Now a Chief Financial Officer based in the UK, Aarish Shah occupied senior executive roles in Papua New Guinea for nearly a decade. Here he reflects on the lessons he learned from running businesses in PNG—lessons that he believes are ‘poignantly transferable to life and business anywhere.’
I have spent a bit of time leading teams and running businesses in Papua New Guinea (PNG): the self-styled Land of the Unexpected.
Truly one of the last frontier economies, I am constantly amazed by how much it taught me. The lessons I have learned are poignantly transferable to life and business anywhere. Here are just a few that still inform the way I think about leadership and business every day.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
PNG is a largely rural, agrarian and subsistence economy; you’re not going to find many people swanning around in the latest designer labels.
Some of the biggest sales we’d make were to guys who’d rocked up in a battered 4×4 or on foot, wearing a tattered shirt, half-consumed rubber thongs and a big bag of cash. They may have travelled for days to get to the city, hitched part or all of the way and slept in friendly villages.
The lesson: never discount anyone just on the basis of how they look. Treat everyone with respect—you never know their story unless you take the time to find out.
PNG is one half of a huge island. There is limited road connectivity, no rail transport and the only way to get most places is by plane or ship.
When your customer is dependent on your product and is losing money every day you don’t satisfy their requirements, saying ‘I couldn’t figure out how to get it to you’ just isn’t going to cut it.
‘Risk management is a must in any business.’
The lesson is: solve problems as creatively as possible. If there is no road, can we get it on to a ship instead? What’s the going rate for air cargo? Can I consolidate with another one of your customers? Know the shipping schedules, build contingency into your timing, talk to your customers about their needs and work out how to solve the problem with them, not for them.
Law and order
PNG suffers from a poor reputation regarding violent crimes. In my experience, it is no different from many economies on the development curve; but it pays never to be complacent.
Risk management is a must in any business. Assess what your business needs are and implement risk management policies that make sense for you . If you are handling a lot of personal data, make sure that you have appropriate security systems and back up. If you manage cash on a regular basis, switch up your routes or the bank branches where you make deposits. Do your best to dodge the bullet before it is fired.
There are well over 800 individual languages spoken in PNG. The national languages are English and Tok Pisin, a language borne of the vast trading networks and intermingling of peoples. It is not unusual to meet people who will speak only in the latter.
While Tok Pisin (or pidgin as it’s known) is an amalgamation of a number of languages, including English, it has its own nuances that may not be obvious to the uninitiated.
The lesson: we live in a global market—irrespective of what the politics of the day are trying to tell us—and language should not be a barrier for you, or your business. Figure out how best to communicate with your customer, face-to-face, in writing or on the phone. Pay attention to cultural norms, but don’t let not speaking the same lingo stop you in your tracks.
Literacy in PNG is still well below the global average due to a lack of decent educational infrastructure and resources. It often falls on the private sector to train its employees and provide ongoing learning and development. If someone doesn’t know how to do something, show them, teach them and repeat the lesson.
If you are leading people you need to step up in a big way. Don’t act like a leader ; be one.
Aarish Shah is Chief Financial Officer of EtonX and Director of EmergeOne, a business advisory focused on startups in the UK. He is a former Managing Director of PNG manufacturer, Pacific Foam. This article first appeared on smallbusinessforum.co.