable to see the screen clearly, some of them shouting into mobiles, all of them not able to hear my shouted narrative, the shriek of a power drill 5 metres from you, and your laptop battery dying on you. What could get worse than my laptop battery giving up entirely? Which, of course, it did.

‘That was a very good presentation’ they shouted to me. ‘Really?’ I mouthed back, still in shock. ‘But I didn’t ..............' I was trying to say as the drilling suddenly stopped ......'GET TO THE CONCLUSION’ I was suddenly shouting at them. The room fell into silence, and they all stepped back from me.

I didn’t matter, they explained. It was very professionally done, they said, as I looked around at a room full of people I didn’t expect to be there, most without copies to take away, the ones I knew I needed to talk to ‘in absentea’, and those remaining still talking into mobile phones, my laptop beeping away on power-down, visibility in the dust reduced to face-to-face contact only , and the gentleman at the end of the table still taking no notice of me or his surroundings.

Bringing all my professionalism and training to the fore, I asked the closing question. ‘What are your next steps?’

We don’t have to do anything, they explained. They just ask their collective boss if he wants to do it, and if Yes, it’ll be done, they explained.
‘May I meet him?’ I asked. You have, they replied, pointing to the man sitting at the end of the table.

I approached him, asking if he liked the presentation. Through a colleague he explained he spoke no English, and hadn’t understood a word. But he liked me. And he liked my style.

So always expect the unexpected. And, you know what? Unexpectedly, 3 days later, this man approved the proposal.


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