21st Century Skills: You’ve Got to Learn to Samba

Rio de Janeiro panoramaI once got a call from out of the blue, asking me to troubleshoot a project in Brazil.  I’m not entirely sure why the company called me, other than sheer desperation, but this large engineering and construction company (specializing in electrical power plants) made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

My prospective client had been hired by a major energy production company, which we’ll call Rio Bravo, to build an electric generation plant north of Rio de Janeiro.  Since Rio didn’t have adequate electricity at the time, civil unrest was beginning to occur, prompting the President of Brazil to take a personal interest in the project.  The President was pressuring Rio Bravo, which pressured my client, demanding to know “When!?”

Unfortunately, the answer to “when?” had become “Who knows?”  Construction of the new power plant had come to a screeching halt.

My assignment was to fly to Brazil and resolve the conflict between my prospective client and Rio Bravo – to break the logjam and get the project back on track. It seemed like a nightmare to me, since I was really not interested in working with two camps of old school thinkers.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think this assignment would enhance my reputation – to put it mildly.  I thought this was a lose-lose proposition.  Because of its high-profile nature, my gut told me that this was an assignment I should decline. But instead of just saying no, I decided to be “clever,” making the conditions for acceptance so preposterous that the prospective client would tell me to “get lost.”  So, I tripled my fees – literally tripled my fees – and made some other “movie-star-type” demands.

Instead, they accepted my offer.

I spent my first four days in Brazil meeting with my client’s senior managers, discussing their views on what the problems were. I next met with the local senior management of Rio Bravo.  Each group offered up “the usual suspects” for the delays, with one major exception: they both claimed that the biggest problems were being caused by the Brazilian subcontractors.

I said, “Okay.  I want the top six or seven people from your organization, I want the top six or seven people from your organization, and then I want the top six to 10 subcontractors to meet in a controlled, off-site environment.  We will encamp there for the duration, and we won’t leave until these issues are resolved.

We ended up on a private estate along the coast – in the little town of Buzios.  Buzios was an unknown village until discovered in the 70s by Bridget Bardot, after which it became a jet-set enclave, with an annual jazz festival.  Anyway, the estate was turned over to us.  The staff worked night and day for three days to prepare the place for our arrival, and we began.  It was a very nice place.

The rules of engagement were this: The conference gets everyone’s full and undivided attention until we find a resolution.

The discussions went on for days – 10 to 12 hours per day – but in my judgment, we were getting nowhere.  By the seventh morning, I was convinced this process was going to fail.  I was actually preparing to acknowledge that, and suggest that we admit to failure.  I was in the shower that seventh morning, doing some soul-searching, and grasping for any tactic I hadn’t yet tried.

Suddenly, a catchy little phrase popped into my mind.

We start our meeting at 8 o’clock, and I said, “Gentlemen, I think I finally understand this.  I know what the problem is. Samba skills in business Whether or not you are willing to deal with it is really up to you.   The two big company camps are Americans and Europeans and they, of course, have been putting the blame all week long on these Brazilian subcontractors for not being up to task.

“I want you to look around.  I want you to look at the creative, ingenious way in which this estate was converted – in less than three days – into a functional conference center.  Pull up the tablecloths and look underneath.”

And they did.  We had plywood-assembled conference tables that had been made from nothing, because there had been no appropriate materials.  I pointed out several other things that struck me as demonstrative of the creative, imaginative genius of the Brazilians who were hosting us – both in terms of the facilities and the service of the quickly-assembled staff.  I said, “So here’s what it boils down to.  If you’re going to do business in Brazil, you’ve got to learn to Samba.”  That was the phrase that had popped into my mind in the shower. Euphemistic, but they got it.

What I was trying to say to them is “You’re trying to build this power plant the way you would build it in America or in Germany, but you’re in Brazil.

At this moment, the senior guy for the client said, “Can we take a break?”

“Of course, we can,” I replied.

“Come with me,” he said, motioning me out onto a balcony.

He continued once we were outside, “For the last six days, you’ve tried to sell us all of this psychological mumbo-jumbo – this philosophical bullshit of yours.  I want you to look me in the eye, and tell me if you really in your heart and mind believe all of that crap, or if they’re just your tricks of the trade.”

I said, “I could not mean it more, or have more conviction and passion.  I’m that genuine.”  Then I related a few war stories that I hadn’t yet shared.

THEN, he said: “I’m the problem, aren’t I?”

“Yes, sir. You are.”

“I can fix this, can’t I?”

“Yes, you can.”

“Let’s go,” he said.

After we re-entered the room, he walked to the front, and said to me, “Come here.”  The moment I reached him at the front of the room, this tough, autocratic, super old school son of a bitch put his arm around my shoulders.  You have to understand that men in that industry don’t touch each other. They just don’t.  But he put his arm around me, and said, “We have a major problem here.  This man was sent down here to try to help us, and I’ve come to believe that everything that he’s been saying for the last six days is real. He’s serious, he means it, he has great conviction, and we need to listen to him.

“I also believe that I’m the biggest obstacle in the path of this problem getting solved, so I want all of us to sit down and start talking more seriously than we have talked for the last week.  I don’t want us to leave until we’ve figured this thing out.”

So we sat down, and basically started all over again.

We were there another five days, and we walked out of that conference with commitments and agreements and acknowledgements and a recognition that the Brazilians were doing the best they could, and really had some good ideas that needed to be heard and taken seriously.

Four months later, the power plant was finished.

My client was happy. Rio Bravo was happy. The subcontractors were happy and, most important, the President of Brazil was happy.

Rio de Janeiro was getting more electricity, and that was truly one of the great moments of my mission, career and my journey.

I’ve told this story, not just because it was a pivotal moment in my career, and one of the biggest inspirations for what would become the Team Covenant and the Team Development Strategy, but because the process that took place some 11 years ago reflects a process that is about to sweep away the old autocratic way of doing things.

Like it or not, increased – and genuine – teamwork, cooperation and a more democratic way of conducting business are among the most important skills of the 21st century business world.  We all must accept a new level of personal accountability and ownership, entrepreneurial ownership, for the growth and continued success of our businesses.  And leaders need to learn to Samba, by giving employees more individual respect and ownership of their work!