Carry a Chicken in Your Lap Or Whatever it Takes to Globalize Your Business, by Bruce Alan Johnson and R. William Ayres ’91.

This fun, modest-length volume comes from two principals of Baja Associates, a small consulting firm. Yes, it’s partly a sales pitch for their services. But it’s a good sales pitch — and an enjoyable standalone read for a broader audience of those not yet ready to hire a consulting firm, but ready to start thinking about expanding their activities internationally. The authors have in part targeted subgroups within the latter category, including employees thinking about an overseas assignment, and nonprofit idea-makers looking to expand their influence.

The academic career of Eph co-author Ayres (whose name is fortunately spelled differently than the well-known Weather Underground terrorist leader of the 1960s) has focused on the study of international affairs and its relationship to issues of individual identity and identity politics. His scholarly expertise pairs seamlessly with the hands-on experience of polymath linguist Johnson, who has a long business resume and describes himself as a “former senior US intelligence officer.” Whether through innate compatibility (like Ayres, Johnson is the product of a small, excellent, liberal-arts institution — the former Claremont Men’s College) or excellent editing, their writing is well-melded and Carry a Chicken reads as well as any product of a single business author.

While some of the book’s lessons for business executives are intuitively obvious: (make sure you don’t give overseas assignments to people intent on proselytizing for American values), others are not (the sense of distance in many cultures is very different from the sense we develop in our “jump in your car and drive there” society). Even the obvious lessons benefit from the clean, precise statements the authors give them. Equally valuable are the subtler ones about the need to examine less-obvious cultural assumptions rooted in “can-do” attitudes and politically correct ideas of equality that lead many companies to conclude “anyone can do any assignment,” no matter where it is. (Relatedly, their advice to the would-be internationalist “to do a serious assessment of yourself” and “to be honest” in doing so is on-target). Even within the limits of this book, these sections distill creative thought and hard-won experience into the right questions to be asked.

One of the authors’ most intriguing insights is to outline the irony of how companies that have done the most to emphasize the importance of their overseas operations have, in doing so, frequently hindered their international success. As the authors describe, a major management fad of the last decade has been “globally competent managers,” in which “international experience” has been made a requirement for continued advancement by many companies. Of course, this sets up an incentive structure for every ambitious manager to maneuver to land those positions and makes it much harder to match the right person with each assignment. A significant question left unanswered, however, is whether and how a company can provide advancement opportunities for U.S.-only leaders who lack the skills to go abroad, will(under their scheme) never go abroad, and yet may end up
overseeing those who do.

As noted, the co-authors write together smoothly: very little, except personal anecdote, is attributed to one or the other. (Alas, the titular anecdote belongs to Johnson, not Ayres). The other area where Ayres’s contribution shines through is reinforcing many of the intuitive points with his knowledge of actual research. For example, when the authors discuss the need for overseas employees to master the ability to sit in complete silence facing their counterpart (to outfox foreign executives’ tendency to take advantage of the American trait to fill silence with talk), their anecdotes are underscored by citation to academic studies that “the American will start talking” to fill the dead air – “within about eight seconds.”

The further the book strays from its core lessons and anecdotes, the less credibly it reads. In several places, Johnson and Ayres take the time to argue why growing your business (or expanding your nonprofit) overseas is important or a good idea. They’re right — but it isn’t necessary to rely on dubious statistics or the never-stale chestnut that the era of American exceptionalism is over. In any case, they’re likely preaching to the converted –who else is going to carry a chicken in their lap?

Another annoying habit is their periodic mention that certain things are “for our American readers, not our Canadian ones.” It’s understandable that, given their interest in selling services in both the U.S. and Canada, they’ll want to emphasize that point wherever possible — and distinguish advice for the two markets where
appropriate. Still, the repeated references to “U.S. and Canadian” are an annoying stylistic convention, and their emphasis on this point is particularly puzzling given the noticeable dearth of advice tailored specifically to Canadians, other than “this point doesn’t apply to you.”

Best anecdote: the company that sent a Cuban Spanish-speaking employee to interview a candidate for a Colombian job, assuming that “all Spanish is the same.”

Worst anecdote: the couple on the Paris metro who gain acceptance by offering their seats to elderly ladies, only to then embarrass themselves by confusing “canard” with “conard.”

Sentence David will most appreciate: “Bill has seen ‘diversity panels’ and ‘diversity task forces’ at most of the universities and colleges he’s worked for over the years, and the sad truth is that more often than not these efforts stifle open conversation rather than foster it because everybody already knows what you can and can’t say in public.”

Eph sightings: only as the alma mater listed in Ayres’s bio. But it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the blunders and triumphs related to Ephs.

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